The St. Louis Blues lost in the first round of the playoffs, but they're not that far away from where they need to be.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a Blues team that is among the best defensively, but could use a few more goals if they're going to get where they want to go.
72-32-13 (.670) under Ken Hitchcock since he took over early in the 2011-2012 season, the Blues had strong possession metrics like other top-tier teams, but their goaltending ranked 20th in save percentage, which is tough for a defensively-oriented team that ranked 17th in goals per game (2.58).
There are a lot of pieces in place for the Blues to keep pressing forward with what they have. There is plenty of work for GM Doug Armstrong to handle as it relates to signing restricted free agents that include leading scorer Chris Stewart and promising young defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
That leaves the Blues largely in position to tweak their current roster, unless they want to start dealing core pieces in a major deal, and that's probably the most prudent course of action. A little more offence, a little better goaltending and that could have been enough to get past the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.
The Blues have enough young players that they ought to be able to count on internal improvement to get better for next season. If the results don't come with that kind of continuity going forward then bigger changes can be contemplated in the future.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Doug Armstrong/Ken Hitchcock
Blues Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Though he's never scored more than 51 points in a season, Alexander Steen is one of the game's best puck possession players. It's no coincidence that he's played 19 minutes per game over the last three seasons, trusted in all situations.
A superb two-way player who takes on tough matchups and defensive zone starts, David Backes is a superstar when he combines his hard-nosed all-around play with goal-scoring (he has two 30-goal seasons in his career). When it's a season like 2013 and he scored at a career-low rate (0.13 gpg, 6.0 SH%), then he's merely very good, but Backes is big, physical and a perennial Selke Trophy candidate.
T.J. Oshie plays bigger than he is, which sometimes takes its toll (he missed 15 games with a broken foot and three with bruised ribs last season), but he's been a reliable point producer throughout his career, averaging between 0.63 and 0.69 points per game in each of his five NHL seasons, which is remarkable consistency.
One of the few Blues with the skill to be a prolific scorer, David Perron didn't have his best season in 2013, with his points-per-game (0.52) his lowest since his rookie season. If the Blues are looking for more offence -- and they ought to be -- Perron is one internal candidate that can do better.
Russian rookie Vladimir Tarasenko burst onto the scene for the Blues, scoring 10 points in his first eight games, but he fell out of favour and saw his ice time and production slide after that. Built like a tank, Tarasenko's conditioning wasn't to the level that the Blues would like, so that's a priority this summer, but if he's fit and ready for next season, he should be a significant contributor.
A checking forward with a little offenive upside, Vladimir Sobotka scored a career-high eight goals (in 48 games) and he put up solid possession numbers, as has been standard for this three years with the Blues.
29-year-old Chris Porter earned a more consistent role with the Blues down the stretch, his hard-hitting energy a welcome addition to the fourth line, and sometimes higher up the depth chart. If he can handle a regular role over a full season, Porter is a bargain.
Jaden Schwartz got off to a very slow start, with three points in his first 16 games, but earned more ice time in the last couple months of the season, picking up 10 points in the last 29 games and playing primarily with Steen and Backes on the team's top line for the playoffs. Schwartz will be counted on for more scoring in his second season.
Similar to Porter, Adam Cracknell is a 27-year-old who earned a bigger role with the Blues than he had in previous years, putting up good possession numbers in his limited ice time.
Tough guy Ryan Reaves has scrapped 27 times in 131 career games, but he's also improving his play enough that he can take a regular fourth-line shift.
A power forward who can score, and also disappear for stretches, Chris Stewart was the Blues' top goal and point scorer, by a decent margin considering he plays fewer than 16 minutes per game, but he's not a strong puck possession player, so he needs linemates that will drive play.
Scoring on a league-high 23.0% of his shots, Patrik Berglund scored 17 goals, giving him the best goals-per-game rate (0.35) of his career, but also finished with his lowest assist rate (0.17) and had subpar possession numbers. Ideally, 6-foot-4 Berglund would be a productive scoring centre, but he has struggled to establish that he's consistently productive, which leaves him in a secondary role and waiting on potential to pay off.
With Andy McDonald retiring, there is room for another scorer to join the Blues. A veteran like Patrik Elias, Ryane Clowe, Pascal Dupuis or Clarke MacArthur could slide into a spot on left wing and upgrade the Blues' attack.
Blues Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Acquired at the trade deadline, Jay Bouwmeester gives the Blues an established top pair defenceman while allowing Bouwmeester to play a few minutes less than he had been asked to in Calgary and Florida.
A gritty veteran who struggled in the possesion game last season, Barret Jackman does get saddled with more defensive zone starts, such is the life of a shutdown defender.
Strong as an ox, Roman Polak also gets charged with a defensively-focused role, parterning primarily with Jackman after Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold were acquired.
2007 first-round pick Ian Cole has been on the fringe of the Blues' lineup for the last three seasons, and has 11 points and a plus-9 rating in 67 career games. He has good size and makes a sharp first pass, so the 24-year-old is probably ready for a regular gig, but until he does it, there is some uncertainty in how much he can contribute.
One of the league's best on the blueline, Alex Pietrangelo is adept at both ends of the rink, plays big minutes (24:53 per game over the last two seasons) and is likely going to be a Norris Trophy contender for the next decade. That needs to be taken into consideration when the restricted free agent blueliner negotiates a new contract this summer. He won't come cheaply, nor should he.
Not charged with quite as much defensive responsibility as Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk is a high-quality offensive defenceman, with strong possession skills. Over the last two seasons, Pietrangelo ranks seventh in defence scoring, with 75 points, while Shattenkirk sits 18th, with 66 points.
Kris Russell finished his sixth NHL season and continues to battle for a regular spot in the lineup, sitting for nearly one-third of the games and playing his fewest minutes per game (16:03) since his rookie season. He's a superb skater, though undersized and that can leave him vulnerable on the defensive end.
If the Blues can get their restricted free agents signed, they will effectively have seven NHL defencemen returning, so they're pretty set on the blueline. Adding a depth veteran might be the only move necessary.
Following an out-of-this-world 2011-2012 season, Brian Elliott came crashing to earth last season, even getting demoted to the AHL for a couple of games before he suddenly turned his season around in April (1.28 GAA, .948 SV% in 13 GP) and performing well (1.90 GAA, .919 SV%) just not well enough in the playoffs. Elliott's shaky track record makes him risky as a full-time No. 1 option but, when he's on, he's terrific.
A groin injury hampered Jaroslav Halak for much of the season and, while he had three shutouts in 16 games, he also had a career-low .899 save percentage. Halak has a stronger track record (.917 career save percentage) than Elliott and is getting paid more, so he is likely to have first crack at the starting job, but needs to play better to hold the starting job.
||48-62-110, +56, 67 GP
||46-53-99, +26, 51 GP
||13-19-2, 2.89 GAA, .904 SV%
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||3-9-12, +9, 42 GP
||Owen Sound (OHL)
||32-12-6, 2.17 GAA, .932 SV%
||9-16-25, -2, 63 GP
||0-4-4, +3, 35 GP
||2-3-5, +2, 34 GP
||34-39-73, +15, 65 GP
||3-9-0, 3.10 GAA, .891 SV%
A skilled forward who has been ripping up the WHL (231 points in 131 games plus 69 points in 42 playoff games over the last two seasons) Ty Rattie could conceivably challenge for a spot in St. Louis next season because of his offensive skills, but he may get some time in the AHL to show that he's strong enough to produce as a pro.
He did little in the Czech League, but a move to the QMJHL last season showed how gifted Dmitrij Jaskin is. He's a skilled 6-foot-3 forward who, like Rattie, could push for a job with the Blues soon.
Jake Allen wouldn't have warranted a call-up based on his AHL performance last season, but injuries thrust him into 15 games with the Blues. The 22-year-old doesn't have the pedigree to be a starter yet, but could be a backup now if the Blues move one of their two goalies under contract.
Taken in the first round last summer, Jordan Schmaltz didn't wow during his freshman season at North Dakota, but he'll have time to develop. If he becomes a productive player, then a couple of years down the line the Blues can worry about how he fits in the organization.
A sensational season in the OHL should set up 2011 third-round pick Jordan Binnington to embark on his pro career. With a few years to develop in the minors, he could force his way into the Blues' goaltending discussion.
Drafted in the second round in 2011, Joel Edmundson is a steady defenceman with good size who thrived once he was dealt to a competitive Kamloops team.
A sixth-round pick last summer, Petteri Lindbohm is a bruiser on the blueline. He needs time to round out some of his rough edges, but might develop into something a few years down the line.
Picked in the fourth round in 2010, Jani Hakanpaa joined Peoria late in the season (four points, even, 14 GP) and the 6-foot-6 blueliner, who is a right-handed shot, is an interesting developmental prospect is he is mobile enough to keep pace.
A hard-working winger with good size and a little offensive ability, Yannick Veilleux got promoted to Peoria (2 G, 1 A, minus-1, 8 GP) at the end of the season.
Niklas Lundstrom was a fifth-round pick in 2011 and the 20-year-old is still struggling to establish himself in the Swedish Elite League, so it's going to take some time before he's a viable candidate in St. Louis.
No first-round pick
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blues have approximately $41.8M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 17 players.
Check out my possible Blues lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, depth defenceman.
What I said the Blues needed last year: One top nine forward, depth forwards, two top four defencemen.
They added: Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Wade Redden.
T.J. Oshie, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brian Elliott.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.