ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- After its annual summer recess, hockey season is upon us once again. The puck drops on the 50th year of St. Louis Blues hockey Wednesday night in Chicago when the Blues take on the rival Blackhawks. With no postseason baseball and a sudden lack of the NFL in St. Louis, the Blues are the only show in town right now. Under the watchful eye of an entire city, the Blues will look to respond to grand expectations established by their run to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Plenty has changed for the Blues since we last saw them in May. Here are five things to watch for as this new season gets underway:
1. New leadership core
David Backes is a Bruin. Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott are both sporting red sweaters up in Calgary. That’s three veteran leaders and playoff performers from last year’s squad gone. Beyond the strict on-ice implications of these departures, the exodus of core players means a shift in the Blues leadership dynamic.
Alex Pietrangelo is now charged with filling the skates of Backes, who served as Blues captain since 2011. Though Pietrangelo has leadership experience, serving as an alternate captain since 2013, wearing the ‘C’ will come with heightened responsibility. Alexander Steen, the only other holdover from last year’s leadership group, retains his role as an alternate captain. The Blues rounded out the new core by adding an ‘A’ to the sweaters of Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladimir Tarasenko.
That Pietrangelo leapt the elder Steen for the captaincy is at least partially because the former is a better suited for the associated public relations demands. Additionally, though, the installation of the 26 year-old Pietrangelo as captain offers higher potential for long-term stability, as the organization moves toward a significant roster transformation. Speaking of which…
2. Out with the old
Restraining from the pursuit of dubious multi-year contracts for grinders like Backes and Brouwer indicates a shift in organizational philosophy for the Blues. In keeping with direction of the NHL, the Blues are prioritizing youth and speed over size and grit. It’s not a transition that happens overnight or without some bumps in the road, but it’s one that could benefit the franchise over the long haul.
St. Louis has plenty of veterans to guide this youth movement, but this will be the season we see demands on young players get ratcheted up a notch. Vladimir Tarasenko is a freakish goal scorer. Now comes enhanced pressure on his shoulders to perform at a superstar level on a more consistent basis. Along that track of consistency, Robby Fabbri (20 years old), Jaden Schwartz (24) and Colton Parayko (23) have flourished early in their careers. In previous seasons, though, they weren’t relied upon as central contributors—there were other guys around to pick up the slack while these youngsters found their way.
Now, the onus falls on the kids. How each of them bears that burden will heavily influence the course of the season for the Blues.
3. No longer in doubt: it’s Allen’s net
Jake Allen has been the presumptive goaltender of the future ever since the Blues traded away Ben Bishop back in 2012. Brian Elliott complicated matters for several seasons with his stellar play between the pipes, but that issue has been alleviated. By shipping Elliott up north during the draft in June, the Blues have cleared the way for Allen to own his opportunity as the clear-cut number one goalie.
Allen’s .920 save-percentage and 2.35 goals against average lagged behind Elliott’s last season. Clearly, the Blues feel his best has yet to come. The team showed no hesitation with their belief in Allen as the present and the future, locking him up for a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension over the summer.
The primary question: Can Jake Allen stay on the ice for 60+ games in a season? Already during the preseason, we saw Allen hampered by injury. The maintenance of his health is vitally important for ensuring the Blues don’t regret parting with Elliott a year sooner than necessary for a minimal return.
Should he stay healthy, the next question: Without anyone looking over his shoulder, can Allen live up to his potential and truly own the net for St. Louis? If fans are calling for Carter Hutton any time soon, it could be a sign that ‘Jake the Snake’ has been replaced by his alter-ego, ’Shakey Jakey.’ For the Blues to succeed, that can’t happen.
4. Coaching carousel
When Ken Hitchcock announced the 2016-2017 season would be his last as the head coach of the Blues, the organization moved quickly to fill the void before it ever really existed. Over the summer, St. Louis brought in Mike Yeo as a coach-in-waiting; he’ll serve as an assistant on Hitchcock’s staff this year before taking the reins himself as the head coach next season. The development of the working relationship between the often-curmudgeonly Hitchcock and his successor will be fascinating to follow.
For this season, Yeo’s primary responsible will be handling the Blues power play. But what happens if that goes poorly? From another angle, some former players have described Hitchcock as a difficult coach to play for; Does Yeo’s presence affect the way the team responds under Hitchcock’s leadership in his final season at the helm?
If the Blues season gets off to a rocky start, fodder surrounding the coaching situation will be plentiful.
5. Central division: bursting with contenders
Perhaps the most significant deterrent to St. Louis’ goal of returning to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season is the strength of the other teams in their division. It starts with the Blackhawks, who are perennial contenders. Though the Blues eliminated Chicago from the playoffs last season, that series has little bearing on the way the rivalry will unfold this time around.
Then there's Dallas, which won the division last year with a whopping 109 points. Though the Stars, like the Blues and Blackhawks, lost some key contributors from last year’s team, they still have several sharp-shooters capable of carrying them to a playoff berth.
The Predators, who finished fourth in the division last year, are a popular team with preseason prognosticators. Their offseason trade for P.K. Subban was widely praised. He's part of the reason Nashville has expectations of breaking into that top tier of the division this season. Minnesota also squeaked into the playoffs as the last spring, and will likely be in that mix once again in 2016-2017.
Even the bottom of the division is intriguing. Winnipeg is a young team on the rise, excited to unleash Patrik Laine, the second-overall pick from the 2016 draft. Then the Avalanche, viewed as the likely basement-dweller in the Central, won every game on their preseason schedule.
As was the case last year, it would not be surprising to see five of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference come out of the Central division. Most predictions have the Blues slotting around third or fourth in the Central, which would be enough to reach the playoffs as a wild card. Even that is no guarantee in what should be a compelling season of hockey in St. Louis.