April 13 2009 10:47AM
The Vancouver Canucks will play the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues, like the Canucks, are a team without much in the way of playoff success. They do have a rich history, and how they ended up in St. Louis to begin with is an interesting story. When the NHL originally expanded to 12 teams, it placed the six newcomers in the Western Division. Five of the teams were quickly purchased and established in five promising markets (Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Bloomington). The sixth team was to be located in Baltimore, but the Wirtz family (who still own the Chicago Blackhawks) owned the rights to the St. Louis Arena, a decrepit building which had not been maintained properly (and was hit by a tornado in 1959), and they wanted to sell it. They insisted that the sixth team be placed in St. Louis, and eventually an ownership group stepped forward.
Scotty Bowman, who saw a crowded management ladder in Montreal, was hired as the team’s first G.M. and shortly thereafter also became the team’s coach. It was Bowman’s first NHL coaching job, and the St. Louis Blues quickly became the best of the expansion teams, reaching the finals in each of their first three years of existence. The next year they lost in the first round, and owner Sid Salomon III, who had been battling with his chief hockey man, fired Bowman. Bowman went on to coach the dynasty team in Montreal, and the St. Louis Blues went into a death spiral. Both their on-ice performance and the off-ice financial situation deteriorated to the point where the ownership group was forced to sell off the team in 1977.
The team changed hands several times in the years that followed and had a few bizarre incidents along the way – they skipped the 1983 Entry Draft, and at one point almost relocated to Saskatoon, among other items. They did, however, go on a run of 25 straight playoff appearances, although they only twice made the Conference Finals and never advanced past that point. Their lengthy post-season run ended in 2003-04.
The Blues have been in a rebuilding stage since the lockout, and are returning to the playoffs for the first time since their run of 25 seasons was ended. The current team has been getting outstanding goaltending from Nashville castoff Chris Mason, and a number of sheltered youngsters (David Perron, Patrick Berglund, T.J Oshie) have been putting up points and gaudy plus/minus numbers. The Blues leading scorer is the somewhat one-dimensional Brad Boyes (33 goals, 72 points, -20) and David Backes (31 goals, 54 points, -3) is probably their best forward – the same David Backes who Mike Gillis signed to an offer sheet this past summer. The Blues run a surprisingly effective checking line (waiver wire claim B.J Crombeen, Toronto castoff Alex Steen and career checker Jay McClement) at their opponent’s best players.
On defense, Barret Jackman does the heavy lifting, with Roman Polak, Jay McKee and Mike Weaver taking the next best players. Jeff Woywitka and Carlo Colaiacovo have had some success as third-pairing defenders.
Two key players for the Blues, Eric Brewer and Paul Kariya, have been injured for the majority of the season.
The Blues have been white hot of late, largely fuelled by the offensive production of the sheltered youngsters and incredible special teams. Both their powerplay and penalty kill are better than the Canucks’ – if they’re going to challenge for the series it will be on special teams. Ultimately, though, the Canucks are likely too deep at even-strength to be overcome; I’ll predict the Canucks win in six games.