– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
And just like that, summer is over and the descent of the leaves from the trees – as well as the descent of temperatures in sporting arenas – signals the start of a new National Hockey League season.
Over the next few days, A Lot of Sports Talk will provide a snapshot into the outlook of a number of the teams in the league during the preseason as part of our 2018-19 season preview, as we take the opportunity of covering a number of preseason games in September and October and provide an in-depth season analysis of the teams competing on the ice that evening.
We continue our coverage with a couple of Western Conference squads looking to reclaim the glory days of their recent past after falling on some hard times in 2017-18. The St. Louis Blues missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season, while the Dallas Stars missed out on the postseason for the third time in four seasons Let the unofficial tribute to Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull commence!
St. Louis Blues
Who knows what this year’s roster would have looked like if the Blues had won their winner-take-all season finale against the Colorado Avalanche, the contest that decided which team would claim the last playoff sport in the Western Conference last season. A win could have possibly jump-started a Cinderella run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but their eventual loss in the Mile High City led to a massive reshuffling of the squad in the offseason.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong made enough moves that some of the players may have needed to wear ID tags during training camp, as players like Patrick Marroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Chad Johnson and Ryan O’Reilly all headed to the Gateway to the West to infuse the Blues with new blood. Of all of the additions, O’Reilly has the ability to change the culture of the team more than any other, as his two-way ability that he has flashed in previous stints in Colorado and Buffalo is reminiscent of a former St. Louis center, current Boston Bruin and 2012 Selke Trophy finalist David Backes. A couple of horrific seasons in Buffalo admittedly sapped the love of the game and energy out of O’Reilly, but being back in the Western Conference and with a team capable of making the postseason could be the recharge O’Reilly needs to regain his dominant form from the center position.
The 2015-16 season saw the Blues make the Western Conference Finals on the strength of a solid goalkeeper tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, but the Blues have yet to receive stellar goaltending since that season, one in which Elliott left for Calgary after the campaign. (Elliott has since moved on to Philadelphia.) Allen battled back issues last season, and his 59 games last season produced mediocre numbers: 27-25-3 with a 2.75 GAA and .906 save percentage. Allen’s goals against and save percentage were his worst numbers since establishing himself in the league in 2014-15, and he was only able to record one shutout in those 59 games he played. Allen’s play must return to the form of a couple of years back to give the new-look Blues a chance, especially given the loss of last season’s backup, Carter Hutton (17-7-3, 2.09 GAA, .931 save % in 1027-18), to Buffalo in free agency.
The acquisitions of players like Bozak and Perron, the latter being an integral part of the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, was done with building the depth of scoring from the Blues in mind; St. Louis finished 24th in the league in scoring last season, with only Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, the three players making up the top line, scoring at least 55 points on the team. The power play is in the most need of repair, finishing 30th (15.4 percent) out of 31 teams in 2017-18.
If anything, the Dallas Stars’ coaching situation over the past few years has been consistent. By consistent, we mean consistently in a state of flux; Jim Montgomery comes over from Denver University to become the third coach in three seasons in Dallas, succeeding Ken Hitchcock, who had returned to Big D for a second stint as Stars coach after replacing Lindy Ruff after the 2016-17 season.
Despite not making the postseason for the second consecutive year, the cupboard is far from bare, with the top line of Tyler Seguin (40 goals), Jamie Benn (36) and Alexander Radulov (27) back in tact for another season. What needs to improve, similar to St. Louis, is the overall depth of scoring, with the three first-line stars combining for almost half of the Stars’ 231 goals in 2017-18.
Where Montgomery, who led the Pioneers to the NCAA championship in 2017, may have the biggest influence this year is with the number of young players expected to have a significant impact on the Stars over the next few months. It is not far-fetched to say that Dallas is going through a bit of a youth movement, with the charge led by 19-year-old Miro Heiskanen, the No. 3 pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft who is expected to be a top-four defenseman as the season starts. Heiskanen’s projected partner in defense is 22-year-old Julius Honka, who established himself last season as an NHL regular.
Up front, youth should sprinkle the second through fourth lines also, with players like centers Roope Hintz and Radek Faksa looking to establish themselves as regulars. Faksa, 24, scored a career-high 17 goals last season to go along with his defensive responsibilities that he shouldered. Another young player on the team looking to make an impact is someone that had already made an impact with the Stars a few years back, as Valeri Nichuskin, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, returns to Dallas after spending two years in the Kontinental Hockey League
Dallas’ biggest strength this season could be in goal, as Ben Bishop returns healthy after missing the team’s last nine games with a knee injury, a stretch which sealed the Stars’ playoff fate. Though Bishop had more than respectable numbers last season (23-17-5, 2.49 GAA, .916 save %, five shutouts), Dallas signed Anton Khudobin, who excelled last season in Boston as the backup to Tuukka Rask, to be the No. 2 with the Stars. There should not be too much of a drop-off from Bishop to Khudobin, allowing the former to be relatively fresh throughout the season.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from the Sept. 18 preseason game between the Blues and Stars, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 27 pictures in total.