The St. Louis Blues had 111 points in the 2013-2014 season, the second-most in franchise history and most since 1999-2000, yet a first-round playoff elimination leaves obvious room for improvement.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a team that is knocking on the door with the top contenders in the Western Conference, but needs something to take the next step forward.
A Top-10 puck possession team, the Blues were very good on special teams too (eighth in power play percentage, second in penalty killing percentage), so they didn't have glaring weaknesses going into their first-round series with Chicago.
If there was one area of concern, it might have been goaltending, as the Blues finished the year with a .913 save percentage, tied for 13th. They traded for Ryan Miller, in the hopes that he would be the answer, but Miller posted a .901 save percentage in 25 (regular season plus playoff) games with the Blues, which didn't alleviate goaltending concerns and prompted the Blues to re-sign Brian Elliott and mark Jake Allen for promotion.
Going with inexpensive goaltending does open up the possibility that the Blues can more readily upgrade their lineup, perhaps with an improvement in the second-line centre spot. While the Blues were tied for sixth in the league with 2.92 goals per game, there is still room to elevate their skill level if they are going to compete with the best.
It's not as though the Blues are incapable of competing with their current roster -- they were challenging for first place overall before losing the last six games of the regular season -- but it's difficult to justify making no improvements to a team that has made it out of the first round once since 2002.
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) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Doug Armstrong/Ken Hitchcock
Alexander Steen has developed into one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and he set career-highs in goals (33) and points (62), despite missing 14 games with injuries last season. He's due for some shooting percentage regression, but Steen is also one of 18 players to put up at least 3.0 shots per game in each of the past four seasons.
Hard-nosed centre David Backes rebounded from a down season in 2012-2013 with a career-best 0.77 points per game last season, and Backes and Steen were part of an exclusive group to play against high calibre of competition, start more shifts in the defensive zone and finish with better than plus-10 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. He's ever-so-slightly below the best two-way centres in the game because he's good, not great, offensively.
T.J. Oshie gained lots of fame for his shootout exploits against Russia in the Olympics, but he had a breakthrough NHL season too, staying healthy enough to set career-highs in goals (21), assists (39) and points (60) while putting up strong possession stats while spending most of his time alongside Backes and Steen.
If the Blues have a breakout offensive star in-house, it could be Vladimir Tarasenko, the sturdy winger who has been productive enough, with 62 points in 102 games through his first two seasons, but he's in elite company when it comes to puck possession over that time, with the Blues getting 58.0% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with Tarasenko on the ice over the last two years.
An agitator who is fed defensive zone starts, Maxim Lapierre consistently gets crushed in terms of puck possession. He is one of 13 forwards to have at least 20 goals and 250 penalty minutes over the past three seasons.
While his first season in St. Louis wasn't very productive, Magnus Paajarvi played a career-low 10:15 per game and his possession stats were still good enough to believe that the 23-year-old can make it work in a top-nine role.
There's no doubting Ryan Reaves' toughness. He's dropped the gloves 38 times in 194 games over the past four seasons, and while he doesn't always get killed in puck possession, he did last season. He's a marginal fourth-liner, which makes it a little difficult to justify a four-year contract, so that's a strong commitment from the team.
30-year-old Chris Porter is forever battling to hold a spot in the Blues lineup, playing 143 games over the past four seasons, and he may well be up and down again next season, but he's on a one-way contract, so Porter has a chance to earn regular fourth-line work.
While some players endure a sophomore slump, Jaden Schwartz made a quantum leap forward, jumping from 13 points in 45 games as a rookie to 56 points in 80 games last season, putting up stellar possession numbers along the way. His coach compares him to Zach Parise, which is high praise, and reason to think that the Blues would be inclined to sign Schwartz to a long-term contract.
Though he has earned his keep as a checking centre, Vladimir Sobotka was given more offensive opportunities last season and came up with a career-high 33 points in 61 games, while playing a career-high 16:45 per game. He also had excellent possession stats.
Patrik Berglund's production see-saw was on the down portion last year, which should be reason for optimism next sason, yet he had strong possession numbers last season too. He's big and skilled, yet hasn't scored more than 40 points in any of the past three years and he's capable of meeting that threshold at the very least.
The Blues got a jump on next season by inking Joakim Lindstrom, a 30-year-old forward who had five points in 16 games with Colorado in 2011-2012, but has 137 points in 129 Swedish Hockey League games since. It wouldn't be fair to place high expectations on Lindstrom, but if he improves the forward depth, that's a start.
For a team that didn't score enough, the Blues' most likely target this summer should be a way to improve their attack. Whether that's a free agent signing like Thomas Vanek or trading for a high-priced centre like Jason Spezza or Eric Staal, it's a need that needs to be addressed.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
One of the game's premier blueliners, Alex Pietrangelo has top-tier possession stats and over the past four seasons is one of seven defencemen to record at least 100 points with a rating of plus-50 or better. The 24-year-old is goign to be in the Norris Trophy discussion for years to come.
He may be overshadowed, somewhat, by Pietrangelo, but Kevin Shattenkirk is a terrific puck-moving defenceman, who also has great possession numbers and, over the past three years, his 111 points is tied for 12th among defencemen.
After some underwhelming years in Calgary, Jay Bouwmeester had 37 points for the Blues last season, his most 2008-2009 when he was playing in Florida. As always, he played against the opposition's best forwards and, playing for a strong Blues team, actually had positive possession stats too.
An easier workload, while playing a career-low 17:56 per game, helped Barret Jackman to a more effective campaign in 2013-2014. The 33-year-old adds toughness in a mind-the-store defensive role.
The 18th overall pick in 2007, Ian Cole hasn't been able to hold down a regular role with the Blues. Maybe he fits in the top six with another club, but this isn't an easy lineup for Cole to crack.
A rugged defensive defenceman, Roman Polak has limited puck skills and that has resulted in mediocre possession stats that, in relative terms, are notably worse than his teammates. There does seem to be some recognition of the limits to Polak's game, however, as his ice time per game has decreased every season since 2008-2009, going down to 17:20 per game last season.
Ankle and hand injuries kept Jordan Leopold out of the lineup for much of the 2013-2014 season, and he didn't play much when he was healthy -- a career-low 15:36 per game. The Blues are Leopold's sixth NHL team and the veteran may want to consider a seventh unless St. Louis is prepared to play him more.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
When the Blues made the decision to re-sign Brian Elliott, they certainly put themselves in position to have an economical goaltending tandem next year, with Elliott and Jake Allen likely to share the crease. For the first three years of his career, Elliott struggled, but he's been much better -- which facing a lesser workload -- in the past three seasons. Even so, is he good enough to anchor a team with Stanley Cup aspirations?
A second-round pick in 2008, Jake Allen has been groomed plenty for an NHL job, spending four seasons in the AHL, with a 15-game stint in St. Louis in 2012-2013. He has a .917 save percentage in 172 AHL games, including .928 in 52 games last season, so the 23-year-old is ready for his chance to play in the NHL regularly.
||15-14-29, +7, 42 GP
||31-17-48, +5, 72 GP
||2.03 GAA, .928 SV%, 52 GP
||4-4-8, +14, 64 GP
||14-27-41, +4, 60 GP
||North Dakota (NCHC)
||6-18-24, +1, 41 GP
||7-19-26, +15, 37 GP
2.35 GAA, .922 SV%, 40 GP
||4-4-8, +20, 54 GP
||Prince George (WHL)
||27-39-66, -14, 63 GP
||13-23-36, -3, 47 GP
A second-round pick in 2011, Dmitrij Jaskin has already skated in 20 games with the Blues, and while he's managed only two points, he hasn't looked out of place. With 19 goals and 38 points in 51 (regular season plus playoff) AHL games, Jaskin is likely ready to make the jump.
Also a second-round pick from 2011 (nine spots ahead of Jaskin), Ty Rattie showed that his junior goal-scoring exploits were no fluke. After scoring 144 goals in 173 (regular season plus playoff) games in his last two WHL seasons, Rattie notched 31 goals in 72 AHL games as a rookie pro. He could use further development, and get stronger, but his offensive skill could accelerate his timeline.
It's been a long, sometimes uneven road for top goalie prospect Jake Allen, yet he's still just 23. If, as expected, he starts the year in St. Louis, the next question will be how long before he takes over the starter's role?
Drafted with a second-round pick in 2011, Joel Edmundson is a 6-foot-4 defensive defenceman who had a solid first pro season in Chicago and may be as close as any Blues blueline prospect to getting called up.
Taken in the second round of last summer's draft, Tommy Vannelli is an offensive defenceman who had a nice year in the WHL. He needs to refine his game, improving his play without the puck, but Vannelli's skating presents upside.
Drafted in the first round, 25th overall, in 2012, Jordan Schmaltz has been making progress at North Dakota, and will continue there. He may not have first-round pedigree, but he's a fine puck-moving prospect.
A third-round pick in 2012, Colton Parayko is a puck-moving defenceman with good size. He's 6-foot-6 and has improved in two years at Alaska.
Blocked for AHL playing time by Allen, Jordan Binnington spent his first pro year in the ECHL, and played well enough that the 2011 third-round pick ought to get his AHL shot next season.
6-foot-5 defenceman Jani Hakanpaa was a fourth-round pick in 2010 and has made the move to North America, putting up a dozen points in 68 AHL games.
A disturber drafted in the fourth round last summer, Zach Pochiro needs to get stronger, but had a fine year in the WHL last season and will get to see if he can agitate in the same manner as a pro.
Picked in the sixth round in 2011, Ryan Tesink has had trouble staying healthy, but can skate and has enough skill to warrant watching his progress.
Blues advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
21st - Ivan Barbashev, Roland McKeown, David Pastrnak
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blues have approximately $48.6M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 18 players.
Check out my possible Blues lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, depth defence, backup goaltender.
What I said the Blues needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, depth defenceman.
They added: Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow, Maxim Lapierre, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Leopold.
Patrik Berglund, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Leopold, Ian Cole.
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.