The St. Louis Blues will face increased expectations next season after winning the Central Division for the first time since the 1999-00 season and making the playoffs for just the second time since the 2004-05 lockout. For that same reason, they also have a relatively small number of questions surrounding the roster and player roles heading into the offseason.
Top 10 Prospects:
The biggest changes could come on defense, where long-time Blues stalwart Barret Jackman is an unrestricted free agent along with Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins. Given his tenure with the team and strong season in 2011-12 alongside Kevin Shattenkirk, Jackman is the most likely of the three to re-sign in St. Louis but even that is far from a guarantee. If all three hit the open market on July 1st, the Blues would likely be looking to add several stay-at-home blueliners to fill out the depth behind the five defensemen already under contract for next season.
The re-signing of restricted free agent forwards T.J. Oshie, David Perron, and Chris Stewart seems like a given for a team that scored by committee last season. Rather than look outside the organization to complement these returning scorers, the Blues will have an influx of prospects that will be expected to produce. Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to skate in St. Louis right away while Jaden Schwartz, who finished the 2011-12 season with the big club, could also stick with the team out of camp. Veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both unrestricted free agents, spent most of the season in the bottom six but still provided stability to the team's young group of skaters. But their experience may need to be replaced if neither player is brought back.
In addition to the team's success on the ice last season, the front office questions were also answered by the new ownership group led by Tom Stillman. The stability and payroll offered by the new ownership should only help the team maintain the course as one of the Western Conference's top teams.
The Blues' prospect pool is equally strong. From high-end talent in Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Ty Rattie to checking line prospects Cody Beach, Stefan Della Rovere, and Ryan Tesink, the Blues have a variety of prospects with NHL potential up front. The blueline features plenty of size – the trio of Jani Hakanpaa, Brett Ponich, and Joel Edmundson has an average height over 6'6 – that could someday complement the NHL club's already young and talented defensive corps.
Even with the depth at forward and defense, the team's goaltending situation may be the strongest position in the organization. The duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak were stellar in the 2011-12 season and both are under contract for two more years. The Blues also have a potential NHL starter in Jake Allen developing in the minors and not far from being able to take on some of the load in St. Louis. Junior-aged goaltender Jordan Binnington, who was already signed to an entry-level contract, and Swedish netminder Niklas Lundstrom were also added to the system at the 2011 draft.
While the Blues do have several promising shutdown defensemen developing in the pipeline, there are few offensive-minded blueliners behind 2011-12 breakout rookie, Cade Fairchild. Part of the reason behind that is the number of young and talented players that have already been graduated to the NHL club.
Another weak point within the organization is the relatively large number of boom-or-bust prospects, particularly those players drafted in the first three rounds. Recent picks such as Dmitri Jaskin and Max Gardiner, though far from realizing their final potential, did not take much of a step forward from a developmental standpoint during the 2011-12 season. The team's consistent drafting and developing of European prospects has led to some hits, with Patrik Berglund, Roman Polak, and Vladimir Sobotka all having carved out significant roles on the roster. But there have also been high picks who have not panned out in North America, such as Jonas Junland and Simon Hjalmarsson.
General Manager Doug Armstrong has overseen just two drafts, while Director of Amateur Scouting Bill Armstrong has only one draft under his belt. The duo has not altered the team's focus a whole lot at the draft other than to begin the process of restocking the cupboards after so many prospects transitioned to the big club.
Since Armstrong took over as GM, the team has taken seven CHL prospects to just two college-bound prospects from the Junior A and high school levels. Those numbers remain consistent going back four years, with 16 major junior picks and five players headed to the NCAA. The team has drawn from each of the three CHL leagues under Armstrong, with one OHL pick, three WHL picks, and three QMJHL picks in the last two classes.
The number of European picks compared to North Americans may not stand out, but it is the consistency with which St. Louis has drafted prospects developing overseas that makes them one of the NHL's most worldly organizations. No fewer than two European prospects have been selected by the Blues in each of their previous six draft classes. Even organizations like Detroit and Ottawa with a reputation for drafting heavily from Europe cannot say they have devoted such a high percentage of picks to prospects developing overseas.
The Blues have the 25th, 56th, 67th, 86th, 116th, 146th, 176th, 206th picks in the 2012 Draft.
No. 25: Dalton Thrower, D, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
The Blues have taken 10 forwards with the team's previous 15 draft picks, so a defensive pick in a draft full of good defenders makes that much more sense. Thrower's fearless style and ability to make an impact at both ends of the ice would make him an ideal eventual complement to the likes of Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk.