Friday, September 17, 2010

Questions regarding 2010-11 St. Louis Blues

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Many storylines will take place as the Blues prepare for the 2010-11 season, some of which will be key should this team return to the postseason.

In this writer's take, here are a list of questions that need answers in order for the Blues to be successful, make positive strides as the franchise and makes the playoffs with the ultimate goal -- winning that elusive first Stanley Cup:

Will Brad Boyes return to seasons past?
It's no secret that the Blues suffered last season because of a goal shortage. No, Boyes wasn't the sole reason why, but he was a critical portion of it. It's easy to notice when someone goes from 43 to 33 to 14 goals scored. For a player that's only 28, that's a drastic fall-off. Boyes must put more goals away this season. It's absolutely imperative he becomes this team's go-to guy. Do I expect 40-plus? No, but if Boyes can get back into the 30-35 range, the Blues will be well off. With Boyes, it's all about playing with confidence.

Does Patrik Berglund need to lift his game to another level?
Berglund put up terrific numbers his rookie season, even surprising the coaching staff and Blues management to a certain degree. Berglund's 47 points were eye-opening and it was only natural to expect bigger and better last season. But that never materialized and Berglund's number slipped (13-13) to 26 points a season ago. He seemed to never gain confidence under former coach Andy Murray and couldn't gain his touch. And there was a lesson to be learned when the Swede was late for a practice as well. Berglund took the right steps this summer by staying in St. Louis to train and better prepare himself for the long haul, which caught the eye of Blues brass. Berglund needs to establish himself as this team's No. 2 center. The potential's there. It's a matter of maximizing that potential. It's season No. 3; time for the flower to begin to bloom.

Is the selection of Erik Johnson as an assistant captain a good decision?
In a word -- absolutely. This is a No. 1 overall pick and that carries clout on its own. But after missing out on an entire season with a knee injury, the 22-year-old Johnson has matured at a rapid rate and the coaches and management have taken notice. The team needs fresh, new voices to be heard and I believe Johnson fits the bill. His numbers a season ago (10-29=39 points) reflect just how much progression's taken place. I believe Johnson has the game for 20 goals and 50 points at the very least this season. This is a No. 1-type defenseman, and I feel like this is the year we'll all see that.

Is moving Andy McDonald back to center and David Backes to the wing best to unleash their full potential?
No doubt about it. Even though both players were able to excel playing out of position in my opinion, I feel like for this offense to click, McDonald must be used as a play-making center with speed and passing ability while Backes is more suited to use that big, strong body along the walls. Will McDonald lose some of the luster of scoring 24 goals a season ago? Maybe, but his assists will certainly pick up. But in the long run, I don't see a reason why McDonald can't score 20-plus goals again. Backes is the typical power forward, and he learned to play it from one of the best ever -- Keith Tkachuk. I believe Backes on the wing will get him back close to the career-best 31 goals he had in 2008-09. Kudos to Davis Payne and staff for doing what's best here. I still have no idea why Andy Murray was so fixated on these moves.

Which Blue needs to have a breakout year?
Pretty easy here: Berglund. If Berglund regresses at all, his leash could be very short.

Which Blue will have a breakout year?
This is a tough one, because I believe there are three or four that will have breakout years but I'm going to go with T.J. Oshie. I understand Oshie does so much in all facets of the game, but his potential unlimited. That's why I think going from 14 to 18 goals was important, but in the third season, I think he's able to get 25-plus and maybe 40 assists or so. Oshie is a terrific skater and agitates some of the best players in his own way (right Rick Nash?) that it's hard to ask him to do much more. But his skill is unparalleled. Watch out folks, his already growing stock will continue to soar.

Is Alex Pietrangelo ready to play in the NHL?
I believed aside from some strength issues, Pietrangelo was ready for the NHL immediately after being drafted. But as I've seen this young kid grow into a man at the ripe age of 20, this one is a no-brainer. Absolutely, unequivocally yes! The Blues say two spots are open on defense, but I think 'Petro' already has one of these locked up -- unless there is a total Titanic collapse in camp. He's taken both of his demotions back to juniors in stride, realizing the need to better equip himself to play at this level. Instead of pouting, he did what was asked and bettered himself both on and off the ice. Pietrangelo got rave reviews both at the World Juniors and at the Prospects' Tournament this past week. There was a quote from one scout who said he was "a man among boys." That speaks volumes right there. Blues fans will get to witness two high No. 1 picks on the ice together this season.

Is Jaroslav Halak ready to be a No. 1 goalie? Is he the one to carry this franchise in goal?
Yes, and yes. A lot has been judged regarding Halak and his playoff run last season. Questions have been raised whether he can sustain that kind of play and do it for an entire season. I believe the Blues did the right thing here. They took a chance and got someone who already has experienced more than some goalies do in a career. Do we expect Halak to play every single game like he did in last spring's playoffs? No, but there are signs there that this guy will only get better and better. After all, he's only 25. There's plenty of room to grow if he can get any better than what we saw last spring, watch out. There is also a very reliable and capable backup in Conklin.

Is Eric Brewer a good fit as this team's captain?
I understand this is a sore subject with lots of fans, but let me put this in perspective. The captain of a team doesn't necessarily have to be that team's best player. Brewer has been the target of heavy fan criticism since his arrival here five years ago. But understand this: I have not talked to one player (on or off the record) who told me Brewer should not be this team's captain. If a guy is that well-respected by his peers and who carries a positive voice in that team's locker room, who are we to question that? The players respect him, the coaches respect him and management respects the heck out of him. That's three hands-down check marks. Brewer has his teammates' attention when he speaks. That is all we need to know regarding his tenure with the 'C.' So with that being said, if his teammates endorse him, I don't see a reason why he shouldn't be.

Is David Perron capable of 30-goal seasons?
Yes. Perron has gone from 13 to 15 to 20 goals in his first three seasons. This is season No. 4, and I believe 30 goals is a reachable target for Perron. He's bulked up and is stronger than ever, worked religiously -- as his teammates have -- to be a more improved, polished player. Perron has the nose for the net and the play-making ability to net 30. Put the right linemates around him and see the results. They will be there.

Can Alex Steen duplicate last season; does he need to?
Yes, he can duplicate them. No, the Blues don't need him to carry the offensive load as long as some of the aforementioned do the job. Steen is a terrific two-way player that happened to strive on both ends of the ice a season ago. He also was rewarded with a role as assistant captain, and the players respect the heck out of him as well. So it was an easy decision for Payne to make. Steen's 24 goals and 23 assists were the icing on the cake. His play with Jay McClement and B.J. Crombeen as the team's top checking line was what was noticeable. And his play on the point during power play situations saved them from arguably being last in the league. If he can reach the 20-goal mark, that is very satisfactory for this team to have success.

Is Davis Payne the right man to coach this team?
I liked what I saw of Payne last season. The team responded to him at a time when it was at a crossroads and he got the proper responses out of veterans and young players alike. It's a fresh change and a new, younger and aspiring voice can only be a positive thing for a team looking to grow. He did a more than adequate job taking over for the older Andy Murray.

Is Ian Cole NHL-ready?
Many feel Cole is destined for Peoria this season, and if that's the case, it may be a one-year wonder. I've had some players privately tell me Cole is the real deal. And judging by what I've seen on video from his days in college and a couple games played last season with the Rivermen, this won't be a minor league player for long.

Where will the Blues finish in the West?
6th. I like their chances of getting back to the playoffs. Barring any injuries and at least some of the aforementioned players getting back to form, this will be a playoff team. The goaltending will be solid, defensively they'll be stingy and the offensive production will increase with another year under everyone's belts. For a change, the Blues will be buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline.

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