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By Scott Burnside
The Blues were the ultimate rags-to-riches story last season, pulling themselves up off the Western Conference mat to storm into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the conference. And they did it despite crippling injuries to key personnel, including former No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson, Paul Kariya, Eric Brewer, Andy McDonald and Jay McKee, among others.
While they were swept by Vancouver, the series was both achingly close and a great learning experience for the youthful Blues. The offseason wasn't so much about making additions (they added depth by signing defenseman Brendan Bell and forward Derek Armstrong), but rather getting healthy. They will start the season without the injury-plagued Brewer, who is battling a knee injury. But they should hit the ice in Sweden (where they will play in the NHL Premiere games against Detroit) with more or less a full roster.
While a playoff berth this season is more or less expected, coach Andy Murray told ESPN.com he's not a believer in carrying momentum from one season to the next.
"As soon as you start expecting things to happen because of something you've done in the past, you get yourself in trouble," Murray said.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Blues heading into this season:
1. Mr. Johnson returns
The cornerstone of the Blues' defense is certainly looking to put last season's disastrous pre-training camp knee injury (sustained during a team golf outing) behind him. Johnson told ESPN.com at the U.S. Olympic orientation camp he hasn't played golf since and he's focused on getting back onto the ice in meaningful NHL competition.
Judging from his size -- he's added 13 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame -- Johnson is determined to play major catch-up this season and woe to opponents who get in his way.
Murray said Johnson will get a chance to be the big shooter on the power play, but people can't lose sight of the fact that Johnson is a young man who missed an entire season of hockey, and it's going to take him time to get back into the groove.
Although all eyes will be on Johnson's return to the blue line, there will be lots of glances at the No. 4 overall pick from the 2008 draft, Alex Pietrangelo. The defenseman got a brief look last season but ultimately spent the bulk of the year back in junior. He can go back again this year, but after a strong rookie camp and with Brewer on the shelf, there might be room for Pietrangelo when camp breaks.
2. Really special teams
The Blues have come a long way in a short time, and the power play is indicative of that renaissance, climbing to eighth overall last season after finishing dead last in that category in 2007-08. On the other side of the special-teams fence, the Blues were also impressive in finishing third on the penalty kill. Re-creating those numbers will be difficult; but if they do, the Blues should ensure a second straight playoff berth. If there was a sobering reminder of how much the Blues rely on special teams, though, it was in the playoffs, where they were a disappointing 1-for-24 in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Canucks.
3. On the other hand ...
Murray thinks the special teams hid one of the team's glaring weaknesses: even-strength play. The Blues ranked 23rd in five-on-five scoring, and many of the team's top players were minus players, including leading scorer Brad Boyes (minus-20), veteran Keith Tkachuk (minus-11) and Andy McDonald (minus-13).
"We can't have the number of minus players we had playing even strength," Murray said. Whether it's better team defense or just smarter play, Murray doesn't care as long as it's not the same. "We just need to play better," he said.
4. Paul Kariya redux
There was so much excitement a year ago when the former Canadian Olympian and three-time first-team All-Star returned to training camp in terrific shape and looked to regain his elite form. That excitement lasted just 11 games before Kariya got hurt and missed the rest of the season after undergoing hip surgery. Now, the excitement returns, and the Blues' hopes of a deep playoff run will go up exponentially with a healthy Kariya.
"I think he wants to make a statement," Murray said. "We were a pretty good team without him and we should be a better team with him."
5. The big boys, and the others
At the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in Chicago, our colleague Pierre LeBrun wrote a piece on the "Nasty Boys" who look to populate the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver. The leader of that group is David Backes, and he, likewise, leads an impressive group of big, talented youthful Blues forwards.
Backes, 25, is 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Patrik Berglund is 21 and 6-4, and B.J. Crombeen, 24, is 6-2 and 212 pounds. The three combined for 64 goals last season. No discussion of the Blues' fortunes would be complete, though, without adding in other impressive youngsters, including T.J. Oshie, who had 39 goals in 57 games and earned an invite to the U.S. orientation camp. David Perron saw his point totals jump from 27 as a rookie to 50 last season. Then, there's grizzled veteran Brad Boyes, who, at age 27, has collected 76 goals over the past two seasons.
The question is whether these young players can pick up where they left off last season -- or do they take a step back after having such success?
6. The big second half
At one point midway through last season, the Blues were where many people believed they'd be, mired in the Western Conference basement. But despite injuries to key personnel, the Blues roared through the second half with a 25-9-7 record, best in the NHL. The Blues picked up nearly 59 percent of their total season points after Jan. 19, the biggest second-half production since 1940.
7. Back in Blues
It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't drag people to a Blues game with a team of wild horses. And with good reason. But the love is back in one of the most solid hockey markets in the United States. Last season, the Blues boasted 29 sellouts and two more in the playoffs, up from 20 the season before. That's a world away from the first two post-lockout seasons, when the Blues counted just three sellouts over that span. The Blues have sold more than 10,000 season tickets so far for the coming season.
8. The boys between the pipes
Last season, Manny Legace was coming off an appearance at the All-Star Game and Chris Mason was penciled in as backup. But Legace went sideways and was ultimately dispatched to the AHL, never to be heard from again (he's at camp in Atlanta, by the way), while Mason took over as the No. 1 guy with a 27-21-7 record and six shutouts. Now Mason's the man and veteran Ty Conklin is the backup. Murray praised Conklin's stick-handling skills and figures he's a nice fit.
Conklin has been a magnet for playoff success; he was in Pittsburgh and Detroit the past two seasons, respectively, after being part of Edmonton's run to the Cup finals in 2006.
9. A scheduling note
The Blues come off the Olympic break with a six-game road trip and play eight of nine on the road after the Olympics. The Blues were a .500 team on the road last season, and this will be a hard way to start the final push of the regular season.
10. Olympic exposure
U.S. Olympic team GM Brian Burke loves Backes, so count him in for Vancouver, and likewise Johnson, assuming he stays healthy. Oshie will have to have a strong first half to join his countrymen. McDonald was an unexpected invitee to the Canadian orientation camp, but it would be a major surprise if he makes the team.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 41-31-10
• Division: Third in the Central
• Conference: Sixth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round by Vancouver
• The Blues will take another step forward thanks to a healthy roster (unless this very prediction puts the heebie-jeebies on them) and will return to the playoffs for a second straight season, finishing third in the Central.
• Andy Murray may be one of the most demanding of all NHL coaches, yet few can compare for his attention to detail and preparation.
The fact that his injury-riddled team went from the conference basement to the sixth seed in the playoffs is a testament to his coaching acumen. Murray was rewarded with a nomination for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year (won by Boston's Claude Julien).
Murray will have an almost-healthy roster at his disposal at the start of this season, and his main task will be to keep his team from getting off to a slow start after such a dramatic run to the postseason. He doesn't hold much stock in carrying over from one game to another, let alone one season to another. Each game stands alone, he said.
"We have to remember the process," he said.
Not much doubt the Blues won't hear his message loud and clear.
F -- Paul Kariya
• If he's healthy, what is the skilled winger's top end? 70, 80, 90 points?
F -- Patrik Berglund
• A rare plus player on Andy Murray's team, chipped in 21 goals.
F -- Brad Boyes
• The team's designated sniper. Had 33 goals last season and could close in on 50 with Kariya and Berglund.
D -- Erik Johnson
• Big man, big shot ... now he's got to live up to the expectations.
D -- Carlo Colaiacovo
• Led all Blues defensemen last season with 30 points.
Best Bet: Patrik Berglund, F: Defensively sound and offensively skilled, Berglund and fellow linemates David Perron and T.J. Oshie were a source of fantasy goodness last season thanks to a strong plus/minus. Look for all three members of St. Louis' 'kid' line to improve on their showing from last season, but they may not be reunited to do it. Berglund has all around ability and can both start and finish plays regardless of who he works with. The only concern is that if everyone in St. Louis remains healthy, they have more than six strong forwards and someone will have to play third line.
Risky Move: Brad Boyes, F: Boyes may have helped a lot of teams in the scoring department last season, but he also hurt a lot of them in the plus/minus department, finishing with a minus-20. Even being generous and projecting him to finish at plus-2, he doesn't come out as any better than a No. 5 forward in fantasy. Take the goals and the shots if you can mitigate his poor defensive work elsewhere, but don't overpay for him.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the St. Louis Blues finish this season in Central Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.