Quick, name the team currently sitting atop the National Hockey League standings.
If you said the St. Louis Blues you are probably a pretty big hockey fan, a pretty big Blues fan, or perhaps a fan of the NHL’s Central Division who has been left scratching your head wondering how the Blues ended up at least six points of everyone else in the high powered division and at least five points ahead of everyone else in the Western Conference.
From 1980-2004, the St. Louis Blues were somewhat a model of NHL consistency, never hoisting a cup, but finding a way in to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of those 25 seasons. The Blues even captured the Presidents’ Trophy in 2000 finishing with a League best 114 points. However, that spring they fell in the first round of the playoffs in seven games to the 8th seeded San Jose Sharks and one could argue things haven’t been so great for Blues fans since. The organization has not won a playoff series since defeating the Blackhawks in 2002 and has not won a playoff game since 2004 when they avoided a sweep at the hands of the Sharks by picking up a single victory and extending the series to 5 games. Yes, it has been a tough stretch for Blues fans. But today there is reason for hope as St. Louis sits atop the National Hockey League points race and is eyeing another Presidents’ Trophy. They were ranked number one in TSN’s latest power rankings and with their solid goaltending and stingy defense, they have given Blues fans every reason in the world to be optimistic.
Ken Hitchcock’s club has won five in a row and nine of their last ten. They have given up by far a league best 135 goals in 70 games. They play in the League’s toughest Division but have seldom been advertised as one of the League’s best, that is until this past week. So who are these guys taking the League by storm?
For starters, like with any successful organization, this didn’t happen overnight. When John Davidson took over the struggling club in 2006 he knew he had a lot of work to do, and the process has taken time. But slowly they have come up with what appears to be the right formula through the draft, free agency, and trades, even if some of the moves left many experts scratching their heads at the time. A year ago it looked like the club currently dominating through defense was ready to blow their blue line up. Within 24 hours they moved long time Blue and veteran defenseman Eric Brewer and the player they had once intended to build their franchise around, Erik Johnson, in separate deals. The Johnson deal brought great returns with power forward Chris Stewart and a gifted blue liner in Kevin Shattenkirk from the Avs.
After watching Jaroslav Halak eat up most of the minutes between the pipes last season, St. Louis management decided to acquire additional support in net. Enter Brian Elliot, a cast off in Colorado after they declined his qualifying offer and made him a free agent, Elliot has been worth every penny of the $600,000 he will earn this year as he has just about split time with Halak and formed the League’s most dominant duo in goal.
The club’s defensive stars haven’t only shined on the back end as two of their top four scoring leaders are defensemen. Shattenkirk sits fourth on the team in scoring this season and is +34 with 54 points in 95 games over the past two seasons since being acquired. The other young star is Alex Pietrangelo who has emerged as one of the League’s brightest young players in his second full NHL season. The 4th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft has 43 points in 69 games this year, good for third on the club. Since the start of the new calendar year, Pietrangelo can put his numbers up against just about anybody as he has recorded 32 points in 32 games.
Up front, T.J. Oshie and David Backes have led the way. Backes' consistent and productive play should come as a surprise to few as he continues to lead the way on and off the ice for the Blues, but Oshie’s improved attitude and increased output are something for St. Louis fans to be excited about. He is on pace for a career high in points and will likely enjoy his first 20 goal campaign this season. Beyond that top pair, the club has also enjoyed the veteran presence of former Stanley Cup Champions Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Despite the veteran acquisitions, the Blues remain in the bottom third in salary and average age in the League.
They have risen to the top of the standings despite a slow start that cost Head Coach David Payne his job and led to Ken Hitchcock’s return to an NHL bench. This Spring, “Hitch” will look to follow in the footsteps of Dan Bylsma and Peter Laviolette as recent mid season replacements who led their teams to the Stanley Cup Finals (and in Bylsma’s case a championship) in their very first season with the new club. If the team can remain hot over the final 12 games and secure another Presidents’ Trophy, the Cup may have to run through St. Louis, a thought that should be scary for all potential opponents. While the Red Wings recently stole the spotlight with their 23 game home win streak, the Blues have quietly put together a home record every bit as impressive as the Wings this season, going 29-4-4 at the Scottrade Center.
If defense and goaltending truly do win championships and the Blues can secure home ice, they will prove to be an extremely tough out for any club this post season.