By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The St. Louis Blues extended their league-high consecutive playoff streak to 23 years last season. But after losing captain Chris Pronger to a torn right knee ligament and falling to the Red Wings in the second round, they also extended their Cup-less run to 35 years.
"We think Pronger's absence is going to create more ice time across the board," Blues head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Not just one guy is going to fill it. We want to make sure that we keep Al MacInnis' minutes down and balance more of the six defensemen. I'm sure everybody is going to get a little bit more responsibility, be it killing penalties or who they are matched up against or power-play time."
A healthy Doug Weight will go a long way for St. Louis. Weight struggled in his first year in the Gateway City. He was never 100 percent healthy last season, but an offseason of rigorous conditioning has him in excellent shape.
Weight's playmaking skills will help set up the wingers and encourage team play, an area in which Blues general manager Larry Pleau says the team was lacking last season.
"My biggest disappointment is we didn't play well enough as a team," Pleau said. "I think that's going to be the key for us -- can we get ourselves playing as a team and putting the effort in for each other instead of the individual? That's going to be the whole thing for us in a nutshell."
The Blues lost right wing Scott Young (signed with Dallas) and center Ray Ferraro (retired), but they didn't do much to replace them. St. Louis intitally re-signed Keith Tkachuk to a one-year, $8.3 million deal early in the offseason, then locked him up for the long haul on Sept. 12 to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent next July. With Tkachuk set to earn a reported $11 million this season, the Blues will be shelling out $35 million to their top four players: Tkachuk, Pronger, Weight and MacInnis.
If St. Louis can hold on until Pronger returns, it could be in good shape for a postseason run. The combination of a healthy, rested Pronger and young defensemen who get battle-tested in his absence could help the Blues challenge for one of the top two spots in the West.
"Last year he was our best all-around player from start to finish," Pleau said. "He played well at both ends of the rink for us and I think he brought in a comfortable type of leadership, where he didn't come in here to try to bowl people over, he just came in here to be part of it."
Tkachuk was more than just a part of it, leading St. Louis with 38 goals last season and finishing second to Pavol Demitra with 37 assists.
"I think he is one of the top power forwards in the game," Quenneville said. "You can argue with whomever you want to throw in that mix, but when he's on his game, when we expect him to be there, he's as good as anybody."
With a healthy Weight back in the lineup, Tkachuk is a threat to pass the 40-goal plateau for the first time since 1997-98, when he scored 40 in 69 games for Phoenix.
"Don't tell me we are going to go through that all year again," Pleau said. "Every week we are supposedly going to trade for a goalie. They are already starting to talk up in Ottawa [about a trade for Jani Hurme]. I don't know where all this stuff comes from. We made it clear last year at the beginning of the year that we were comfortable. We were hoping that Johnny could come through and play well for us and I thought he made some real good strides last year."
Johnson posted a 34-20-4 record with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. He picked up his play in the postseason, shutting out the Blackhawks in three consecutive games en route to a 4-1 first-round series win. Brathwaite went 9-11-4 with a 2.20 GAA and a .901 save percentage.
"I know last year everyone said, 'How are you going to get through with your goaltending?'," Quenneville said. "And I thought they stood up very well and gave us quality goaltending throughout the season. We feel that's not an issue with Johnson having a year under his belt and proving that he can play and Freddie challenging him for ice time."
With Young bolting for the big bucks in Big D, the Blues have an opening at wing on their top two lines. And Czech import Cajanek could play his way into the top six, either at center or left wing with Slovak Pavol Demitra.
"Going into camp, he'll be probably one guy that everyone will be watching very closely," Quenneville said. "Everybody has said he's such a competitive guy. Maybe he's not as skilled as the other guys, but he makes up for it by what he gets done. He'll find a solution -- he'll do whatever it takes. We don't throw those guys away."
Cajanek scored 64 points in 49 games last season while playing for Zlin in the Czech Extraleague. Though he's only 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, Cajanek is an agressive player who isn't afraid to get feisty and dig in the corners. But there is always reason for concern when European players try to make the transition to the smaller North American ice sheet.
"We have to be patient with him," Pleau said. "But he's a skillful guy and moves the puck well. He's always played with an assertiveness to him. He's very good moving the puck into areas where the players are jumping into. I think he's a very smart player, and we are hoping he can adapt to this style of hockey."
The Blues may have a big hole to fill on the blue line with Pronger out, but don't expect them to rush 21-year-old Barrett Jackman into the fray unless he has a huge training camp.
"Barrett played two games with us last year, and the whole world got pretty excited about him," Pleau said. "But two games is two games. We are going to take a close look at him, and in my mind he is a player who is definitely going to play in this league for many years. But the worst thing you can do with a player at that age is keep them up here and have them in and out of the lineup, and we aren't interested in doing that with him."
Jackman had two goals, 12 assists and 266 penalty minutes in 75 games with Worcester of the AHL last season. If he doesn't crack the top six, the Blues won't hesitate to send him back to the AHL for additional seasoning.
"It's not critical that he start the season with our team," Quenneville said. "We know that over time he's going to be a mainstay on the Blues' blue line, but I don't want to say that he has to make our team this year and then give it to him knowing that maybe he needs to play a few more games in the minors. But watching him last year, he looks like he's very close to playing."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.