<
>

MacInnis out, but expectations remain

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues thought they had their defense settled and their leadership all neat and alphabetized.

And then both sights suddenly got as fuzzy as the view from Al MacInnis's sore eyes.

The Blues' captain may be off the ice for the season -- or forever -- after having surgeries Friday to repair the retina in both eyeballs.

"It stinks,'' said Doug Weight, who will no doubt serve as the team's primary spokesman with MacInnis out. "It's a big loss, no hiding that. That's not anything but obvious.''

On the other hand, the Blues have been in such an ordeal before, and as recently as last year. Then-captain Chris Pronger missed almost the whole season after two career-threatening surgeries of his own to a knee and a wrist.

The year before that, the Blues lost Weight to a pelvis injury. The year before that, they lost MacInnis to his original eye injury and Pronger to his original broken wrist.

"We lose a leader a year,'' said defenseman Bryce Salvador.

This is an especially bad year to follow the trend.

Owner Bill Laurie has clamped shut his Wal-Mart checkbook. General manager Larry Pleau and coach Joel Quenneville are in the last year of their contracts, which began in 1997. Pronger, the $9.5 million former Hart and Norris Trophy winner, is also playing out his deal.

With the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring, with payrolls nosediving and with next season in jeopardy, the Blues are probably mounting their last Stanley Cup run with the current crew.

Management has put the top players on notice that more is expected this season.

The need for stable leadership is how MacInnis wound up with the captaincy fulltime after filling in for Pronger last year. On the first day of training camp, Pronger shocked his teammates by announcing that wearing a letter would be too heavy a load while facing a dual comeback.

So the "C'' stayed with MacInnis. Weight and winger Scott Mellanby were supposed to keep the "A'' that each wore last year as alternate captains.

But Mellanby broke two ribs in preseason and has yet to play a game. Winger Keith Tkachuk inherited his "A.''

With MacInnis out, coach Joel Quenneville said the "C'' will say out with him. Winger Dallas Drake will wear a third "A'' for a week or so until Mellanby returns to claim it.

But monogrammed shirts were the least of Quenneville's worries at Saturday's morning skate. He was then in the dark as much as reporters about his captain's health.

All he knew was that five of his top nine defenders were not available.

Matt Walker (groin strain), who is not in the top six, is closest to returning.

Bryce Salvador (wrist surgery) has been cleared medically and needs a week or so of conditioning.

Sasha Khavanov (broken toe), who partnered with Salvador last year in a solid second pairing, is out for another one to five weeks. So is Christian Laflamme (broken foot), who is hobbled by a walking cast.

The Blues will make do with:

  • Pronger, who has looked sharp.

  • Barret Jackman, the 2003 Calder Trophy winner who was in the top pair with Pronger.

  • Veteran Murray Baron, back for a second Blues tour alongside his old partner MacInnis.

  • Steady veteran Jeff Finley, pegged for fill-in duty.

  • And rookie Christian Backman, a slick Swede apprenticing on the farm at Worcester.

    With MacInnis out, the Blues dipped down to Worcester for journeyman Aris Brimanis, their 11th defenseman . . . so far.

    The pairings now are, left to right:

    Baron and Pronger.

    Jackman and Finley.

    Backman and Brimanis.

    MacInnis, with the league's most feared slapshot, will also be missed on the power play.

    Weight will be the lone quarterback now, moving to the right point where MacInnis parked. Pronger will move back to his old spot on the left point.

    Even with MacInnis, the Blues have been scuffling to score goals.

    That caused Quenneville to mix and match up front.

    Petr Cajanek was bumped up two lines to center Tkachuk and Pavol Demitra, who slid right to his old spot on the wing.

    Weight, the league's most expensive babysitter at $8 mil, will center rookies Peter Sejna and Mark Rycroft.

    Jamal Mayers, a bruising right winger, moved to the middle of the checking line.

    For all of that, the main concern at the Saturday morning skate was for MacInnis's health.

    His teammates and coaches were in the dark, as was the public, until general manager Larry Pleau briefed the press 2½ hours before game time.

    "We just hope the best for Al,'' Mayers said at the morning skate. "First and foremost is his health. Any time you're dealing with the eyes, hockey becomes secondary.''

    Secondary or not, the show has to go on for at least another 79 games -- plus probably a long playoff run to keep these Blues intact.

    Top veterans like Weight were talking about doing more.

    "I'm playing in more situations than I've played in before,'' Weight said. "I'm making a lot of money, and I've got to produce in all aspects of the game.''

    Youngsters like Jackman were talking about not trying to do too much.

    "Everybody has to pick up their game and take up more responsibility,'' said the sophomore, "but I've always had pressure on me wherever I played.

    "You try not to do too much to prove and re-prove that the Calder wasn't a fluke. If you try to do somebody else's job, you're not doing your job.''

    Without MacInnis, the job got bigger. But Pleau said he has no plans -- yet -- to bring a deal for more defenders.

    After all, they wouldn't be the Blues without a personnel crisis.

    As Mellanby said, "Last year we didn't have Prongs but we had Al. This year, we don't have Al but we have Prongs.''

    And last year they went one playoff round and out. A sight that could be dim news for the organization this time around.

    Tom Wheatley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.