St. Louis Blues season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:33 PM ET
ESPN.com

St. Louis Blues

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Blues hit rock bottom last season, finishing dead last and earning the franchise's first No. 1 overall pick in the entry draft. The free fall ended a streak of 25 consecutive postseason appearances, but yielded top-notch defensive prospect Erik Johnson. The collegian won't be with the big team this season, but the Blues have a good defensive foundation for years to come. To no one's surprise, new owner Dave Checketts turned to former Rangers netminder and long-time broadcaster John Davidson to oversee the operation as team president. Davidson opted to keep GM Larry Pleau in his post, at least for the time being. Likewise, coach Mike Kitchen was given a two-year deal, allowing him to work with a real NHL team after being left with odds and sods during the ownership vacuum that existed last season.

Both Pleau and Kitchen will likely be given the heave-ho if the Blues don't show signs of moving forward. It's a difficult challenge given that the Blues squandered much of their future in trying to build a pre-lockout winner. And while there have been some interesting additions this offseason, the Blues are still miles from being a playoff team. The best they can hope for is to be competitive.

Offense: The Blues were the only NHL team to fail to score 200 goals last season. The good news is they could hardly be worse this season. Could they? Just kidding. Bringing back Doug Weight will help. Having a regular-sized Keith Tkachuk from the start of the season, as opposed to the gi-normous Tkachuk who showed up for camp a year ago, will also help. But that's as good as it gets. Vladimir Orszagh is likely done for the year after knee surgery. And unless Davidson thought he was looking at a 1996 calendar, there was absolutely no good reason to sign Bill Guerin no matter how cheap he was and no matter how many goals he scores in preseason games. Lee Stempniak provided a glimmer of hope last season, scoring 14 times in 57 games as a rookie, and he'll get ample opportunity to build on that.

Defense: If the offense is bound to look pretty thin again this season, the defense figures to be the team's bright spot, not just this coming season, but for the foreseeable future. Barret Jackman, Eric Brewer and Christian Backman are a solid trio and rookie Dennis Wideman showed flashes of being a capable NHL defender. Throw in Buffalo dressing room leader Jay McKee, signed to a four-year deal, and that's a tidy little foundation, and that's not even considering Johnson for the next few years. Provided they can all stay healthy, the Blues should make significant gains in the goals-allowed department, where they were 27th last season and dead last in goals allowed while playing five-on-five.

Goaltending: Goaltending was a bit of a nightmare for the Blues last season as Patrick Lalime floundered under the new rules. In his place is Manny Legace, the Rodney Dangerfield of goaltenders. Last season Legace won 37 games (fifth in the league), his 2.19 GAA was third and he recorded seven shutouts, but that wasn't enough for the Detroit Red Wings, who punted him after they were upended in the first round by Edmonton. The Blues aren't likely to have to worry about Legace's playoff woes this season, so he'll bring a welcome stability in goal and he'll be terrific with the Blues' young netminders, Curtis Sanford and Jason Bacashihua.

Coaching: It's difficult to say just how good a coach Kitchen might be given the bucket-o-bolts he was forced to work with last season. That said, opposing coaches and GMs praised Kitchen's preparation and said the Blues may have lacked talent, but they never lacked work ethic. That's the foundation of all good or improving teams. Look for Kitchen's charges to reward him for the thankless job he did in 2005-06.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
14th In the new NHL, it doesn't take long to retool, but the Blues' toolbox is still a few hammers short. With an anemic offense, they'll finish fifth in the Central and 14th in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Down
Stock down. Fans stayed away in droves as the ownership flux left the Blues a lame-duck franchise. Checketts, Davidson et al, know they've got a lot of work to do in repairing the damage done through the lockout and last season's woeful offering.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Goalie Manny Legace will find that life in St. Louis is much tougher than Detroit. He isn't a worthy fantasy option, especially considering the team's two best scorers are Keith Tkachuk, one of the most brittle players in the league, and Doug Weight, whose best asset is his playmaking skills. Both are solid fantasy picks, but the problem is that plus/minus is going to be a real problem for Blues players, limiting the draft appeal of almost anyone else on the roster. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Blues:
1. T.J. Oshie, 19, C, North Dakota (WCHA)
Statline: 43 GP, 24 G, 21 A, 33 PIM
2. Marek Schwarz, 20, G, Sparta
Statline: 7-8-0 record, 2.57 GAA, .920 SV%
3. Jeff Woywitka, 23, D, Peoria (AHL)
Statline: 53 GP, 1 G, 14 A, 58 PIM
4. David Backes, 22, C, Peoria (AHL)
Statline: 12 GP, 5 G, 5 A, 10 PIM
5. Roman Polak, 20, D, Vitkovice
Statline: 7 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 16 PIM
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St. Louis Blues
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record21-46-15 (57 points)
DivisionFinished last in Central
ConferenceFinished last in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Centers: Doug Weight
No offense to Mr. Weight, who won his first Cup last spring, but when a 35-year-old center is as good as it gets down the middle, then you know you're in trouble.
Winger: Timofei Shishkanov
With Orszagh's injury, the competition for position spots up front is wide open. Shishkanov, a former Nashville prospect, was the 33rd pick in the 2001 draft and scouts then liked his skill set.
Defense: Barret Jackman
Hockey life has not been kind to the injury-prone former rookie of the year since his first campaign. It's time he got back on track.
Goalie: Manny Legace
There could hardly be a nicer guy in the league, and for a guy with great but underappreciated skills, this is a good fit for both Legace and the Blues.

Key Moves
Dan Hinote won't show up on the stat sheet all that often, but he brings a winning attitude from Colorado, where he won a Cup. Likewise, McKee was a go-to guy in a tight Buffalo dressing room. Those moves offset the curious decision to bring in the dour Guerin to go with the already dour Tkachuk.

SportsNation
Rating the Blues
The St. Louis Blues finished last in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Blues in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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