Blues fans, we are just over four weeks away from training camp, which means one thing...
St. Louis Blues hockey is fast approaching for the 2009-10 season!
Coming off of a 2008-09 season filled with excitement, drama, ups and downs, and an unbelievable stretch run that catapulted the Blues into the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004, I'm sure Blues fans are wondering what's to come for this season?
Time will tell, obviously. But, until then, I'll be breaking down the 2009-10 St. Louis Blues in the next few days, piece by piece, to give the fans a sense of what to look forward to in the upcoming season.
The first installment of this series is...
Expected Starting Goaltender:
Chris Mason: 27-21-7, 2.51 GAA, .916 SV %, 6 SHO in 57 games played w/Blues last season
Expected Backup Goaltender:
Ty Conklin: 25-11-2, 2.51 GAA, .909 SV %, 6 SHO in 40 games played w/Detroit last season
Expected to be in Peoria:
Ben Bishop: 15-16-1, 2.88 GAA, .897 SV %, 1 SHO in 33 games played w/Peoria last season; 1-1-1, 2.94 GAA, .893 SV %, 0 SHO in 6 games played w/Blues last season
Hannu Toivonen:19-23-9, 2.68 GAA, .910 SV %, 3 SHO in 56 games played w/Ilves Tampere (Finnish League) last season
Manny Legace: 13-9-2, 3.18 GAA, .885 SV %, 0 SHO in 29 games played w/Blues last season; 14-7-1, 2.00 GAA, .935 SV %, 3 SHO in 23 games played w/Peoria last season
Chris Holt: 0-0-0, 0.00 GAA, 1.000 SV %, 0 SHO in 1 game played w/Blues last season; 10-6-2, 1.73 GAA, .931 SV %, 1 SHO in 20 games played w/ Peoria last season; 3-2-0, 1.80 GAA, .946 SV %, 1 SHO in 5 games played w/Alaska (ECHL) last season
Marek Schwarz: 0-0-0, 0.00 GAA, 1.000 SV%, 0 SHO in 2 games played w/Blues last season; 4-4-0, 3.56 GAA, .868 SV %, 0 SHO in 10 games played w/Peoria last season; 2-2-1, 3.15 GAA, .904 SV %, 0 SHO in 5 games played w/Alaska (ECHL) last season
It was a tale of two seasons for the Blues' goalies last season. The goaltending in the first half of the season was downright horrific, filled with bad play, soft goals, injuries galore, and the end of Manny Legace in a St. Louis Blues' uniform. The second half was highlighted by the emergence of veteran goalie Chris Mason earning his spot and staking his claim as a legitimate number one goaltender through a two-month stretch run that vaulted the Blues into the playoffs.
The Blues came into last season with Manny Legace, coming off of an All-Star season in net, as their starting goaltender. However, tension mounted between Legace and the Blues' front office before the season even began, as the Blues pulled off a trade with Nashville on July 31, 2008 to acquire goalie Chris Mason in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. The move was made to push Legace into earning his spot as the number one guy, rather than expecting to have it handed to him because of the season he had in 2007-08. This, along with the reluctance of the Blues to sign Legace to a contract extension, because of offseason arthroscopic knee surgery on his troublesome left knee that he refused to notify team management of, spelled a recipe for disaster for the Blues and Legace.
The team and fans could tell Legace wasn't 100% healthy as soon as he stepped onto the ice for game one of the regular season against the Nashville Predators at Scottrade Center. Despite his winning record, Legace struggled to find his form in between the pipes, and at times looked like he lost focus and had quite a few soft goals, that Blues' fans and teammates knew, the old Manny Legace would've saved. That, along with a fairly young, inexperienced defensive core that lost stars Erik Johnson (ACL tear in his left knee) before the season, and Eric Brewer (back surgery) about a month into the season, became a situation that the Blues tried to find a quick fix for. They turned to Mason on a few separate occasions for a spot start or relief role for Legace, but he struggled as well, and for a period of almost a month, was out of action with a hernia. Then, the injuries started to pile up for Legace as well.
October 25, 2008...the Blues were hosting the Los Angeles Kings, and the Blues invited Vice Presidential candidate Sara Palin (A.K.A. Hockey Mom) to drop the ceremonial first puck before the game. A narrow piece of carpeting was placed in front of the Blues tunnel on the ice for Palin's emergence. Unfortunately, it was Manny Legace, not Sara Palin, who was told to exit the tunnel first. Manny exits the tunnel, steps on the carpeting, and in a bad twist of fate, the carpet comes out from under him and sends Legace to the ice.
A "Ha-ha, Legace fell down...that's funny" moment tuned into an "Oh, crap...this isn't good" moment for the Blues, and the fans in attendance and watching on TV that night, as Legace was in obvious pain throughout the entire first period, and was pulled after the period was over. Legace would end up on injured reserve with a strained hip flexor as a result of that unfortunate turn of events.
Legace would come back about two weeks later, but continued to struggle in net. Then, on December 11th, 2008, another injury shelved Legace. This time, it was a mild concussion thanks to an inadvertent knee to the head by Anaheim's Ryan Carter during the first period of the game against the Ducks at Arrowhead Pond. Legace went to make a save, but Carter's knee nailed Legace in the side of the head as he was skating through the crease to screen Legace from the initial shot. Another trip on injured reserve for Legace, and after about two weeks, he was back in action for St. Louis.
Unfortunately, whatever form he tried to regain in net was apparently left in Anaheim, and didn't bother following him back to St. Louis.
The end of the Manny Legace era in a Bluenote uniform came on February 2nd, 2009. The Blues were playing a nationally-televised Monday night game against the rival Detroit Red Wings---which just so happened to be Manny Legace's former team. Legace, going into the game, was hoping for a stellar performance in front of friends and family that were in attendance that night. That didn't turn out as planned.
Legace was lit up for three goals on eight shots, and was pulled after the first period. The Blues ended up losing 4-3 in a shootout, but that wasn't the story. Moreso, the story was the attitude and expressions that Legace showed on the bench after being pulled from the contest. It was one of a blank stare into nowhere...a complete disinterest in the action going on in front of him. A moping, angry, embarassed, and distraught Legace acted like he didn't care about his teammates, or cheering them on for that matter. All that he seemed to care about at that time was him. Three days later, on February 5th, the Blues placed Legace, their lone All-Star representative from the season before, on waivers. When no teams decided to claim Legace, he was sent down to Peoria of the AHL, with the notification that the Blues wouldn't be calling for his assistance if they needed help in the goaltending department throughout the entire rest of the season.
Legace helped Peoria clinch an AHL playoff appearance, and actually played quite well during his stint there. But, since Legace was no longer part of the big club, it was now Chris Mason's opportunity to show the Blues why they acquired him in the offseason...and boy, did he ever do that.
Mason's exceptional play in net led the Blues on a two-month stretch run that saw them rise up the standings, from 14th place in the Western Conference on the day Mason took over as the starting goaltender (February 3rd), to a sixth place finish in the West and a first round matchup against the third seed Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the NHL playoffs. That's where the cinderella story ended for the Blues, though, as they were the victims of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Canucks.
Coming into this season, the Blues are hoping that the high level of play Mason showed during those two months as the number one goaltender carries over into this season. There's a reason Mason was acquired by the Blues, and it wasn't to sit on the bench and watch someone else play. Mason staked his claim last season as a legitimate starting goaltender in this league, and it's up to him to live up to his potential and give the Blues a reason to believe he can be "the guy" in net for them for a number of years to come.
It also helps that the Blues signed Ty Conklin this offseason to play the role of backup goaltender, that is also versatile in either a spot start role or a longer-term role if Mason, god forbid, were to get bitten by the injury bug. Conklin is used to this role, and for the past few seasons, he's played that role very well. That's why he was the most sought-after free agent backup goaltender available in this year's free agent pool.
Let's face it. The backup goaltender spot has been somewhat of a revolving door for the past number of years for the Blues. Conklin was signed with the assumption that he'll be the stopgap for that gaping hole that the Blues have needed fixed for quite some time. What's not to like about a guy like Conklin, who has a career record that's 30 games over .500 (73-43), a career 2.58 GAA, and a career .909 save percentage?
Statistics like that, all in a backup role, I should add...
When the Blues need to call up a goaltender from Peoria, the guy they'll be looking at (or should I say, looking UP at...), is a hometown product and a 2005 third-round draft pick of the Blues that at 6'7", is the tallest goaltender to ever put on a pair of goalie pads in NHL history. The guy I'm talking about is Ben Bishop.
Bishop sparingly saw time with the Blues last season, and looked good in his time with the club. The game that showed everyone, including Blues' fans, why the Blues are touting him as the next All-Star caliber goalie they have to offer, is the game he started in San Jose on November 6th, 2008. In a shootout loss, Bishop was outstanding. He stopped 39 of 43 San Jose shots, including a few dazzling saves, and no doubt kept the Blues in that game. Without Bishop's remarkable performance in net, the Blues would've been taken to the slaughterhouse by, at that time, the hottest team in the NHL.
And, the Blues are bringing back an old face to play in Peoria this season as well. Remember Hannu Toivonen? He was the highly-rated young goalie that Blues traded prospect Carl Soderberg to Boston to get in return. In his first year with the Blues in 2007-08, he looked like a guy that could fit comfortably into that backup role behind Manny Legace. That was until a December game in Colorado against the Avalanche, when he got dismantled for nine goals in a 9-5 loss. After that game, Toivonen's confidence was shattered, as was his game. He never was the same goaltender after that, and ended up signing with Ilves Tampere in Finland last offseason.
The Blues, however, still owned his rights despite him going to play for a Finnish team. From all accounts by Blues' scouts that saw him play there last season, they say he's totally re-invented his game and wanted to give the NHL another shot. With the lack of depth the Blues had going into this season because of the departures of Chris Holt, Marek Schwarz, and J.P. Lamoreux from Peoria and Alaska, respectively, the Blues offered Toivonen that chance that he desired. He'll most likely be the backup to Bishop in Peoria to begin the season, but...you never know. We could see Toivonen back in a St. Louis Blues uniform sometime this season if something happens unexpectedly.
Stay tuned for part two, where I break down a factor of the Blues' team that's haunted them for the past few seasons...
The defensive core.