Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010 Stanley Cup Semifinal (predictions)

1. San Jose v. 5. Detroit
This could be the most entertaining series of the conference semifinals as far as offensive creativity is concerned. Both teams have tremendous weapons at their disposal, which could make this a long series for both the Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov and the Wings' Jimmy Howard. Both goalies had their moments in quarterfinal victories over Colorado and Phoenix, respectively, but both also displayed the inconsistencies associated with goaltenders that can be playoff non-factors. With that being said, the talent will be all over the ice and matchups will be key. Will Detroit match Lidstrom and Rafalski against Thornton, Heatley and Marleau? Who does San Jose match against Zetterberg and Datsyuk? This series will come down to toughness, both physical and mental as well as special teams. I think the special teams will be pretty even but Detroit has a decided edge in the toughness department. What keeps this series close is Howard. He is a playoff rookie and playing in the desert is one thing, playing at the Shark Tank is another. Thornton-Heatley-Marleau were pretty quiet in the Sharks' series win over the Avs. I think they will wake up in this series but not enough to overcome Detroit's playoff experience. I don't think the Sharks' D-unit has what it takes to offset the likes of Holmstrom Bertuzzi and Franzen in front of the net and guys like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Filppula dazzling and being creative in the open ice.
RED WINGS in an upset, in 6

2. Chicago v. 3. Vancouver
A rematch of the Western Conference semi's from a season ago, one in which Chicago win in six games. This year, both teams are better and more mature. This will be a fun series to watch and one I'm looking forward to. If Vancouver is too fixated on revenge, the Blackhawks will blow them right out of the water. The Hawks are too talented to be fooling around with worrying about what happened last year. Both teams have explosive weapons up front, and as much as Blues fans hate to talk about them, the Sedin twins have elevated their games this season. They will be a load for Chicago's up-and-down defensive unit. The Canucks will have a decided edge in this series in goal, as I still don't trust Antti Niemi, and if not for Nashville's meltdown at the end of Game 5 in the quarterfinals, I'd be talking about the Predators here instead of Chicago. But Roberto Luongo had a complete meltdown last year in the playoffs against the Hawks, and until he proves otherwise, the meter is not tilted towards the Canucks here as one might think. An X-factor in this series: Mikael Samuelsson. He was fantastic against the Kings and is a nice compliment to the Sedins, Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler, who might have a bone to pick with Andrew Ladd. This series will also see lots of goals scored, I believe. As much as I want to say goaltending will decide this, I believe it will be special teams. The team that can convert more of their power play chances will rise to the occasion. So who wins these battles: Chicago PP v. Vancouver PK and Vancouver PP vs. Chicago PK? I like Chicago in both cases.

4. Pittsburgh v. 8. Montreal
How improbable was this matchup when the playoffs began? Well, thanks to Montreal's version of Jesus Christ (Jaroslav Halak) and the Canadiens' miraculous series win over the best team in the regular season, the Washington Capitals, Les Habitants now go from knocking out Alex The Great to Sid the Kid. The Canadiens were able to eliminate Ovechkin and the high-powered Caps. Now, it's on to Crosby and the equally dangerous Penguins. But there's one big difference here -- these are the defending Stanley Cup champs. Been there, done that. This series will be a greater test for Halak and the Canadiens. I thought Halak was a decided difference in goal in the series against the Caps, but Marc-Andre Fleury is MUCH better than anything Washington has. He's battle-tested and playoff-tested. So the goaltending situation is pretty much a wash for me. And as well as Halak was in winning three in a row against Washington, I need to see him do this consistently to be hailed among the greats, which he already has been in Montreal. And to me, that's unfair to guys like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. Halak has a long way to go to be compared with those greats. But on to this series, I can't see Montreal's dream run continue here. Crosby and Co. not only have talent but they are a much more physical team than Washington is. Pittsburgh's secondary scorers play large in these atmospheres, that's why they are the two-time defending Eastern Conference champs. I just think Montreal's undersized forwards will be no match for Pittsburgh's bruising, punishing group. Halak may steal a game or two; he'll have to steal four wins for Montreal to have a shot. No way. Crosby will show Ovechkin just how to put a team away when you have them down 3-1 in a series.

6. Boston v. 7. Philadelphia
The sixth-seeded Boston Bruins have home ice advantage in the second round of the playoffs. Did I just say that? Well, with the top three seeds in the wild and wacky East falling like dominoes, the Bruins, who upset third-seeded Buffalo will host the No. 7 Flyers, who upended Marty Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils. This will be a matchup of defensive teams that like to score off of counter attacks. Both proved without a reasonable doubt that they can defend the rush, they can defend 5-on-5, they can defend killing penalties and they can defend in front of their respective nets. But who saw Brian Boucher -- yes, Brian Boucher -- outdueling Brodeur? If you said yes, you can stop lying to yourself. But kudos to the journeyman for defying the critics -- myself included -- and stepping up when needed. But Boucher will go up against another upstart in these playoffs, much like Halak has been for Montreal. What can you say about Tuukka Rask? Not only does this guy supplant last season's Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas, but he outdueled Team USA's Ryan Miller in Round One. I like Boston's ability to defend and Rask only makes it doubly tough for those big, strong Flyer forwards to score goals. Philly needs a healthy Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne to have any chance at winning this series. Unfortunately, I just don't see that happening. The Flyers have some flaws which I think Boston can expose, unlike the Devils, who looked uninspired and played like a team that didn't care anymore. Forget about that with Boston. They're playing hungry, confident and healthy, which is why I like the Bruins not only because of Rask but because they are killing penalties and scoring on the power play.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

LET'S GO SHOPPING: Blues have big list to choose from

With plenty of goods to buy; where will
St. Louis go to fill missing gaps for 2010-11

ST. LOUIS -- Now that the current Blues roster has been analyzed, where do the Blues go for help from the outside?

Do they delve into the free agent market to fill those obvious needs going forward? Is that monetarily possible? What about trading from a strength of position to fill a void? And how about going out on a limb and working a contract offer for a restricted free agent?

Those are the glaring questions Blues President John Davidson, incoming general manager Doug Armstrong, vice president of hockey operations Al MacInnis and even outgoing general manager Larry Pleau face as this franchise moves forward under Dave Checketts' declaration that this will be an "ambitious" summer.

In this space, I will break down the Blues' payroll as it stands, where it is after the deductions of unrestricted free agents, where it will be in terms of a salary cap hit before and after resigning restricted free agents and what dollars are available to spend when doors open to Christmas in July for NHL free agents.

Blues' list of unrestricted free agents: Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Brad Winchester (UPDATE -- resigned with the Blues for one-year and $700,000 on July 2), Derek Armstrong, Carlo Colaiacovo (UPDATE -- resigned with the Blues for two years and $4.25 million on July 6), Darryl Sydor, Mike Weaver, Tyson Strachan (Group VI) (UPDATE -- signed a one-year, two-way contract on July 15) and Chris Mason (UPDATE -- signed a two-year, $3,7 million deal with the Atlanta Thrashers July 1).

Blues' list of restricted free agents: Alex Steen (UPDATE -- signed four-year extension for $13.45 million on July 1), David Perron (UPDATE -- signed two-year extension for $4.3 million on July 21), D.J. King (UPDATE -- King signed a two-year extension on July 28, then was dealt to the Washington Capitals for LW prospect Stefan Della Rovere), Cam Janssen (UPDATE -- signed a one-year, $600,000 contract on July 8), Matt D'Agostini (UPDATE -- signed a one-year, $550,000 contract), Erik Johnson (UPDATE -- signed for two years, $5.2 million on Aug. 2) and Jonas Junland (playing in Sweden for 2010-11 season).

All players will receive qualifying offers, which means a team has negotiating rights with that player. Players who earned less than $660,000 in the previous season must be offered 110 percent of last season's salary. Players making up to $1 million must be offered 105 percent. Players making over $1 million must be offered 100 percent. If the qualifying offer is not made, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. If the player rejects a qualifying offer, he remains a restricted free agent.

Players that made less than $660,000: King, Janssen, D'Agostini and Junland. Players making up to $1 million: Perron and Johnson. Players making over $1 million: Steen.

The Blues now have the following players signed with one-way contracts for 2010-11: Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes, David Backes, Jay McClement, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, B.J. Crombeen, Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, Ty Conklin, Jaroslav Halak, Matt D'Agostini, Alex Steen, David Perron, Cam Janssen and Erik Johnson.

Players with two-way contracts: Lars Eller, Alex Pietrangelo and Ben Bishop. * Eller was traded to the Montreal Canadiens on June 17.

Once the Blues tender qualifying offers to all their RFA's, their cap will kick up to approximately $35 million. And once they sign some of these RFA's to long-term deals, it's estimated the cap payroll will be $42 million.

The NHL salary cap is expected to jump up from $56.9 million to $57.8, a $900,000 increase, which means the Blues will have roughly $15-16 million to spend up to the cap, which I doubt they will do despite a slight increase in season tickets for next season.
* (UPDATE) -- It was announced on June 22 that the NHL salary cap would increase roughly $2 million to $59.4 million.

So without further ado, there is an enormous list of UFA's, RFA's and players I feel would benefit this team moving forward through trade.

It's highly unlikely Davidson would throw his hat into the ring and make noise with an offer sheet to a restricted free agent, but there is one guy out there who I'd think the Blues could really benefit from making a contract offer to. More on that player in a bit.

Here is my list of players who could help the Blues moving forward. I'll list those that are RFA's but remember, it's highly unlikely the Blues will go there, especially since these types of deals are pretty scarce these days. The Blues wouldn't want anyone giving them any payback with ridiculous offers to players such as Johnson, Perron, Oshie, Berglund, etc. But this list will also include what UFA's are available and potential trade targets.

* (UPDATE) -- The Blues will not be looking for any goalie on these lists after acquiring Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens on June 17 for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
RFA list:

RW Bobby Ryan, Anaheim: If there's one player that I'd like to see Davidson go out on a limb and make an offer to, this would be the guy. Why? At 22, I believe Ryan -- already a USA Olympian -- is destined to be a 100-point player in this league. He had 35 goals and 29 assists last season, 31 goals and 26 assists his first full season in 2008-09. The No. 2 overall pick in 2005 has a combination of size (6-foot-1, 218-pounds) and skill that all teams seem to be constantly after, but Ryan's forte is his ability to turn a scoring play into a scoring chance. How many players on this Blues roster can do that on a consistent basis? Ryan combines soft hands and excellent vision and poise. He also excels at protecting the puck with his large frame and cycling along the boards. Experts say Ryan's skating ability is a hindrance and that limits both his play away from the puck and his ability to be a consistent physical presence. I say that's bogus. This guy is the complete package that will continue to get better who made $1.875 million in salary and bonuses this season. I would have no problem making a splash here with a 8-10 year, $5-7 million per year contract; making it something the Ducks would have a hard time matching. A source did tell me that they expected the Ducks to resign Ryan to a long-term contract. They'd be crazy not to, but if this gets to July 1st, you never know. This is probably a fantasy signing, but it's nice to reach for the stars if you're a Blues fan, isn't it?
* (UPDATE) - Stop dreaming Blues fans. Ryan finally worked out a deal with the Ducks on Sept. 12, agreeing to a five-year, $25.5 million contract. This should come as a shock to nobody. The dream was fun while it lasted though, wasn't it?

D James Wisniewski, Anaheim: The 26-year-old has plenty of offensive capability, including the skills to play the point on the power play and is aggressive by nature. Skates very well and is at his best in an up-tempo system and would be an upgrade over Colaiacovo. But he made $2.75 million a season ago and would want $3-4 million per season.
* (UPDATE) -- Wisniewski signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with the Ducks on July 30, then was traded to the New York Islanders for a conditional third-round pick. It's apparent that the Ducks want a more experienced veteran (Kaberle?) to play alongside first-round pick Cam Fowler. So Wisniewski, who will be a nice upgrade on Long Island, was the odd man out in SoCa.

LW Clarke MacArthur, Atlanta: A relative unknown to the hockey world, but at 24, he offers the versatility of playing either left wing or center with good offensive instincts and NHL speed. He tallied 16 goals and 35 points splitting time with Buffalo and Atlanta. He only made $1.4 million last season, so this would be an inexpensive pickup.
* (UPDATE) -- The Thrashers failed to give MacArthur a qualifying offer, thus making him an unrestricted free agent.

RW Niklas Bergfors, Atlanta: Part of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade with New Jersey, the 22-year-old had 21 goals and 44 points in his first full season in the NHL. He's very good with the puck and has tremendous offensive instincts. He made $500,000 and is inexpensive now, but I think the Thrashers will keep this budding star and he'll get a nice raise.
* (UPDATE) -- Bergfors, part of the big trade that sent Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey, agreed a a one-year, $900,000 on Sept. 12 with the Thrashers. Atlanta and its fans will enjoy this player for years to come.

RW Blake Wheeler, Boston: Tallied 18 goals and 38 points with the Bruins this past season. At 22, he has tremendous size for the wing position, as well as good wheels for a big guy. Wheeler controls the puck effectively in the corners and can play on either wing, who possesses a good scoring touch. He made $875,000 last season.
* (UPDATE) -- Wheeler was awarded $2.2 million in arbitration on July 29, and the Bruins accepted the offer on the one-year deal on July 30. Nice raise for a player who has plenty of upside and will only get better.

RW Chris Stewart, Colorado: Davidson ought to go after this guy just to keep him from torching the Blues. But this guy has tremendous size and strength and is at his best when working the corners of the ice. Stewart, 22, is physical and plays with a warrior's mentality who can score goals. A true power forward. He made $850,000 after scoring 28 goals and 64 points. He'll cash in big time.
* (UPDATE) -- Stewart, who made a living off the Blues last year, resigned at two years, $5.75 million on Sept. 3.

C Peter Mueller, Colorado: The Blues were quietly pursuing the 22-year-old from Bloomington, Minn., which is the same hometown as Erik Johnson, before he was traded to Colorado. Has impressive size, hand/eye coordination and reach. Is at his best with the puck on his blade. Can score goals and also set up teammates with equal aplomb. Is versatile enough to play all three forward positions. Made $850,000 last season and thrived after a change of scenery.
* (UPDATE) -- Mueller gets his deal done with the Avalanche on Sept. 10 for two years and $4 million in salary.

LW James Neal, Dallas: This player broke out for the Stars with 27 goals and 55 points by shooting the puck and not being afraid to do it. He's a very versatile player who boasts very good size, which he uses effectively in the corners and in front of the net. Made $720,000 a season ago but I don't see Dallas letting him go.

LW Guillaume Latendresse, Minnesota: talk about a change of scenery doing him good. The 22-year-old broke loose after his trade to the Wild from hometown Montreal and finished 2009-10 with 27 goals and 40 points. He has a nice combination of size and offensive instincts and is equally strong scoring goals or setting up teammates. Displays solid hitting ability. Made $803,000 last season.
* (UPDATE) -- It was reported on June 30 that Latendresse resigned with the Wild, two years and $5 million. That's quite a bargain for a guy that broke out with a 27-goal season and is poised to become a 30-goal scorer in the very near future.

G Josh Harding, Minnesota: The only reason Harding, 25, is not starting in the league right now is because he plays behind Niklas Backstrom. I think he has No. 1 potential because he has an excellent frame and is not a streaky goaltender. He was 9-12-0 last season but made $1.1 million a year ago should the Blues not resign Chris Mason.
* (UPDATE) -- Harding, who was reportedly offered as trade bait to the Blues, with Lars Eller at the topic of discussion, resigned with the Wild to back up Niklas Backstrom for one more season with a base salary of $1.2 million.

G Carey Price, Montreal: Price, 22, needs to get out of Montreal in order to display his full value. He's another one that's destined to be a No. 1 goalie. He has always played under control for a young guy and covers a ton of the net. Jaroslav Halak is the guy the Canadiens are going with as their top guy, so Price will look to move on. At $850,000, the Blues could get Price in a trade and have an inexpensive No. 1 goalie.
* (UPDATE) -- Price finally came to an agreement with the Canadiens, signing on the dotted line for two years and a total of $5.5 million in salary. With the trade of Halak, this is HIS team now. He better make the most of it, cause he'll be under that air-tight microscope of Montreal media and fans alike.

RW Patric Hornqvist, Nashville: Hornqvist, 23, just scored 30 goals and added 51 points, and to think, he was a seventh round pick in 2005. He's a terrific two-way player but thrives in front of the opposition's net and can take a hit doing so. At $620,000, it's safe to say a hefty contract is in his future.
* (UPDATE) -- The Predators for one of their rising stars under contract for three years and $9.25 million on Aug. 24.

D Dan Girardi, N.Y. Rangers: At 6-2, 210 pounds, the 25-year-old offers a rare combination of steady play in his end and better-than-average offensive skills. He did make $1.6 million a season ago and may be out of the Blues' price range but is tempting to look at.
* (UPDATE) -- Girardi avoided arbitration and signed a long-term contract with the Rangers on July 8, four years and $13.3 million. Girardi will average $3.325 million per season. The Rangers were wise to lock up this budding star.

D Marc Staal, N.Y. Rangers: Staal, 23, is as good one-on-one as there is in his own end. At 6-4, 209, he's not afraid to use his long reach and skates very well. Produced eight goals and 27 points. Made $765,000 last season.
* (UPDATE) -- The Rangers and Staal finally came to terms on a new deal, a five-year, $19.875 million contract on Sept. 15, just days before the start of training camp. This was a deal the Rangers simply could not afford to cough up. This is a franchise-type player.

LW Wojtek Wolski, Phoenix: Here's another guy who benefited from a change of scenery, as Wolski, 24, was dealt for Mueller at the trade deadline. After tallying 23 goals and 65 points, this would be a nice upgrade should the Blues go here because of Wolski's excellent scoring instincts and tremendous puck-handling skills who can also handle the physicality because of his size (6-3, 210). He did make $3.1 million this past season and is in line for a hefty raise.
* (UPDATE) -- Wolski will be staying put in the desert after agreeing to a two-year, $7.6 million extension with the Coyotes on June 28. Not quite the raise I figured he'd get after making $3.1 million last season, so a nice keep for Phoenix.

C Joe Pavelski, San Jose: Here's a guy I love because of his ability to play with or without the puck. Pavelski, 25, would be a perfect fit with the Blues because of his playmaking abilities, quickness and shiftiness. He had 25 goals and 51 points in 67 games and is inexpensive after making $1.725 million this past season.
* (UPDATE) -- A no-brainer here, the Sharks wisely locked up Pavelski on June 24 with a four-year, $16-million deal to keep the centerman in a San Jose sweater.

RW Devin Setoguchi, San Jose: This is another Andy McDonald with a bit more size (6-0, 200). The 23-year-old has lightning quick speed and his goal-scoring instincts are coming to light after knocking in 20 this past season. Made $765,000 this past season, and the Sharks will more than likely keep him in the fold.
* (UPDATE) -- Setoguchi was awarded $1.8 million on a one-year contract on July 31. More than doubles his salary from a season ago. His upside is very promising.

C Nicklas Backstrom, Washington: OK, I know this one will NEVER happen, but can you imagine the Blues with two of the top four picks from 2006 (Johnson was No. 1, Backstrom No. 4)? How does 33 goals and 101 points sound from a 22-year-old that displays outstanding patience with the puck, playmaking acumen and is mature beyond his years. If the Capitals were to allow Backstrom to get away, they need to be tested for severe stupidity. Not bad numbers for $850,000, are they? Wow!
* (UPDATE) -- Well, Washington was predictably wise here, as the Capitals announced on May 17 that they signed Backstrom to a 10-year, $67 million extension that will keep the Swedish center in Washington through the 2020 season.

LW Tomas Fleischmann, Washington: This is a very smooth player, and at 23, will only get better after a 23-goal, 51-point season with the Caps. He understands where the puck needs to go and has above average setup ability. Would make a nice fit for the Blues, and at $725,000, would not break the bank.
* (UPDATE) -- Fleischmann and the Capitals avoided salary arbitration after agreeing to a one-year, $2.6 million deal on July 27).

Now we can move out of dream-land and into the list for unrestricted free agents, and guys who can realistically fill in the gaps that could make this team better.

I will say the Blues will not be involved with some of the higher-end UFA's, simply because they'll be involved in bidding wars but I will include them anyway. If they would, I'd be very surprised. However, I will stress the more cost-efficient players and will rank them as HIGH, MEDIUM or LOW regarding need and the opportunity to acquire such a player.

UFA list :
RW Colby Armstrong, Atlanta: Here is a player that can hit the 20-plus goal mark despite only 15 goals in 2009-10. At 27, he's getting into his prime years who works very hard and is a defensive-savvy player, one who could fit into Davis Payne's system. A former No. 1 pick in 2001 by Pittsburgh, Armstrong made $2.4 million last season, so a three-year, $9 million contract could get this one done. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Armstrong is off the board, signing a three-year, $9 million deal (wow, did I call that contract?) with the Toronto Maple Leafs. A nice pick-up for the Leafs, certainly. Gives them instant character and some scoring punch.

LW Maxim Afinogenov, Atlanta: Signed with the Thrashers for one season at $800,000 and is said to play out of control, but his speed and quick release makes him an attractive -- and inexpensive -- addition. The 30-year-old has four seasons of 20 or more goals, including 24 goals and 67 points this past season. He can be had for 2-3 years at $1-2 million per season. No more, though. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- I'm shocked the lack of NHL interest Afinogenov garnered this summer. And after what the Russian rocket deemed insufficient offers from the league here, he will take his game back home after reportedly signing a five-year contract to play for SKA St. Petersburg, where he will join former NHLers Alexei Yashin, Sergei Zubov, former Blue Petr Cajanek, Nils Ekman, Alexander Korolyuk, Sergei Brylin and Robert Esche. He joins Evgeni Nakakov, who signed a four-year contract earlier this summer.

LW Raffi Torres, Buffalo: Torres is strong and can play with the puck in those hard areas in the corner that has a knack for scoring big goals; a Keith Tkachuk clone. He had a 27-goal season with Edmonton in 2005-06 and tallied 19 this past season with Columbus and Buffalo. I'm not sure he's worth more than the $2.75 million he earned this past season, but anything around there might be worth looking into. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Torres last long into the free agency period before the Canucks finally bit and signed the well-traveled forward to a one-year, $1 million contract on Aug. 25.

RW Marek Svatos, Colorado: A change of scenery might do this 27-year-old Slovak a world of good. Here's a guy that scored 32 goals in 2005-06 and 26 in 2007-08 but I believe was grossly misused this past season. He has a wealth of goal-scoring talent because of a hard, accurate shot and quality finishing skills. Sign him to a 1-2 year deal at, say, $4 million and tell him to go and earn a big contract. I think it would be a worthy investment. He made $2.35 million this past season. MEDIUM

G Marty Turco, Dallas: I know, I can already see the red flags, but I only say this because of the Doug Armstrong factor. Armstrong signed Turco in Dallas and if the Blues fail to sign Mason, the 34-year-old might be an alternative but NOT for the $5.4 million he made last season. I might look at this for two years and $7 million if Turco is willing to take a pay cut, which he will likely have to. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Turco was shut out early on in free agency but in the end, he may not have picked up the dollars he wanted but landed with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks after signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract on July 30. The Hawks, who have done nothing but purge their roster because of cap-related issues, made the 35-year-old Turco their No. 1 netminder after letting go of Antti Niemi, who was awarded $2.75 million in arbitration.

D Brett Lebda, Detroit: If the Blues choose not to bring back Mike Weaver, Lebda, 28, might not be a bad option. He moves the puck well and makes good, solid passes up the ice and I believe has untapped offensive upside to his game. He is small (5-9, 185) but makes up for it in speed. He made $850,000 and would not cost much for the Blues to look into this. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- Lebda is moving north after agreeing to a two-year, $2.9 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 7. A nice addition to a Leafs lineup that is getting quite the makeover from GM Brian Burke. I really would have liked to see the Blues get in on this one, especially at that price.

LW Alexander Frolov, Los Angeles: This is another player I believe was misused by the Kings, and even so, still scored 19 goals and added 51 points last season. He's been accused of not bringing his 'A' game, but I like that he makes an impact at both ends of the ice and maintains puck possession in tight areas. He has five 20-plus goal seasons, including two with 30 or more and he's still only 27. I wouldn't go $4 million per season -- which he made last season -- but if he'd come for $3-3.5 per year for three seasons, it might be worth the investment. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- Frolov finally found a suitor when he agreed to a one-year, $3-million contract with the New York Rangers on July 27. This could work out well for both parties, as Frolov could cash on next summer's UFA period if he has a solid year with the Blueshirts, who could also benefit from Frolov's skill level to go along with Marian Gaborik. A terrific value signing for the NYR.

C Tomas Plekanec, Montreal: This player should be high on the Blues' radar. He's 27, and already has four seasons of 20-plus goals and set career highs in assists (45) and points (70) last season. He is the complete package for the Blues: excellent speed, hockey sense and playmaking instincts. He's very polished in the defensive zone and in the face-off circle, which is what the Blues need -- and excels on the penalty kill. Made $2.75 million last season, but I rate him very, very high. This guy may be worth a 4-5 year contract at $3.5-4 million per season. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- Plekanec will not hit the free agent market after signing a 6-year, $30 million deal to remain in Montreal on June 22. A very wise move here.

D Dan Hamhuis, Nashville: Should the Blues trade one of their top guys, this is a player that can immediately fill a void as a top 2-3 defenseman because of his ability to log lots of minutes and play a sound game in his own end. Hamhuis is a solid puck-moving D-man and is only 27. He made $2.5 million a season ago and could command a nice hefty contract this summer. This would be a nice addition. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- Hamhuis, a British Columbia native, took less money on the open market and signed for six years and $4.5 million per season with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1. Hamhuis was traded twice (to Philadelphia and then to Pittsburgh) last month but neither team could work out a deal for the highly sought after defenseman.

G Dan Ellis, Nashville: The Blues went to Nashville to fill a void for a No. 1 goaltender once, could they do it again? Perhaps. Ellis, 29, lost his job to Pekka Rinne, but lots of people would lose their jobs to that guy. Ellis is inexpensive ($2 million) and still has good years left in him. This is a guy that makes the most of size (6-0, 188) and does not quit on plays. Would you pay him anywhere from $2-3 million a season to be your No. 1? I'd say chances are slim but not out of the question. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Ellis has his rights traded to Montreal, but the 29-year-old went into free agency and wasted little time, signing a two-year, $3 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He will challenge Mike Smith for the No. 1 job.

RW Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey: Well, well. Finally ... the granddaddy of them all! I'm not even going to describe his assets. He's awesome, plain and simple. The guy is only 27 and is among the elite players in the game. Speed, quickness, tremendous shot, superior skating ability, dominates one-on-one. ... You name it, he's got it. But the Blues are not going to get into a bidding war where Kovalchuk is going to command 10-plus years and $10-plus million on a deal. If Dave Checketts is ready to gamble his investment with this hockey club, this is the way to go. I just can't see it happening. Sorry to burst your bubble, folks. HIGH -- talent; LOW -- cost
* (UPDATE) -- Finally! It's over! The Kovalchuk saga has ended after one contract was turned down by the league. The talented Russian and the Devils get a deal done together, a 15-year, $100 million deal on Sept. 3 after the league initially rejected a 17-year, $103-million contract. Whew! I'm glad this one is over, cause this contract opened up a big problem the league has in the loopholes and how teams look to circumvent the salary cap.

D Paul Martin, New Jersey: A broken left arm limited the 29-year-old to 22 games and kept him off the US Olympic squad. But here is a guy who is very mobile and extremely low-maintenance. He can log huge minutes, has sound offensive instincts and good size (6-1, 200). But Martin's best attribute is he owns good habits, which add to his value. Might be a bit pricey after making $4.5 million last season but worth looking at. I'd say the chances here are below average. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Martin solidifies the Pittsburgh D-corps after inking a five-year, $25 million contract on July 1 with the Penguins. I thought this might be pricey for the Blues unless they moved some salary, and at $5 million per season, the Blues were never really in the running here.

G Martin Biron, N.Y. Islanders: If all the guys on the UFA/RFA market, I would go this route if the Blues turn the page on Mason. Biron, 32, has a solid 2.63 goals-against average and .910 save percentage for his career. I've always liked him because he's extremely poised and rarely gets rattled after giving up a bad goal. He has tremendous agility and has never had confidence issues, which is a plus for a netminder. He signed a $1.4 million deal with the Islanders this past season and I think the Blues could have him for 3-4 years at $2-3 million per season. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- Biron stays in New York but not the Islanders. He was the first UFA to sign on July 1, signing a two-year, $1.75 million contract with the Rangers to back up Henrik Lundqvist. I still think this guy can be a No. 1 and at that salary, wow! Some may disagree, but I stand by my feeling on this guy. Biron will be able to give Lundqvist night off or two.

C Matthew Lombardi, Phoenix: How often can you sign a tremendous penalty killer who has offensive upside (19 goals, 34 assists this past season)? Not often. But here is that rare mix that also is good in the faceoff circle that could be an attractive option for the Blues. And at 28 who only made $2.35 million this past season makes him a viable option. He might be worth that 3-4 year, $3-3.5 million per season guy. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Lombardi found a new home in Music City and will replace the recently traded Jason Arnott, after signing a three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Nashville Predators. This is a nice move for the Preds, who will save $1 million after all the transactions involving Arnott when all is said and done. Lombardi is a real character guy who should blend in well with the Predators.

RW Lee Stempniak, Phoenix: Could we see a reunion of sorts? The best thing that happened to Stempniak, 27, was his trade from Toronto to Phoenix. All he did was score 14 of his 28 goals in only 18 games with the 'Yotes. You all know what kind of player Stempniak is, and he falls into that class under Kovalchuk and San Jose's Patrick Marleau. At $3.5 million, he'll be seeking a salary in the $4-5 million minimum range for 5-6 seasons and I can't see the Blues going there. Sorry. Staying in the desert might be best here. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Stempniak surprisingly did not get much attention on the free agent market, so he regisned with the Coyotes: two years, $3.5 million in salary, which is a drop of his previous salary despite a 28-goal season. A bit of a surprise here.

D Derek Morris, Phoenix: At 31, might be an option because of his ability to get off good shots from the point who possesses top-end skills. Plays very strong and aggressive in both ends of the ice. The $3.3 million salary might scare the Blues off, but the upside could be worth a look here. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Morris stays where he wants to, resigning with the Coyotes for four years and $11 million ($2.75 million per season) after the 'Yotes lose Michalek to the Penguins on July 1.

LW Alexei Ponikarovsky, Pittsburgh: This is a good two-way player that possesses a knack for scoring (21 goals, 50 points last season). He's only 30 and at 6-4, 230, he is a strong player in the corners and in front of the net. He has good size and strength and has five seasons of 20-plus goals. Only made $2.5 million so this is an attractive option that could fill an obvious void on a team that likes two-way players. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Ponikarovsky finally found himself a home by agreeing to a one-year, $3-million contract with the Los Angeles Kings on July 27. After missing out on Kovalchuk and Frolov, the Kings finally landed themselves a nice scoring winger who needed a change of scenery after a less-than-stellar time in Pittsburgh after his trade to the Penguins from Toronto at last season's trade deadline.

D Jordan Leopold, Pittsburgh: I've always liked this guy's game going back to his days with Calgary. At 29, he logs sizeable minutes who can move the puck out of danger areas who has a good transition game. He rarely gets caught out of position, so coverage areas are never an issue. This would be a nice signing by the Blues and one I endorse after tallying a career-high 11 goals this season. At $1.75 million, the Blues will get their bang for the buck. HIGH
* (UPDATE) -- A nice pickup for the Buffalo Sabres after the Sabres lost blueliners Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman on July 1. Leopold signed a three-year contract for roughly $9 million. A nice addition for the Sabres.

LW Patrick Marleau, San Jose: If Kovalchuk is the bride, Marleau, 30, is the bridesmaid. This is a pure goal scorer with terrific speed who will cash in with a big contract this summer after a career best 44-goal, 39-assist season. But how good can he be without Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley as linemates? That's to be seen, but a guy that's scored 28 goals or more in six of the last seven seasons is worth looking into. He made $6.3 million this past season and will get into that $8-10 million range as well. Blues will be out of the loop here. HIGH -- talent; LOW -- cost
* (UPDATE) -- In what can be deemed a bit of a surprise, Marleau will not hit the free agent market after agreeing to resign with the Sharks on June 24. Along with Kovalchuk, Marleau was one of the two most sought-after forwards that would have become an unrestricted free agent but chose to stay with the Sharks, agreeing to a four-year, $27.6 million contract.

G Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose: This is probably another red flag for fans and I agree. But he is one of the premier names as far as goaltenders is concerned that will hit the market. But the numbers don't lie despite playing for an elite team: 131 wins in the last three seasons, including 44 this season. He has a career 2.39 GAA and .912 save percentage. But Nabokov, 34, is getting up there in age and realizes this could be his final big-pay contract, and after making $6 million this season, the Blues likely won't touch this. LOW
* ( UPDATE) -- Nabakov is taking his skills overseas after agreeing to a four-year, $24 million contract to play for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL. Nobody in the NHL was going to come close to giving Nabakov the $6 million he made last year in San Jose, where he spent the last nine seasons.

LW Alex Tanguay, Tampa Bay: I don't know why, but I've always been enamored with this player. He scored 20 or more goals in four straight seasons and five of six from 2000-2007. Tanguay, 30, is gifted, has good speed, is versatile, is good one-on-one and makes terrific passes. He's a little smallish at 6-1, 189 but makes up for it in talent. Made $2.5 million this season, but I wouldn't go more than that for 2-3 years. Could be a nice signing in the right system. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Tanguay goes back to Calgary, signing a one-year, $1.7 million deal with a no-trade clause on July 1. Takes a pay-cut from his salary a season ago in Tampa Bay.

RW Pavol Demitra, Vancouver: Another former Blue who will be looking for work. At 35, his best days are clearly behind him but if the Blues turn the page on Kariya, he could be a stop-gap for a 2-3 seasons that can still fill a scoring need. I would not pay him the $4 million he made this year, but if he would like to come full circle, this could work for around $2-2.5 million per season. LOW
* (UPDATE) -- Demitra, with some rumors swirling that a return to the Blues was possible, squashed those inklings after signing a one-year contract to play with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL on July 15. It seems that his NHL career has come to an end.

D Joe Corvo, Washington: After 14 goals and 38 points with Carolina two seasons ago, this defenseman slipped to 6 goals and 18 points this year. But Corvo, 32, still has a good scoring acumen who knows how to run a power play. He does play a risky game, which unfortunately involves turnovers, but these are the risks of an offensive-minded player. He made $2.75 million a season ago and if he would go for $3 million per season for 2-3 years, the Blues might be interested. MEDIUM
* (UPDATE) -- Corvo is going Back to the Future, agreeing to a two-year, $4.5 million contract to return to Carolina on July 7. This is a nice signing, since he actually took a pay cut over his salary a season ago. He would have been a nice addition to anyone's blue line (Blues) with offensive prowess. Good move on Carolina's part.

As Davidson eluded to be recently, trades can be tricky and done with the intent of trading from a position of strength to improve an area of weakness. I don't have a number of players on the list here, but here are a few that I find attractive and how they can benefit from coming to St. Louis:

RW Jarome Iginla, Calgary: Yes, 'Iggy' still has three years and $21 million left on his contract, but if the Blues are going to make a above-average splash, this could be somewhere to look. Iginla is 32 but his numbers (32 goals, 69 points) would have been tops on this team. He is two seasons removed from 50 goals and 98 points. And he's played in all 82 games four of the last five seasons. Calgary may want to move their captain and totally revamp their squad, and the Blues could use Iginla's speed, strength and very lethal shot. And he drops the gloves when necessary.

D Tomas Kaberle, Toronto: The 32-year-old Czech republic native has one year and $4.25 million left on his contract and it's been no secret that the Leafs would love to get something in return before he becomes a UFA in the summer of 2011. Kaberle could fill a need for the Blues with his ability to join the attack on the rush. He's an excellent skater and possesses good hockey smarts and makes sound passes. For this to work with the Blues, they'd obviously want to lock Kaberle up long-term since Davidson and Co. don't like to take risks on losing someone if they have to deal away assets. Toronto will want a D-man or two in return and the Blues can afford to deal from this position because it's their strength.

Well folks, this wraps up my very opinionated version of what the Blues will be faced with this summer. Remember, these are only my opinions and don't mean the Blues will follow this as if it were a blueprint.

It should be an interesting summer, one I'm sure Blues fans will keep a very close eye and ear on. Because remember, Checketts says it will be an ambitious summer.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

LOOKING AHEAD: Blues player capsules

Which players will/will not return, those
that should/should not return in 2010-11

ST. LOUIS -- When the final whistle blew on April 10, it marked the end of a disappointing Blues season where a follow-up on a postseason berth was widely expected.

Regression was never in question.

And while the Blues fell short of those expectations at the end of the day, it also began the start of the retooling process for 2010-11.

So the Blues, who were 40-32-10 (90 points) and five points out of the rugged Western Conference playoff race, must begin the process of figuring out how to move forward, not backwards.

So what does this team need? What must they add? What will be subtracted from the roster? Many questions are on the surface.

We'll try and provide some answers with analytical points of view.

First, here is a breakdown of the 2009-10 Blues players, who I believe will stay, who will go and those returning, what they must do in order to elevate their respective game to the next level:

C Andy McDonald --
He obviously will be back after leading the Blues with in points (57) and tied for the team lead in goals (24). McDonald, 32, will be in the second year of a four-year, $18.8 million deal. My take on McDonald is he has been misused much of the last two seasons. Simply stated, McDonald is not a winger, he is a center and must return to his natural position. What I noticed most about McDonald is he gets overworked on the puck along the boards and in the corners. McDonald is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. He's not Keith Tkachuk or David Backes. Yes, I believe McDonald must build a bit more strength this off-season, but what is his best asset -- speed! He is at his best playing in open ice and creating plays for his linemates. McDonald is a playmaker, plain and simple. I hope Davis Payne sees this.

LW Paul Kariya -- At the beginning of the season, I would have said this would have been Kariya's last season of a disastrous three-year, $18-million contract. From a PR standpoint, the Blues got everything they wanted out of this because a high-profile player drummed up business and put people back in the seats. On the ice, this contract was ... well, do I really need to spell this out? But I can see Kariya, 35, back in a Blues uniform next season. Kariya, who missed virtually all of 2008-09 after two hip surgeries, finally was refreshed and playing with relentless vigor and passion towards the end of last season to finish with 18 goals and 43 points in 75 games. Kariya has made it clear he loves St. Louis and would welcome a return, but the Blues are mum on whether they will extend a contract offer to him. There is also the possibility Kariya retires. That's yet to be determined. Look, the market for premier scorers will be scarce and those that will be out there are going to be expensive. If Kariya would take a one- or two-year deal at, say, $2 million per season, I believe this can be a marriage that works out. After all, shouldn't the player show a little compassion for the franchise that stuck with him through 36 goals and 123 points for three seasons?

RW Brad Boyes -- He will be back, with two years and $8.5 million remaining on his contract. But this one is real easy to summarize -- Boyes, 28, has nowhere to go but up. After seasons of 43 goals in 2007-08 and 33 in 2008-09, Boyes had a disastrous season with 14 goals and 42 points despite playing in all 82 games. His iron man streak continues to grow (409 games) but Boyes gets paid to produce points (more specifically, goals), and that was a far cry this past season. I can't tell you how many times I watched games last season and was just waiting for Boyes' one-timer from that left circle. It was virtually non-existent or he was either breaking his stick or fanning on his shots. If the Blues are looking to add scoring punch, look no further than some of the guys they have on their roster. Boyes would be right at the top of the line. Boyes, who will be getting married this summer, must go into this off-season, work hard at getting his timing down again and work on getting to those prime scoring areas. Practice good habits. But I believe timing issues hurt his game immensely. He would show flashes from time to time and have fans believing he would be on the brink but then go right back into a funk again. I believe Boyes has to get back to 30 goals in order for the Blues to get maximum production from him. Forty-plus is asking for much. But if Boyes can get back to 30 goals, the Blues would be thrilled.

RW David Backes -- Backes will most certainly be back and with good reason. This guy exemplifies what an NHL captain is and should be, and I think subliminally, there was a passing of the guard of that when Tkachuk retired. But I can say the same things about Backes, 25, that I said about McDonald: I think the guy is playing out of position. This is a power forward that is suited to crashing and banging on the wing with his big 6-3, 225-pound body. I think Backes was adequate playing down the middle, I believe his goal production (17) dropped from a year ago (31) as a result. But Backes did collect a career-high 31 assists this past season. I don't think Backes' point production was as noticeable as some others because of the passion and energy he plays with. It's unparalleled. This guy brings it on his sleeve each and every night and other than getting him back to his natural position. It's duly noted that Backes is a slow starter, and he will take some more time this summer to allow his body to rest and heal from the grueling schedule. Backes was part of the US Olympic team in Vancouver and turned down an opportunity to play for the US team at the World Championships. I believe once Backes gets back to playing wing, he can clog space and create with his above-average speed for his size. I believe his goal production will increase. And this will one day be the Blues' captain.

LW Keith Tkachuk -- Tkachuk, 38, will not don the Bluenote next season, but it will be by choice because 'Big Walt' announced his retirement this season. A lot was made of Tkachuk's career, which began in 1991 with the Winnipeg Jets and has culminated into a Hall of Fame career with the Blues. A left winger by trade, Tkachuk did whatever was asked of him as his career came to the end, even moving into the middle when Andy Murray asked him to. As a media member who covered Tkachuk from the moment he arrived in St. Louis in 2001, I always appreciated his honesty and candor. He can be intimidating when first meeting him, but as his teammates will attest to, Tkachuk was the consummate leader and teammate. The biggest disappointment to a brilliant 18-year career is there will be no Stanley Cup title to his playing resume. But 'Walt' couldn't have said it better in his final game to the fans: believe in the process. Always the professional, filled with class.

LW Alex Steen -- Steen is a restricted free agent, but he most certainly will be back next season. Not only will the Blues tender him a contract, but they should reward him with a nice extension in the three-, four-year range and around $3 million or so after making $1.7 million last season. Steen, 26, was arguably the Blues' best player this past season and not just by the numbers he put up, but his two-way game was scintillating. This guy killed penalties, he anchored the point on what was at times a stagnant power play, he played on a line that would often be asked to shut down the oppositions top line and oh yeah, he tied for the team lead in goals with 24 and set a career-high in points with 47. All I think Steen needs is for the Blues to add him in a more prominent scoring role. I know, it's hard to take him away from his defensive duties since he plays them so well, but at 26, I think this guy's career is starting to blossom. He is becoming a Blues fan favorite and with good reason. Fret not, Blues fans, because Steen isn't going anywhere. At least he shouldn't be. This ought to be one of the Blues' top priorities, and I believe it will be.

C Jay McClement -- McClement will be back as the Blues' top-checking center next season, the second of a three-year contract. I know McClement, 27, goes unnoticed a lot because of his role, but folks, this guy plays his role as close to perfection as can be. The Blues' second round pick of 2001 has been asked to shut down the top lines since his arrival in the NHL in 2005, and he's done it as well as can be expected. McClement tallied 11 goals and 29 points this past season, but that's about what you're going to get out of him. McClement is going to continue to play the third line center position, play important minutes on the penalty kill, which was tops in the league this year, and pop in the occasional goal or assist. McClement has scored 23 goals the last two seasons, so maybe his offensive production is on the rise. What I'd like to see McClement do more in order for that to happen: shoot the puck more. There have been times when he passes up shots to make that extra pass. He has a nice shot. Maybe using it more can increase that goal production.

C T.J. Oshie -- Oshie will be traded this off-season. Whoa! I'm just kidding. No heart attacks now! Seriously, Oshie, has one more year left in his entry-level deal -- he will be back -- before he can become a restricted free agent. Whether the Blues give him an extension early or not is yet to be noted, which I doubt will happen. That will be their mission next summer. But Oshie, 23, built on his rookie season where he scored 14 goals and 39 points. He went from 14-25 to 18-30 but he did so in 76 games as opposed to 57 games his rookie season, so the point production should have jumped up more than nine points. But as the case with McDonald and Backes, I'd like to see Oshie moved back to his natural position of center instead of right wing. I'm one to believe that Oshie is more effective in the open ice rather than on the wing. His skating ability is relentless and tenacious and I believe he can add more offensively by skating down the middle of the ice with the puck. His ability to kill penalties was also a plus for this team, but he is one of a pack of young players that must take that leap next season in order for the Blues to become a solid playoff-contending team. The former No. 1 pick of 2005 is one of the cornerstone pieces of this franchise. Time for him to make that leap into the 20-25 goal area next season.

C Patrik Berglund -- Like Oshie, Berglund will go into the final year of his original entry-level contract and he will be back next season. When the Blues drafted Berglund with their second first-round pick of 2006, I predicted within five years, he had the ability to be one of the top 5-10 centers in the league. But Berglund, 21, regressed this season, and his benching of one game late in the season for missing practice was the climax of an up-and-down season. After scoring 21 goals and 47 points his rookie season, the 6-4, 215-pound Swede dropped off to 13 goals and 26 points this season. He never could gain confidence playing under Murray but began to pick his game up under Payne. When Berglund is going, the Blues are a much better team. For Berglund to make that next step, he must work at being stronger on the puck and using that long reach to his advantage. He also has to work on his defensive zone coverage, show more determination skating without the puck and not stay away from penalties that involves the stick-work because of laziness. I think this player can become a tremendous talent, but the desire and work ethic can leave a little to be desired. Berglund needs to come to camp next season ready to play with more passion and determination for the Blues to stride forward. I believe he is one of Payne's more challenging projects but one that will work.

RW David Perron -- Perron is a restricted free agent, but the Blues will work out a contract extension for him and he will be back ready to build on a 20-goal season. There's no denying Perron's talent and skill level. He is the hockey equivalent of a gym rat. The guy would rather be on the ice 24-7 if he had his way. That's how much he loves the game. He had a career-high 20 goals and was three points off of last season's pace of 50 points. Perron, 21, has lots of skill and displays his on-ice talents with the puck. I believe he can be a 30-goal scorer in this league is -- like McClement -- he doesn't pass shots up and can get a shot off quicker rather than holding the puck. There have been times when he passes up shots in order to make an extra move. If he can get shots off more quickly, it should boost his goal production. Also, Perron also must work on his lazy stick-work on the back-check and in the defensive zone, which has led to some ill-timed penalties. He also has been inconsistent with his decisions with the puck in the neutral zone, which has led to poor passes and turnovers that has led to odd-man rushes. Quicker shots, better decision-making and smarter with the stick will help Perron elevate his game entering his third NHL season. Remember people, he's only 21 (turns 22 on May 28) so there is still growth and development there. But the prognosis is promising.

RW B.J. Crombeen -- The proud papa -- his wife just gave birth to a baby boy a week or so ago -- has one year remaining on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent, but he will also be back to play that role of checking forward that he, McClement and Steen did so well against opposing top lines. Crombeen, 24, gives you size (6-2, 210) and some scoring pop (seven goals, 15 points last season) and can throw down the gloves, which he did when a spark was needed. Crombeen is the consummate teammate and is the type of guy you'd want by your side if a precarious situation. He'll go to bat for you in an instant and plays the game with great passion. His hits are felt, just ask opposing players. He has the knack of taking space away from open-ice skaters and forces you to play with purpose. There will be no prancing around the ice with this guy out there, or else you'll pay the price. The one thing I'd like to see from Crombeen is being more of a presence in front of the net when in the attacking zone. His size and strength makes him a good target for some of those tip-ins and garbage goals in front of a clogged net. But to think, the Blues got this guy on waivers from Dallas. Another reason to thank Hullie for letting him get away.

LW Brad Winchester -- Winchester is an unrestricted free agent and I believe will not be back with the Blues next season. He signed a one-year, $800,000 deal after a solid 2008-09 in which he scored 13 goals. But Winchester was too inconsistent for what the Blues needed out of him. He had stretches when he played with an edge, which is his game to a tee, but those were far and few in between. He took too many bad penalties for a fourth-line winger and was a non-factor with three goals in 64 games. He lacked the ability to make smart plays, particularly in the offensive end when he took some of his bad penalties and just was a non-factor in front of the net. When Winchester was good, he was a difference-maker in front of the opposing goal. It just didn't happen often this season. The Blues will quietly part ways and save a few dollars here.

RW D.J. King -- 'King Kong,' who has not played much the past two seasons because of various injuries, is a restricted free agent and his return next season is highly questionable. I would say the Blues tender King, 25, and bring him back just because he's one of the meanest SOB's in the game. This guy can win a fight by TKO with one swing of that mammoth right hand. King, when healthy, does give the Blues a big body on the fourth line that has the ability to make a play or create space for somebody else. Just his presence in the lineup is intimidating enough. His skating ability is not too bad for a big man (6-3, 230) and his stick-handling is better than one would expect for an enforcer. The Blues have a decision to make here, but I think King stays on, unless they can make a deal for a pick at the draft.

LW Cam Janssen -- This is where it gets interesting for the local boy from Eureka, Mo. Janssen, like King, is a restricted free agent and will get a tender from the Blues. John Davidson, in the past, has insisted on keeping both Janssen and King, but I don't see the Blues going forward with both of them. They're never in the lineup together. When one plays, the other sits. We all know how Cam plays: mean, meaner and meanest. If a fight would exhaust two people for, say, 2-3 minutes, Janssen would do his best to be the last man standing. He delivers bone-crunching hits, follows through with his checks and is not afraid to sacrifice his body. But it never made sense to me before to keep both of these guys, and it doesn't make sense to me now. Even though he's the local guy and one of the most quotable people I've met in this locker room, I see the Blues trying to deal one of their two fighters for a draft pick. And Janssen may be the most attractive of the two because of King's injury history. I am totally stumped by this and don't have a clue as to JD's thinking here, but I will say one stays and one goes. And I believe Janssen, 26, would be the one to go.

LW Matt D'Agostini -- When the Blues acquired D'Agostini, 23, from Montreal before the trade deadline for Aaron Palushaj, I didn't quite understand why. But as Davidson explained, the Blues were in need of a ready-made NHL player at the time because of injuries to the forward line. D'Agostini is a restricted free agent and will also get a tender, but I hardly saw enough of him to give an honest opinion of the guy simply because he did not play much here. Seven games, to be exact. I think the Blues must find out exactly what they got in this trade, because I still don't think they know -- I know Payne doesn't have much of an idea considering how little D'Agostini played. I believe he will be back at minimal cost (he made $500,000 last season) and will have a chance to compete for a third- or fourth-line spot or will play in Peoria. D'Agostini scored 12 goals with Montreal in 2008-09, so there has to be something there. It's up to the Blues to find out what.

C Lars Eller -- Eller, the Blues' top pick in 2007, played his first seven NHL games this past season and scored two goals -- both in similar fashion. Eller, the soon-to-be 21-year-old, has a great shot at making the Blues' roster next season after a good first season in Peoria, but I believe he will at least start the season with the Rivermen and for the same reason he believes: he needs to get stronger. There's no doubt Eller has a great future in this game, I firmly believe that. But even by his own admission, he has to get stronger than his 6-1, 198 frame offers. During his stint here, Eller was smooth with the puck, showed tremendous poise in front of the net (he scored both goals on tip-ins) and is not afraid to play the body. His best game was in Philadelphia on Nov. 7. It wouldn't surprise me if Eller made the leap so quickly to the NHL, but I believe another season in the AHL might do him good.

C Derek Armstrong -- Derek Armstrong was brought in for depth purposes and to provide some veteran presence in Peoria, but he was here on a one-year deal and is an unrestricted free agent. He will not be back next season.

Eric Brewer --
We might as well start off with Blues fans' whipping boy since his arrival from Edmonton in that trade for that one guy -- yeah, I think his name is Chris Pronger? Brewer, the Blues' embattled captain, enters next season in the final year of a four-year contract he signed in February 2007. The players like the guy and respect his leadership qualities in the locker room, but I believe Davidson will dangle Brewer, 31, in trade talks simply because they can deal from a position strength -- defense -- that could bring back a need -- forward, preferably a scoring one. I just don't know that at $4.5 million remaining on his contract, the Blues will attract a buyer. In the meantime, if not dealt, Brewer will be among the top six defenseman and at times, played well paired with Erik Johnson last season. I was impressed with Brewer's ability to join the rush and get involved offensively and it brought eight goals, which tied a career-high. I know Brewer can be frustrating to watch sometimes, simply because the guy does make mistakes in his own end -- and costly ones. He is lucky to be playing after coming back in November after a pair of back surgeries that was thought at one time to be career-threatening. When I watch Brewer, I see a guy that has the ability to make that crisp pass from his own end to one that gets beat because he prefers to play space instead of playing the man. His coverage in the defensive third has been inconsistent as well but other times, he understands what play to make. If Brewer is back here, he will be playing for a contract, so look for an inspired player and one that can help this team if he plays with a more consistent approach.

Erik Johnson -- The top overall pick of 2006, who missed all of 2008-09 with that serious knee injury, is a restricted free agent but fear not Blues fans, Johnson is not going anywhere. He will be rewarded well with a new deal very soon. Johnson, 22, led all Blues defensemen with goals (10) and points (39). His game was good this season considering it was his first full season after knee surgery. He also culminated a solid NHL season by playing for Team USA with Backes in the Winter Olympics. As the season progressed, Johnson's ability to read the play and be involved offensively is what this franchise has been looking for. Once he fully understands his shot from the point is lethal, the sky's the limit for this kid, whether playing 5-on-5 or on the power play. I want to see Johnson move forward with his budding career use that shot of his more often. If Johnson can get that point shot off quicker and more often, 15-to-20 goal seasons is not far fetched. Too many times this season, Johnson would show hesitation in that point shot and he has it blocked. I think with repetition, he'll get that worked out. Johnson's zone coverage also could use some work as well. I know he's made it a point to work on his two-way game. Look for that to be an improved area as well. Like the doctors have said, Johnson won't be back at full strength until the second season back from injury. The future looks bright for Johnson, and Blues fans have yet to see him at his best.

Barret Jackman -- Jackman, a mainstay with the Blues since 2002, has two years and $7.5 million remaining on his four-year contract. He was also a target of Blues fans down the stretch of the season but reports say he played with an injured back/neck after being injured April 2 in Nashville. Like Brewer, I believe Jackman will be trade bait this summer as the Blues look to add scoring punch. It was reported that the Blues received inquiries about Jackman at the trade deadline, so he may have more value than Brewer. However, if Jackman is not traded, he will also be among the top six defensemen back and for most of the season, played very well when paired with Roman Polak. Jackman, 29, is the type of defenseman a coach loves to have. He's strong, plays with an edge and is a terrific penalty killer. When on his game, Jackman is a physical player who goes up against the opponents' top guys. What surprised me was to see Jackman make costly turnovers in his own end and a number of them ended up in the Blues' goal. His decision-making with the puck in his own end, particularly on outlet passes, must improve. He's been in the league long enough to make those kinds of mistakes and fans grew weary of it. I've always liked Jackman's dedication and willingness to play through pain. He is to be commended for that desire, but it's also OK to step aside for the betterment of the team and let your body heal if hurt. He is a nice compliment to the young Polak.

Carlo Colaiacovo -- Colaiacovo has been a nice addition to the Blues since being acquired from Toronto, but he is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and I believe he will move on and sign elsewhere. It has nothing to do with Colaiacovo's abilities, but the Blues have a position of strength and need to allow some of their young D-men a chance to make this team moving forward. Colaiacovo, 27, had a solid season playing with Mike Weaver, a nice compliment of a defensive-defenseman and Colaiacovo's offensive-minded play. He was a nice left-handed option that scored seven goals and had 25 assists. But he also was a liability at times in his own end, particularly with coverage areas, who made $1.4 million and I believe will receive an offer -- once on the market -- that the Blues won't match.

Roman Polak -- Polak, 23, has one more year on a contract before he can become a restricted free agent. He is going nowhere. Polak may have been the Blues' best all-around defenseman this season, who also represented his country (Czech Republic) at the Winter Olympics. How does one describe Polak? Well, he's a beast and a bear to play against. His defensive ability is so effective, Payne used him a lot against some of the game's best simply because his size was complimented with better-than-average speed. You do not want to play against this guy in the corners. Chances are, he will win every battle there. You don't have much luck with him in front of the net either. His offense, which will be better with time, is better than most people think. His shot from the point is deceptively good. He just needs to utilize it more. He will be a Blues mainstay for years to come.

Alex Pietrangelo -- The No. 4 overall pick of 2008 will enter the second year of his three-year entry level contract next season, and finally, I believe the man everyone knows as 'Petro' will have a better-than-average shot to be one of the top six defensemen on this team next season. I believe he will be. I believed Pietrangelo, 20, should have been playing here from the start, but the Blues thought he needed to grow and develop. And after watching his first nine NHL games, I came away with the conclusion that 'Petro' needed to grow into his body and become a stronger player. Does Pietrangelo need a year in Peoria? Perhaps, but I'm anxious to see what he is able to do this summer and how he comes into camp in September. If 'Petro' shows the ability to play with the big boys, particularly in his own end, he will be here next year. There's no question regarding his offensive capabilities. I never believed that to be an issue. It always seems to come down to his play in the defensive third. From all reports, Pietrangelo's game in all facets have improved greatly each season. He will make it difficult for the Blues to send him away again.

Darryl Sydor -- Sydor, a veteran at 38 years of age, was signed to a $1 million dollar, one-year deal to add depth to a defensive unit and will be an unrestricted free agent. But he will not be back next season. If he plays again, it will be elsewhere, as he told me he still has the fire and desire to play the game. I thought Sydor played solid down the stretch for this team, but he was nothing more than a stopgap for one season. His best days are obviously behind him, but the money saved here will be wisely spent elsewhere. I just feel he's too slow to keep up with today's NHL player anymore.

Mike Weaver -- Talk about a guy that came here under the radar. But then again, this defines Weaver's career. Weaver, 31, will be an unrestricted free agent, but I think the Blues will attempt to sign him to a contract to be a six or seven defenseman. Simply put, Weaver was the best defensive defenseman the Blues had this past season. His play in the defensive zone was downright immaculate. From killing penalties to blocking shots, to disrupting the opponents' flow, winning puck battles ... I can go on and on. Weaver proved me wrong, since I saw him as nothing more than a depth guy, but like his entire career, he did his job well and proved the skeptics wrong. Weaver will not give you anything offensively, nor will he claim to. He scored his first goal in 185 games this past season and was kidded for it. At the beginning of the season, I would have said no way does he make it past this season. But I believe the Blues are a better team if they keep Weaver, maybe reward him with a one- or two-year deal at $1 million per year.

Tyson Strachan -- Strachan, 26, is an interesting project. He is a Group VI unrestricted free agent that I would like to see the Blues somehow keep because of how he kind of came out of nowhere and proved to be a good value defenseman. But I somehow see Strachan going somewhere else because he'll feel like he can make another squad. Strachan is rugged, sturdy, plays zone coverage well and reads plays with authority. His ability to limit a skater's space in the defensive end is impressive because he surveys the ice well. It'll be a shame to see the Blues lose him, but I believe they will because there simply won't be any room for him here. And I'll find it hard to believe he will sign here to go to Peoria again.

Jonas Junland -- A restricted free agent heading into this summer, the Blues must decide what to do with their third round pick of 2006. What I was told from Junland's season in Peoria, he played solid, steady hockey. When he came to the Blues, you can see his ability to break down the plays in the offensive zone and his knowledge of stepping into the play is there. He shows no fear making a play in the offensive end, but his defensive work has some work to do. He tends to make the wrong reads at times and that has hurt him in the few games he's played in the NHL. However, he is a very confident player and a solid attribute. Junland, 22, displayed his dedication by coming to the AHL to play but may want to go back to Europe unless given a legitimate chance to play here in St. Louis. I just don't see that happening unless a trade or two happens. That's why I say the Blues can trade from a position strength.

* Note (updated April 30) -- There are reports that Junland signed a one-year contract with Färjestads BK of the Swedish Elite League, a sign he felt like he wasn't in the Blues' plans for the 2010-11 season. However, Junland still has aspirations of playing in the NHL, but it may not be here. I can't imagine Blues management is too happy with this decision.

Chris Mason --
Mason, 34, will be an unrestricted free agent and judging by the market for goalies this summer, I believe the Blues and Mason will get an agreement done before he hits free agency. Mason has shown he's more than capable of being a No. 1 goalie and won a career-best 30 games this past season. We all saw how good he was leading the Blues into the playoffs last season and he was good again this season. He's had stretches where his play is sub par, but what goalie doesn't go through their rough stretches in a season? It's all about minimizing it. Mason is the ultimate competitor and hates to lose as much as anyone. You could hear the passion in his voice when the Blues lost games and fell out of the playoffs at the end. When Mason is at his best, he's challenging shooters and cutting down their angles, corralling rebounds and keeping them under control. I would not have a problem giving him a two- or three-year deal, but if he's looking for $4-4.5 million, I'd have to second-guess that. Two or three years at $3.5 million might get the job done.

Ty Conklin -- Conklin, 34, showed he can be more than a capable backup. His play on the road was stellar this season. Too bad the Blues couldn't get those same results on home ice. He will have one more year at $1.4 million left on the two-year deal he signed last July. Can the Blues rely on Conklin to be the No. 1 guy if Mason or another free agent isn't added, I'm not certain on that. But Conklin is a proven winner and has played in more than his share of big games, so maybe he wouldn't be a bad fallback. It's just amazing the comparisons between home and away this season. The Blues have a solid backup no matter which way they choose to go.

Ben Bishop -- Bishop, another local boy from St. Louis who went to Chaminade High School, was in Peoria this season and preliminary reports indicated the Blues were not pleased with his growth and development at the AHL level, which is a big reason the team is willing to bring in another No. 1 goalie. Bishop was 23-18-4 in Peoria this season with a 2.77 goals-against average with a .901 save percentage in his second full season in the pros. I would think he's destined for Peoria once again next season.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blues fail to live up to high expectations

Interesting summer awaits owners, management
for squad that failed to make the playoffs in 2009-10

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' charge to the postseason last year came to fruition because of a remarkable string of victories, including a 9-1-1 finish.

Even though they were swept out of the Western Conference quarterfinals by the Vancouver Canucks, expectations were elevated based on what the Blues were able to accomplish.

But another slow start to the 2009-10 season put the Blues behind the eight-ball. And although another furious finish was coming together just as it did last season, the Blues' mad dash to the finish line came short of those expectations and the playoffs fell out of reach.

The Blues, who were 41-31-10 (92 points) in 2008-09, finished just two points shy of that mark as 2009-10 concluded with a 40-32-10 mark. Record-wise, the seasons were parallel, but the end result was much different.

As the Blues head into the summer looking to make that step back to postseason limelight, it's easy to reflect back and wonder why this team couldn't take the next step and not get back into the playoffs. It's also easy to ask why they couldn't get in and win a series or so and compete for the ultimate prize. Second-guessing is a fan's prerogative.

The Blues virtually brought back the same lineup they had a season ago, then added injured players Paul Kariya (hips) and Erik Johnson (torn ACL/MCL) to that same lineup. Eric Brewer (back) came back after missing virtually all of last season as well. They also signed a reliable backup goalie in Ty Conklin to solidify the position.

This should have been a better team, right? David Backes even had mentioned a select few times that this team was better than the one that reached the playoffs.

So what did go wrong for the Blues?

Well, for starters, their defense of the home turf was borderline dreadful for much of the season. The Blues did finish with a flurry, winning six in a row at Scottrade Center and nine of 11, but finishing 18-18-5 here simply wasn't good enough.

Included in those dreaded home losses was a trio of games in which the Blues led by three goals (all 3-0) and lost each and every one of them. Protecting late leads was not one of this team's top traits.

The Blues also had a problem -- particularly in the first half of the season -- scoring goals. As Blues President John Davidson pointed out while the players were having their exit meetings Wednesday, if the Blues scored at the pace they did in the second half, they would have been sixth in the league in goals. But they were nowhere near that clip early on. They finished with 225.

They started poorly once again, having to play catch-up in a Western Conference that was obviously going to be extremely challenging this season. To put things in perspective, seven of the eight playoff teams in the West had 100 points or more.

It cost Andy Murray his job 40 games into the season, a guy who just seven months before his firing was a Jack Adams Award finalist for coach of the year.

So the Blues, who sold out 33 of their 40 home dates here (one home game was played in Sweden), must deal with the questions everyone wants to know: was this season a step backwards? Was it a failure?

"A step back ... it's a tough pill to swallow because that's almost like you regressed in your battle against an illness, or you took a step back in your education or something like that," said Backes, who dropped off of a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09 to 17 this past season but improved his assist mark from 23 to 31. "A step back ... I don't like that terminology. I'd say that if we're in the Eastern Conference, we're in. I think you just saw a lot of Western Conference teams beating Eastern Conference teams and that's why you needed 95 points to get in in the West. We should have beaten more East teams, I guess."

Maybe they should have had more of a sense of urgency in the first half, when they were 17-19-7 in the first 43 games. They played the last 39 games at a 23-13-3 clip.

"It's frustrating because you always want to go forward," said Johnson, whose 10 goals and 39 points led all Blues defensemen. "Any time you take a step back, it's not a good thing. We know we've got a lot of work to do and we can expect a lot more from ourselves, that's for sure.

"You can't be OK with losing points early on and then expect to make them up later. We really need to take care of business early and all year and not get behind the eight-ball."

Backes added, "It's focus, not only as a team but definitely personally. We need to make strides and not have that slow start. These strong finishes are obviously well-received and something that a lot of teams would like that trend. ... If we have more points (in) December when we're gearing up for the last few months of the season and we make that stretch run, we're going to like our momentum going into the playoffs. It just comes down to those dog days of November, December and making sure we're getting the job done when other teams are taking points from us."

So as the Blues head into the hot summer months, will they return for training camp in September with lots of question marks? Who will be back among the unrestricted free agents? Will the Blues go in a different direction in goal? Which restricted free agents will the Blues tender? Which ones will get contract extensions? Who, if anybody will the team pursue when the free agent market opens up July 1?

Davidson had plenty of answers when he met with the media Wednesday.

"When all the dust settles -- and it hasn't yet -- we'll get together," he said when first asked about the UFA's the Blues have to deal with. "... There's no immediate rush to figure that out. This will be done over the next number of weeks. ... We have to figure out what we think we should do to try and make ourselves a better hockey club next year. ... It's an early timeframe right now to see if we're going to do this with Paul (Kariya and this with Mase (Chris Mason). They both have their own options, and that they're free agents July 1st. We'll make our own internal decisions as to what we're going to try to do. Then we'll approach their agents and talk to them as we march along here. There's no rush to do that right now."

If Blues fans are looking for that big splash in the UFA market, don't hold your breath. Davidson was firm in his rationale when asked about spending big dollars on an impact goal scorer, even though there is a limited number of them if they hit the market on July 1.

"I look at us, and we'd love to find that prolific goal scorer, but we're not in a position to spend $10 million dollars a year ... we're not going to do it," Davidson said. "We might as well just get that out right now, we're not going to do that ... at all. It's not-sensible for us right now. A) it's just too expensive, and B) the growth pattern of our club is going in the right direction. I know we had a terrible first half in a lot of ways, but the second half, it got us back on track. We have to continue to grow like that, to put us in position of when is the right time to try and add something that's really going to make us a better club."

Davidson then veered a bit, saying, "I should backtrack a little on that $10-million dollar thing. If there's something that ever made sense to us, we'd certainly look at it, but there's things that don't make sense with that. We're with a hockey club here that you have to deal with what we have to deal with. I can't go to our ownership and say -- I'm not going to mention names because people are still under contract -- but this guy could come here and he may want $12 million dollars up front and then $8 million dollars a year for the next seven years. That's irresponsible to our franchise to do that at this point and time anyway, from my point of view."

As much as fans may not want to hear it, the Blues are not going to alter their course of action and start spending lavishly as they did pre-lockout. That philosophy didn't work then, and it hasn't worked to this point.

This won't be an easy summer, despite team owner Dave Checketts saying that this will be an "ambitious" summer. Blues fans, who have been patient with the process as this current ownership group and management team will head their fifth season here, are looking for instant gratification.

So they will continue to build with the likes of T.J. Oshie, Backes, David Perron, Patrik Berglund, Roman Polak and so forth.

"We've got a lot of good things going for us," Davidson insists. "You don't want to sign somebody that might cripple your organization ... if a free agent wants to sign an eight-year contract to take him into 40 years of age, we're not going to do it. That's irresponsible for me to even consider that in this market place. It's crazy.

"If you look at each team that's won the Stanley Cup the last few years, every one of them has core players that they've drafted and grew up within their own organization and has taken some time. ... You look at (Alex) Steen (a restricted free agent), he's 26 and he bloomed this year. It takes time for young people to get to where you need them to be. Our guys are basically two years in. We've been here four years. It took two years to get the guys ... here. I think that's fair to say, and if not, you tell me. We had to find a way to draft them, we had to make trades, we got picks and we drafted them, and then you wait for them to get here. Ian Cole isn't even here yet, (Lars) Eller's just getting here. We've had Perron now for three years; he was fast-tracked, but now he's starting to show. A 20-goal scorer is pretty good. We'll see where it goes after that. Berglund's only 21 ... he's a kid. He's got to get stronger. Polak is now starting to show. He's been here a bit now, he's starting to show. Backes, the same thing. Oshie, a little bit older when he got here, so he was more prepared for it. I think he's going to be a real benefit for us as we go forward."

The Blues also have decisions to make on up-and-coming players such as Cole, who left school early to pursue his pro career, Eller, the team's top pick (13th overall) in 2007, Alex Pietrangelo, the team's top pick (4th overall) in 2008, Jonas Junland, a restricted free agent among other decisions.
"Eller had a real good year as a rookie. we'll look at him, but I don't know," Davidson said. "You could see here he's got skating skills, he needs to get stronger, he got knocked off the puck, he couldn't win a lot of battles on the boards at the NHL level. He did some at the AHL level. He knows what he has to do. He needs 15 pounds of let-me-get-stronger before he becomes a regular here.

"Ian Cole's very good. He surprised me. When he played the last seven or eight games, this guy was good, really good. With his style of play, he may surprise some and put pressure on people, which is good. With Jonas, there's a chance. His contract's up. We have to talk to him about it. He didn't embarrass himself here at all, played pretty well. He, too, has to get stronger. This is a man's league here with big, big people and a long season."

The solution here could be that the Blues -- should they want to get a 30-, 40-goal scorer -- may have to explore trade options. They can trade from a position of strength, which would be their blue line.

"You don't see many hockey for hockey trades," Davidson said. "What you see is a lot of trying to move salaries to open up. You'll see some of that at the draft so that they can open up the road for them when it comes to July 1st, or you see it at the trade deadline for teams that are gonna miss or whatever.

"I think that what could be somewhat interesting is if you have strength in some area of your franchise and another team doesn't, but they have strengths in an area that you need, maybe there's a fit. ... We're going to sniff around and see if that's something that's going to make any sense. I can't say it's going to happen, but that's part of our job in exploring those areas."

No matter what the Blues do, Johnson is already getting the pot stirred up. Fans may make him remember these words:

"We're going to make the playoffs next year," said Johnson, who is one of the RFA's the Blues have to resign. "That's our goal. There's no way around it at all. We're going into this summer hungry and disappointed that we're not playing right now. I think you're going to see a really determined bunch like you do every year with a lot more to prove."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Payne given permanent label as Blues head coach

Interim tag removed after successful 23-15-4
stint since taking over for Andy Murray

ST. LOUIS -- One day after officially sending Keith Tkachuk off into the sunset, the Blues were scheduled to have exit meetings with their remaining players.

Yes, those meetings still took place, but management wanted them to be conducted with one clear message in mind.

The man behind them on the bench this past season would have a permanent place there when next season started.

The Blues wasted little time removing the interim label off head coach Davis Payne's job title, naming him the 23rd head coach in franchise history just four days after the conclusion of the regular season.

"When you've got somebody ... this is it," Blues President John Davidson said. "And we're real comfortable with it. He had a great reaction from his players, we've rebuilt the way we've played at home, which was very important for us, and I think also something that is important is for our players to understand as they go through their exit meetings (Wednesday) that this is our coach. When the coach talks to you today, he's our coach, not an interim coach.

"This is our coach. We certainly wanted to maximize on that. We felt that was important to the franchise."

Payne, 39, is the youngest coach in the NHL and was rewarded with a two-year contract.

He replaced the fired Andy Murray on Jan. 2 when the team was 17-17-6 at the time he was brought in. Under Payne, the Blues were 23-15-4, finishing eight games above .500 (40-32-10) and with 90 points.

But the Blues, who flourished at home under Payne at 12-5-2 which included six in a row at Scottrade Center and 9-2-0 in the last 11 games, missed getting into the playoffs.

"We want to focus on the things that didn't happen for us," Payne said. "We want to focus on why. We want to make sure we understand the steps that are necessary to correct. We can't be looking back at any sort of accomplishment when we're not one of those 16 (playoff) teams playing."

But as he goes into his first off-season and knowing job security is not an issue, Payne can begin the process of getting the Blues back where it was a season ago.

"I'm very pleased," said Payne, who was accompanied by his wife Jane and two daughters. "It gives me that added time to talk with the players and talk with the coaches to really assess where we feel we can improve. When we start breaking it down in all those areas, another month, another two months of time to make that assessment and to go forward with that is extremely valuable.

"I'm pleased with what we accomplished at home. These fans come to this building and have come to this building and supported this hockey team for a number of years expecting a certain level of play, expecting certain results ... not just at home but on the road."

Blues players were on hand when Davidson and incoming general manager Doug Armstrong made the announcement at the Scottrade Center atrium and are glad they can proceed into the off-season knowing a familiar face will greet them in training camp in September.

"To know who's going to be behind the bench and who's going to be leading us is real important," forward Brad Boyes said. "It's great to see, it's great that we're all here to get that news. We're a team and this is a great step to see our coach, our leader be announced when our team is here."

"You're more familiar and that kind of helps," defenseman Erik Johnson said. "I think we got to know him earlier in the year and it definitely helps. You're just comfortable with the coach and you don't have to go into the season knowing who your coach is going to be, so it was good to find out that it's going to be him."

Forward David Backes, given an 'A' under Payne's guidance, said the relationship between player and coach was on solid ground. He joked about the idea of having him back.

"I think he's going to turn 40 next year, so we'll have a nice over-the-hill party to celebrate," Backes quipped.

Davidson said there was a qualified list of candidates the Blues could have pursued but that in the end, the direction kept pointing back to the same guy -- Payne.

"You can go many different ways," Davidson said. "We can wait until July and see who's available and who's not, but when you feel confident that you've got the right person and you feel confident with the job that he did during his 42 games and how he carried himself, his family values, the whole thing, I think it was a pretty easy decision.

"He's young, he's got energy, he's got communication skills. ... We feel really good that he's from within. We feel real strong about that. ... We hope that it's going to be a Doug Armstrong-Davis Payne relationship for 15 years. ... We feel that this young man has a great opportunity to be a long-term coach."

Prior to joining the Blues, Payne guided the Blues' AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, and compiled a 62-44-3-6 mark there in two seasons.

Payne was the ECHL coach of the year in 2006-07, guiding the Alaska Aces to the ECHL Kelly Cup Championship that also included the three consecutive trips to the conference finals.

Payne, who was told by management of the decision to bring him back Tuesday afternoon, appeared in 22 games as an NHL player with the Boston Bruins and played a total of eight pro seasons.

He was originally drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 7th round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft.

The Kamloops, British Columbia native is eager to get the Blues, who finished 9th in the west this season, back into the playoffs.

Those communication skills is what really impresses his players moving forward.

"I think he made an effort to really try and get to know the guys and have that communication open," Johnson said. "He was very good in that regard. All the guys were very comfortable with him, so I think that was important."

So Payne, who was on hand for Tkachuk's ceremony Tuesday, was in attendance to support a player's retirement, saw his day and immediate future get a whole lot better.

"It was a good meeting to have," Payne said.