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Core Values: Alex Pietrangelo is Blues' cornerstone defenseman

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Alex Pietrangelo has grown into one of the NHL's top defensemen. (USATSI)
Alex Pietrangelo has grown into one of the NHL's top defensemen. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The St. Louis Blues entered the 2013-14 season with such promise and were even a rather trendy Stanley Cup pick in the preseason. Though the Blues marched through most of the regular season without much issue, the team faltered down the stretch and ended up losing the top spot in the Central Division by one point. They were then ousted by the rival Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs

Left to pick up the pieces after a big trade to acquire Ryan Miller midseason proved fruitless, general manager Doug Armstrong got busy in the offseason. It wasn't all good news over the summer, but the team did make a huge splash in acquiring Paul Stastny with a big four-year deal.

The Blues still boast one of the best blue lines in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo, who has grown into one of the best defensemen in the game, and a forward crop that is three lines strong in terms of offensive output. Adding Stastny to that mix only makes it deeper.

Though the team lost valuable defensive forward Vladimir Sobotka, who left for the KHL after a contract dispute with the club, they should have the depth to weather that departure.

St. Louis is also hitching its wagon to Brian Elliott to be the starter in net, but he'll get pushed by reigning AHL goalie of the year Jake Allen, who should be ready to take some serious NHL reps and already has some solid NHL experience under his belt as an all-rookie selection in 2012-13.

The Blues have a chance, a good one, to be better than they were last season, but they're going to need their core group to really stand out in the very tough Central Division, in which seemingly every team (not so fast, Winnipeg) got better this offseason.

Core Values: St. Louis Blues

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): D Alex Pietrangelo (24, 6 years), C David Backes (30, 2 years), C Paul Stastny (28, 4 years), LW Alex Steen (30, 3 years), RW T.J. Oshie (27, 3 years), D Kevin Shattenkirk (25, 3 years), D Jay Bouwmeester (30, 5 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $37,625,000 (54.5% of cap space consumed by seven players)

Average Age: 27.7

Total point production in 2013-14^: 103 goals, 209 assists, 312 points (47.3 percent of team's total point production)
^ - Does not include Paul Stastny's 25-35=60 with the Colorado Avalanche last season

St. Louis Blues Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent.

About the Core

Alex Pietrangelo: The Blues boast a deep defensive group, but that doesn't lessen the impact Pietrangelo has on the Blues. He averages more than 25 minutes a game, routinely lines up against top forward lineups and eclipsed 50 points last season. He has only played four full seasons in the NHL and has twice been a second-team All-Star selection. In 305 career games with the Blues, Pietrangelo has 172 points and a career average ice time of nearly 24 minutes per game. Of any of the Blues' players, he has the longest term remaining on his contract and will be vital to any success the team has going forward. If Pietrangelo continues on this career arc, there could be a Norris Trophy or two in his future as well. Having a player like this as the cornerstone piece sets up the Blues better in the long-term. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, fourth overall

David Backes: The team's captain and do-everything center, Backes is a vital part of the Blues' efforts at both ends of the ice. Often part of the Selke Trophy discussion as one of the league's better defensive forwards, Backes has managed to keep his offensive production at a relatively high level. He has two seasons of 31 goals and put up 27 in 2013-14. As the usage chart above illustrates, Backes is doing well in tough minutes. The 30-year-old is also one of the Blues' more abrasive players. He was credited with 273 hits last season and logged 119 penalty minutes. Limiting the PIMs might not be a bad idea, though, as Backes would be better served on the ice, but it's hard to see that hardened element of his game being taken out anytime soon. In 568 career NHL games, all with the Blues, Backes has 357 points. He has just two years left on his contract, but considering his leadership position and effectiveness, the Blues would do well to extend him assuming he has another strong year next season. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 62nd overall

Could Paul Stastny be the missing piece for the Blues? (USATSI)
Could Paul Stastny be the missing piece for the Blues? (USATSI)

Paul Stastny: After handing out a four-year, $28 million contract this offseason in free agency, the Blues clearly view Stastny as a key piece for the team over the next several years. He may take some of the offensive pressure off of Backes, allowing the big center to take on the tougher defensive matchups, which will open up Stastny to be the producer among centers. With eight years of NHL experience already, the 28-year-old has a history of being able to put up points without being a defensive liability while on the ice. He had 60 points last season, but has also posted campaigns of 78, 71 and 79 points at various points in his career, all with the Colorado Avalanche. Stastny has 458 points in 538 career NHL games. Bringing his offensive capabilities should help boost scoring for a Blues team that has its share of productive forwards already. Having Backes and Stastny as the top two centers will certainly make the Blues more formidable in the top six and create some matchup headaches for other teams. Stastny's contract, which comes with an annual average of $7 million, gives the veteran forward a lot to live up to, but he landed in a really good situation in St. Louis. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014

Alex Steen: Coming off of an explosive offensive season, Steen set the bar even higher for his 2014-15 campaign. It is highly unlikely that Steen will match the 33 goals and 62 points he put up in just 68 games last season, but that doesn't make him any less valuable to the Blues. Additionally, with the bolstering of St. Louis' top six with Stastny, Steen very well could have another big year. Though a natural center, Steen has been occupying the wing and playing a key role often with Backes in the middle and has long been a strong defender. Head coach Ken Hitchcock gets a lot of versatility from Steen, which is why it seems he is played in just about any situation and in any matchup. After Steen cashed in during his big season, he has three years on his latest contract with an annual cap hit of $5.8 million. If he maintains his level of play, even if not the points, he'll have a good shot at living up to that deal and making the Blues a better team for the duration of the contract. How he was acquired: Traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs with Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak on Nov. 24, 2008

T.J. Oshie: The 2013-14 campaign was a whirlwind for Oshie, who became an overnight sensation thanks to his shootout performance at the 2014 Olympics, but he also had a pretty darn good season with the Blues and has continued his maturation into a solid NHL forward. Oshie put up career highs in goals (21), assists (39) and points (60) last season. In a lot of ways, it was the kind of campaign Blues fans have been waiting for after years of showing flashes of his great potential. In six NHL seasons, Oshie has topped 50 points just twice. If last season was a sign of things to come, however, brighter days are ahead for both Oshie and the Blues. In addition to his offensive skills, he does have some solid defensive value and plays a high-energy game. He has been a bit flat in the postseason though and that will have to change if the Blues are to break out in the playoffs. With his experience level and coming out of a confidence-boosting season, Oshie has to take that next step forward as a high-end top-six winger in the league. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 24th overall

Kevin Shattenkirk: Another young Blues player coming out of a career year, Shattenkirk put up career bests in goals (10), assists (35) and points (45). Additionally, he was a weapon on the power play with seven tallies on the advantage. A solid, mobile puck-mover, Shattenkirk was the key player in the trade that made former first overall pick Erik Johnson expendable in St. Louis. He has rewarded the Blues over the past three-plus seasons with production and reliable defense which has helped St. Louis build a formidable top-four corps. Shattenkirk's usage suggests that Hitchcock is giving him some of the lighter matchups, but it wouldn't mean anything if Shattenkirk didn't exploit them, which he does. Having guys like him and Pietrangelo to help in transition and get plays started with their distribution abilities gives the Blues a lot of offensive flexibility. Shattenkirk is also a top-four defenseman on an awfully affordable cap hit for the next three years, which is the added bonus here. How he was acquired: Traded from the Colorado Avalanche with Chris Stewart for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-round pick.

Jay Bouwmeester: Heading into his 12th NHL season, Bouwmeester is one of the Blues' more seasoned players. Having come over in a trade late in the 2012-13 season, he has performed well for the Blues in 96 games of work. As part of St. Louis' top pairing with Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester averaged more than 24 minutes per game last season, which is right around the average for the bulk of his career. He put up 37 points in 82 games. This upcoming season, Bouwmeester will play the first year of a five-year deal that will pay him an annual average of $5.4 million. That represents a decrease from his previous deal, which may help bring some extra value to the Blues. Bouwmeester has had an awfully interesting career, having also played with the Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames. Consdiering how he's utilized in St. Louis, the team has a lot of faith in him. Bouwmeester is aided by the fact he's partnered with Pietrangelo, but he does well in giving the Blues a really strong top pairing that includes a two blueliners who can really move the puck. He has been thrown a lot of accolades by the organization and had a strong season. More will be expected as the Blues look to take the next step to become a championship contender. How he was acquired: Traded from the Calgary Flames for Mark Cundari, Reto Berra and a first-round pick

Who's next in line

Vladimir Tarasenko is part of the next wave of Blues forwards. (USATSI)
Vladimir Tarasenko is part of the next wave of Blues forwards. (USATSI)

The Blues don't get enough credit for how well they've drafted over the past few years. It has helped them build depth up front and acquire a franchise cornerstone defenseman all within the past five years. Even though the Erik Johnson pick at No. 1 overall in 2007 didn't pan out as planned, Pietrangelo is quite the consolation prize.

Blues players most likely to jump into the mix as core players and would have been included if not for our self-imposed seven-player cap are Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. The young duo, both selected by St. Louis in the first round in 2010, has already made its presence known and should continue as they gain experience in the league.

Schwartz, who finished fourth on the team with 56 points last season, is still awaiting a new deal as a restricted free agent, but should receive a healthy raise ahead of next season. Tarasenko, who put up 43 points in 64 games, still has a year remaining on his cheap entry-level contract.

These two made key contributions last season and should be seeing more prominent minutes after feasting on the competition as third-line players. As they continue to mature, they could supplant Backes and Steen as those two get older. It will be an interesting development to watch.

Goaltender Jake Allen should also figure prominently in St. Louis' future. He didn't see any time with the club last season, but torched the AHL to the tune of a .928 save percentage with the Chicago Wolves. He was the league's goaltender of the year and made Ryan Miller expendable. Now he'll likely start as Brian Elliott's backup next season and could work his way into more of a tandem role. At just 23, he still has plenty of time to mature into the team's No. 1 goalie.

The team also could be looking for Dmitrij Jaskin to make the jump to the NHL after showing promise last season. The Blues also added Jori Lehtera from the Finnish pro ranks. The former draft pick will get his first taste of the NHL and the expectations are pretty high for him after he showed some serious promise as a member of Finland's Olympic team. How either of these two hold up to their projections remains to be seen, but they're intriguing.

Overview

Heading into the 2014-15 season, the Blues have a team that can compete again. They'll face a tough road in the very good Central Division and overall meat grinder that is the Western Conference. They have the tools for success though and if they can figure out what ails them in the postseason, they'll have a decent enough shot at the Stanley Cup.

Adding Stastny to an already good forward group is a great start. The team's fourth line leaves little to be desired, but that's less a concern when they have three solid lines. Patrik Berglund hasn't even been mentioned yet, but if he's the Blues' No. 3 center behind Stastny and Backes, that's a heck of a trio down the middle with Steve Ott holding down the fourth line.

There's production throughout the forward lineup, the defense can put up points and now they just have to hope the goaltending holds up.

Elliott is finally being given a chance to be a true No. 1 and he has played mostly well when called upon. He has a .927 save percentage in three years with the Blues. That span has still included some high highs and low lows, though. It has been about four years since Elliott experienced a workload like the one he should receive this year, but the pressure is on to prove he can be the No. 1, while getting pushed by the very promising Allen.

Did the Blues do enough this offseason to get them over the hump and get up to the level of the Blackhawks and Kings as the class of the West? It's tough to say at this point, especially since the Ducks and Wild also went out and got better this summer. But there's little doubt St. Louis is going to be a tough team in 2014-15. They have the pieces to contend, now they just have to actually go out there and do it.

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