<l><u><b>St. Louis Blues Team Preview 2003-2004</b></u></l>
The Blues have been one of the HFNHL’s busiest teams this summer offseason, as they’ve tried to offset the sudden retirements of veterans Robert Svehla and Doug Gilmour. As late as September 1st, both players seemed likely to be part of the Blues 2003-2004 season, but within a week of each other, they had left the Blues with two significant holes to fill.
General Manager Nick Quain has been criticized in past for what many have deemed a much too conservative approach in building a winner. His slow and methodical style of adding piece by piece to the Blues has frustrated many local fans and media, who have often demanded quicker results. That said, the Blues steady ascent to the top of the Western conference is unquestioned, and the Blues seem poised to remain perennial threats for the Stanley Cup over the next half decade.
Quain’s priority has always been around building a physical defensive team from the blueline out, complimented by a select group of dynamic franchise-type forwards. While he has received applause from some fans for his quick and decisive moves to offset the sudden loss of Svehla and Gilmour, others feel they were his first desperate and reactionary moves as the Blues General Manager.
Coach Marc Crawford’s track record is unquestioned, however many still wonder about a potential conflict with Quain. It is no secret that Quain’s defence-first approach to building the team has often frustrated Crawford, renowned for advocating a more offensive style of play. Others believe the two are perfect compliments, as Quain continues to build a blue-line that can afford Crawford the luxury of pushing his forwards on an offensive assault.
The Blues have historically been a cash machine, generating annual profits that have created a war chest of close to $60 million in cash reserves. However this off-season, the Blues additions of veterans Rod Brind’Amour and Steve Yzerman will make it very difficult for the Blues to turn a profit, and unless the Blues make a deep run in the playoffs, this could create a potentially massive financial loss for the 2003-2004 season.
• C/LW Rod Brind’Amour (UFA)
• C/LW Steve Yzerman (trade)
• RW Scott Young (trade)
• LW Peter Schaefer (trade)
• RW Robert Dome (UFA)
• LW Peter Sejna (UFA)
• Claude Lemieux (trade)
• Doug Gilmour (retired)
• Rob Zamuner (trade)
• Josh Green (trade)
• Tyson Nash (trade)
The Blues now boast a formidable top 6 complimented by highly respected players throughout their third and fourth lines. The following is a unit-by-unit analysis.
<b>1st Line: Pavol Demitra – Joe Thornton – Dany Heatley</b>
The “Flash, Smash and Panache” line will once again cause opposing teams misery. They are arguably the top offensive unit in the league, with all three having finished in the top 10 of NHL scoring last season. Look for them to top 100 goals combined in the 2003-2004 campaign.
<b>2nd Line: Rod Brind’Amour – Vincent Lecavalier – Craig Conroy</b>
The Red Wings exposed the Blues lack of offensive balance last post-season, however that weakness seems to have been somewhat rectified by the signing of Brind’Amour and the re-emergence of Lecavalier as a point-a-game player. Conroy and Brind’Amour are seemingly the perfect compliment to the offensive brilliance of the Prince Vince, as both combine scoring line skills with Selke type defensive awareness. This unit is capable of going head-to-head with any line in the league.
<b>3rd line: Jason Wiemer – Steve Yzerman – Scott Young</b>
The Blues new checking unit features the ultimate third line center in Yzerman with the physical presence of Wiemer and the scoring abilities of Young. This unit could see some tinkering over the season however, as Patrik Stefan vies for Wiemer’s spot. Yzerman is a major upgrade over Gilmour.
<b>4th line: Peter Schaefer – Patrik Stefan – Landon Wilson</b>
This motley crew combines an intriguing combination of grit, offensive potential and savvy. They will be asked to hold their own this season and nothing more.
<b>On the Horizon</b>
Goal scorer Chuck Kobasew and his silky scoring touch remains the Blues top prospect and could arrive as early as next season. Recently signed Hobey Baker winner Peter Sejna will do his best to crack a spot with the Blues this season, but is more likely to take a permanent role with the team next year. Warrior Garth Murray needs more professional seasoning, but seems destined to eventually crack the Blues as a roll player while winger Daniel Paille remains several seasons away from a spot with the team.
<b>Overall Forward Grade: A</b>
The Blues top two units are amongst the best in the league, and the addition of Yzerman and Young has created a highly respectable third line.
• Robert Svehla (retired)
• Marcus Ragnarsson (trade)
• David Tanabe (trade)
Crawford has become especially fond of Quain’s preference for big physical blue-liners, whom he affectionately refers to as his “Dobermans”. This season, the Dobermans will be at their fiercest with the acquisition of two more ultra-physical rear-guards fond of in your face hockey in McCabe and Gauthier. The Blues seem likely to once again lead the league in fewest shots allowed per game.
<b>1st Unit: Chris Pronger – Kyle McLaren</b>
Pronger remains the team Captain and leader, although Crawford expects to put less of a load on his shoulders this season. This is one of the most formidable physical pairings in the league.
<b>2nd Unit: Bryan McCabe - Brendan Witt</b>
McCabe and Witt seem like the perfect compliment with one common element – they are both down right nasty.
<b>3rd Unit: Denis Gauthier – Rostislav Klesla</b>
Gauthier is poised to get under Western Conference opponents skin next season, while Klesla continues to be groomed slowly for a top 4 role.
<b>Depth: Chris McAlpine</b>
McAlpine is a veteran depth player who will fill in only in the case of injury. Stated McAlpine, “When we’re all together in ‘the Dobermans’ end of the locker room, I look at these kids and how big and mean they all are, and it feels like a scene right out of Sesame Street. You know the episode of ‘Which one of these does not belong together?”
“And everyone’s looking at me.”
<b>On the Horizon:</b>
The Blues lack any blue chip prospects on the back-end, but with the top 6 all under 30 years of age, they can afford to be patient. Ross Lupaschuk is the most intriguing prospect, as the Blues seem in need of a more offensive minded blue-liner to compliment the likes of McClaren, Witt and Gauthier. The rest of the Blues defensive prospect remain long-term projects, although 3rd round draft pick Paul Bissonnette impressed at his inaugural training camp.
<b>Overall Defensive Grade: A-</b>
The Blues will once again pose a difficult opposition for forwards. The lack of appropriate offensive balance on this unit remains a concern however.
The Blues lead the league in fewest goals allowed last season, although critics of the Blues goaltending contend that was more a product of the team’s defensive prowess than goaltending. While neither one of the Blues goalies lose many games, they are also not likely to steal a pivotal game in a playoff series – something local critics have been none to shy about pointing out.
Going into training camp, Mike Dunham and Martin Biron will once again battle for the number one position. Biron seems to be the early favorite, but regardless of who holds the tentative moniker of “Number One”, its clear the back-up will most likely play 30 games or so.
<b>On the Horizon:</b>
The Blues hold the rights to blue-chip prospect David LeNevau, a Hobey Baker finalist last season who broke several NCAA records st Cornell. Michael Garnett remains a project requiring extensive seasoning, although he is still regarded high within the organization. Neither is expected the challenge for a roster spot for several years.
<b>Overall Goaltending Grade: B+</b>
The Dunham-Biron tandem is a safe one, however there are still questions whether the Blues can win the Cup without an upgrade.
The Blues will once again be amongst the top teams in the Western conference, and seem likely to challenge for the President’s Trophy. However, it is the playoffs that this team will be judged, and a repeat of last season’s second round exit will not be deemed acceptable. Anything short of a return to the Stanley Cup final will be considered a disappointment.