Is this the year?


Forget the New York Rangers and San Jose Sharks, the St. Louis Blues might be the greatest cause of head scratching in the NHL.

Loaded with talent and carrying a large payroll, the Blues appeared on their way to breaking up the Big Three in the West when they won the Presidents' Trophy in 2000 and made it to the Western Conference finals in 2001.

But that flower never blossomed and the Blues have seemed to wilt into hockey mediocrity ever since. They lost in five games to the Avalanche in 2001, were equally weak against the Red Wings in the 2002 conference semifinals and didn't even get out of the first round last season.

In the meantime, they have juggled players, jockeyed egos and tried to somehow find a winning chemistry.

This year, they swear they have it right. Chris Pronger is recovered from knee and wrist surgeries, and is ready to anchor a blue line that also features Al MacInnis and Barrett Jackman. Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk will surely move their point totals up with a year of health and good luck. And youngsters Petr Cajanek, Peter Sejna and Sergei Varlamov are all ready to break through with great NHL seasons.

The plan on paper is perfect. The execution? Ah ... well, now there's the rub.

The bottom line is the team has to perform or there will be changes. While it might be impossible to unload the high-priced star players, it certainly wouldn't be out of the imagination to gas GM Larry Pleau and coach Joel Quenneville. Both are known as good guys who know their jobs, but other organizations have proven in the past that repeated failure is rarely accepted in the NHL.

The Blues ranked fourth in the league in goal scoring last season (253) and third in power-play scoring (80 goals). It was the most the team had scored since the days of Brett Hull (256 in 1997-98).

Sadly, the Blues lost about 50 of those goals with the departures of such players as Cory Stillman, Martin Rucinsky, Shjon Podein, Tyson Nash and Valeri Bure, but they expect to get it all back and then some with the strong play of youngsters Sejna (the Hobey Baker Award winner last season at Colorado College), Cajenek (who should be healthy this season) and Varlamov (who had 23 goals in the minors last season).

If these young bucks meld well with the likes of Eric Boguniecki, Mike Danton and Jamal Mayers, the Blues could again have one of the top goal-scoring teams in the league.

And if Doug Weight (15 goals and 52 assists in 70 games) and Keith Tkachuk (31 goals and 24 assists in 55 games) pick it up, then the sky's the limit.

With Pronger seemingly healthy and fellow defenseman Alexander Khavanov with another year under his belt, the Blues could be even better with the man advantage. They have a number of combinations that can drive opponents crazy.


In pieces, it is great. Pronger is a former Hart Trophy winner, MacInnis was a Norris Trophy finalist last season at age 38 and Jackman was rookie of the year. With the improving Khavanov and the recently acquired Murray Baron, the blue line could really be dependable this season.

That would be a significant improvement over last season. Without Pronger, MacInnis had to play 27 minutes a night and there never seemed much solidarity in the group. The Blues allowed 40 more goals and 200 more shots than the previous season. Part of the blame can go to injuries, but part of the blame can also land at the feet of management, which continues to shuffle out players and prospects every season, something that seemingly has messed with the chemistry of the team.

It's difficult to see Quenneville's defensive mark on this team when it has gone through so many changes. The Blues ranked 23rd in the league in penalty killing, which is more a lack of strong one-on-one principles.

The biggest change of all last season might have been the goaltending. Injuries forced the Blues to use seven players in net and the lack of consistency was reflected in an .892 save percentage. Ironically, that fell right in line with the .898 of the previous season, when the team employed only two goalies (three, if you count a 25-minute appearance by Reinhard Divis).

The Brent Johnson as No. 1 experiment has apparently turned into the same kind of failure as the Roman Turek as No. 1 experiment. Now, Chris Osgood is healthy and is with the team from the start of the season. The man with 270 career regular-season victories believes getting ingrained in the Blues culture will make a difference in his performance, which was lackluster in the playoffs (2.45 GAA and a .907 save percentage in seven games). As it is with many of his teammates, we can only say we'll believe it when we see it.

For a the second year in a row, Johnson nursed an injury throughout training camp and was being pushed hard by Curtis Sanford and Divis. Johnson will start as the No. 2 and has said he would like to push Osgood for the No. 1 job. However, Quenneville has noted Johnson's need for improved confidence and it's doubtful anyone in St. Louis is going to trust him to carry this team anymore.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.