By Tim Kaiser, Editor-in-Chief
The St. Louis Blues begin the 2013-2014 NHL season still in search of their first Stanley Cup in the 46-year history of the franchise. Fans hope the offseason moves and some key tweaks by Coach Ken Hitchcock can lead to Captain David Backes hoisting the most famous trophy in sports over his head at center ice in the Scottrade Center this June.
The Blues finished the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season in second place in the Central Division and third in the Western Conference, with a record of 29-17-2 for 60 pts. The Los Angeles Kings knocked the Blues out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the quarterfinals 4-2.
The Blues return all but two of their double-digit scorers from last season. The Blues leading goal scorer (18) and points leader (36), Chris Stewart signed a two-year deal this summer to remain with the team. Backes, who led the team in assists (22) and was second in points (28), will wear the “C” for the third season. St. Louis lost center Andy McDonald and left winger David Perron. McDonald retired after last season, during which he scored 7 goals and had 14 assists. Perron scored 10 goals and added 10 assists last season, but was traded to Edmonton for financial reasons.
Paajarvi is joined by two high profile veterans, center Derek Roy and left winger Brenden Morrow. Roy played most of his career with Buffalo, but finished last year with Vancouver. Roy has 169 career goals, and ended last year with 7 goals and 21 assists. Morrow is a long-time Dallas Star, but finished last year with Pittsburgh. The left winger has 250 career goals, including 6 each last season for the Stars and Penguins. The hope is that these additions as well as the maturation of young forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will improve an offense that finished 14th last season.
The starting goaltender for St. Louis is Jaroslav Halak. Chris Elliot will back him up. Halak had an injury-plagued 2012-2013 season. He only played in 16 games, posting a 6-5-1 record with 3 shutouts, .899 save percentage, and 2.14 goals against average. Meanwhile, Elliot played in 24 games, going 14-8-1 with 3 SO, .907 SV%, and 2.28 GAA. Young goaltender, Jake Allen (9-4-0 ,1 SO .905 SV%, 2.46 GAA), who picked up some of the slack for an at times struggling Elliot and injured Halak will start the season with the Blues’ AHL affiliate. Hitchcock expects his goaltending pair to return to its stellar form of 2011-2012.
All three goalies will have to contend with a pair of new rules. The NHL is once again shrinking the equipment a goalie is allowed to wear. The length of leg pads has been reduced 10 percent. In addition, goals have been made shallower in attempt to encourage more wrap around attempts from attacking teams. Both of the rule changes were made to increase scoring, thereby increasing fan interest.
The bigger change made this offseason was the realignment of the conferences. The conferences have gone from three divisions in each to two. The Eastern Conference is made up of the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions. The Western Conference has the Central and Pacific divisions. The playoffs will take the top three teams from each division and two wild card teams from each conference.
The Blues remain in the Central Division with the rival Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators. The Central Division also includes Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. The biggest disappointment of the realignment is the move of rival Detroit from the Western Conference to Eastern Conference. The Blues will only play the Red Wings twice, once in Detroit and once in St. Louis.
The new-look Western Conference only has 14 teams while the Eastern Conference has 16. Meaning, the Blues have better odds to finally win that elusive Stanley Cup.