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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Updated: September 30, 4:08 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: St. Louis Blues

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AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Paul Kariya should help bolster a power play that was 29th in the league in 2006-07.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

When teams sometimes make coaching changes, it's all about the optics. Management wants to show they're doing something to assuage the anger and disappointment among players and fans when things go off the rails. Sometimes, it's simply the right thing to do.

And so it was when St. Louis Blues rookie president John Davidson fired Mike Kitchen, who'd been with the team through the first post-lockout season 28 games into last season. Davidson replaced Kitchen with the scholarly, but tough as nails, Andy Murray. The turnaround was startling. Under Kitchen, the aimless Blues were 7-17-4 and buried in the Western Conference standings. With Murray at the helm, the Blues were 27-18-9. A similar winning percentage over the entire season would have put the Blues in a virtual tie with Calgary for the final playoff berth.

Maybe it's not realistic to expect Murray's troops to have that success this season -- they're not going to sneak up on anyone as they might have in 2006-07. But the flip side is simply better as young players like Lee Stempniak and Jay McClement are a year older and have oodles more experience. Paul Kariya arrives to help pump up the power play, Keith Tkachuk is back after essentially being loaned to Atlanta for the playoffs, and there is goaltending depth in the form of Hannu Toivonen, who will back up Manny Legace. And, oh yeah, there's a kid named Erik Johnson who'll be patrolling an already solid blue line. The first overall pick in 2006 is expected to be in the hunt for the Calder Trophy.

OFFENSE
Only three teams in the Western Conference scored fewer than the 214 goals scored by the Blues. Needless to say, none of those teams (Columbus, Chicago, Edmonton or St. Louis) made the playoffs. Kariya, who remains a point-a-game player, should help bolster a power play that was 29th in the league. Last season's roster boasted just one 20-goal scorer in Stempniak (27), who has developed tremendous maturity since the lockout and has the makings of a captain some day. Tkachuk finished with 27 and should be close to the 30 mark.

The other young player the Blues are hoping will take a similar step is McClement, who had a strong finish to the season and was added to Canada's gold-medal team at the World Championships. Not surprisingly, that team was coached by Murray. Brad Boyes must also step up his game after being acquired from Boston. The Blues didn't get much offensive help from the back end as Christian Backman led the way with just seven goals. If former rookie of the year Barret Jackman can stay healthy (he missed 12 games last season and 19 the year before), it will help.

DEFENSE
Not surprisingly, the Blues' defensive play was worlds better under Murray and that should only improve with a healthy Jay McKee. One of the league's best shot-blockers and a leader in Buffalo, McKee played just 23 games after being sidelined by a series of ailments that included a broken hand and pelvis injury. If the blue line can stay healthy, it will be the cornerstone of the Blues' renaissance and could see them vault into the playoffs. Backman, Jackman, McKee, Johnson, Eric Brewer and David Backes, who impressed as a rookie last year, give the Blues terrific depth and will make life easier for netminders Legace and Toivonen.

GOALTENDING
When he was signed a year ago after failing to deliver the goods in Detroit, Legace seemed a perfect fit for the rebuilding Blues. Legace's regular-season numbers are terrific and he is one of the best-liked netminders in the game. He did not disappoint in St. Louis last season, when he rebounded from a shaky start to turn in a 23-15-5 record before a knee injury cut his season short. If he can stay healthy, Legace has the tools to keep the Blues in the playoff hunt. While Murray used Curtis Sanford and Jason Bacashihua as Legace's main backups (prospect Marek Schwarz played in two games), Sanford is gone and Toivonen jumps up on the depth chart. This is a good spot for Toivonen to try and recapture his game after failing to seize the No. 1 job in Boston.

COACHING
With Murray, it's all about structure. On a team that had little, Murray's presence provided a welcome tonic. The issue in the past has been that he's been relentless in his pursuit of that structure. It was what cost him his job in Los Angeles. But Murray seems to have grasped that, so expect him to be better for his experience. If there was one element of Murray's work that stands out, it was the play of the Blues after top forwards Tkachuk and Bill Guerin were dealt at the trade deadline. Guerin was the team's goal-scoring leader with 28 goals at the time of the trade, while Tkachuk had 20 at the time. Still, the Blues continued to play well, a testament to the impact Murray had on the team's mindset.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

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LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 34-35-13
• Division: Third in the Central
• Conference: 10th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Toivonen

Goalie: Hannu Toivonen
At one point, Toivonen represented the Bruins' goaltending future. He will get a chance to repair his confidence, and career, in St. Louis.

Defenseman: Erik Johnson
It generally takes defensemen longer to mature in the NHL, and that's even more so now in the new NHL. Still, Johnson's pedigree is undeniable. It's worth noting the last defenseman to win the Calder was teammate Barret Jackman in 2003.

Forward: Brad Boyes
The one-time 2000 first-round pick of the Maple Leafs has sort of lost his way in recent years, bouncing from the Toronto to San Jose to Boston and now to St. Louis. He has the potential to deliver 25 goals or more as a first-line winger.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
Fans have been staying away in droves from Blues games since the lockout. Can a playoff-competitive team bring them back? We're about to find out.

Where They Will Finish
The Blues will finish second in the Central Division and eighth in the Western Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the St. Louis Blues will finish this time around? Who will lead the Blues in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Weight

Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk should resume the chemistry they showed last season, making Tkachuk a strong fantasy asset and Weight a mild one. Paul Kariya will end up with weaker talent around him than he had last season, and should be looked upon as a No. 2 left winger. Erik Johnson has a chance to make one of the biggest rookie impacts this season, just don't break the bank to get him. Manny Legace is someone to avoid in most leagues. -- Sean Allen

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