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Pivotal Player: Paul Stastny has opportunity to fill voids left in Backes’ wake

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The cast of the Blues may be different, but there’s an opportunity for new stars

San Jose Sharks v St Louis Blues - Game Five Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Saint Louis Blues find themselves at somewhat of a crossroad to start the upcoming season. The team has been on the rise with consecutive playoff appearances resulting in a first round exit against the Wild in 2014-15 and a flourish to the Western Conference Final on a path through Chicago and Dallas in 2015-16. Though the Sharks would dash their cup dreams, the Blues had a fine season, finishing second in the Central Division and remaining in the fight for first place to the bitter end. It was a successful season for a team on the upswing.

However, the impending 2016-17 season may well start a new chapter for the Notes. Gone are captain David Backes, reliable scorer Troy Brouwer, netminder Brian Elliot and the scrappy Steve (#LaughAt) Ott. The complexion of the team has changed significantly in a division that continues to improve around them. The Blues haven’t made any big moves this offseason, and have just a hair under $4M left to the salary cap. There are a lot of players still looking for jobs at this point due to the effect of the salary cap on the league, and that space might be enough for 2-3 more players but none of them will likely be major players. Kevin Shattenkirk remains on the roster as no trade has materialized to make it worth trading him away. This team has a similar cast, but a few of the stars are gone. Its kind of like watching ‘That 70’s Show’ after Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher moved on. And like ‘That 70s Show,’ it puts a lot of pressure on the remaining cast to carry the show forward.

One player that stands to be squarely in the spotlight as St. Louis turns the page from the David Backes years is Paul Stastny. The hometown hero was acquired as a free agent prior to the 2014-15 season when the Colorado Avalanche failed to re-sign him after a messy contract situation. The Blues happily handed Stastny a 4 year, $28M deal, and now half way through that deal the team will turn to Stastny for veteran leadership on and off the ice. Stastny rises to the top of the Center depth chart that also features Jori Lehtera, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka and Kyle Brodziak. The Blues were somewhat prepared for this as Backes was shifting to the wing at times, but Stastny will now be thrust into a featured role based on his career performance, ability and contract.

Stasty came to the Blues having scored 458 points in 538 games, good for .85 points per game through his career in Colorado. His production has taken somewhat of a dip since moving to Saint Louis, but Stastny has been mostly deployed as a second-line center in a much more defensively sound scheme under Ken Hitchcock, which can help explain the dip in production. He has posted 95 points in 138 games in Saint Louis playing in that altered role, which is still good for .69 points per game. He has also been somewhat limited in games played due to injuries over the two seasons with the Blues. Stastny enters the season at age 30 and will be looking to play 75 games or more for the first time in a Blues sweater.

It is assumed that he will start the season as the first line center, paired with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, which should knock the training wheels right off and increase expectations for Stastny immediately. Stastny is an excellent playmaker who will be paired with an elite finisher in Tarasenko. That move in itself will give Stastny’s production a boost, and having Schwartz on the other side rounds out the line nicely. But the expectations must be increased in a team that lost both Backes and Brouwer, creating a goal scoring vacuum. Stastny represents the player best suited to provide an increase in production with his permanent move to the first line and complementary skills with Tarasenko and Schwartz. He will be given the opportunity to utilize his playmaking ability with the team’s best finishers while capturing first line minutes.

While Stastny never wore the ‘C’ over his 8 years in Colorado, it doesn’t diminish the fact that he was a leader for the team. Playing behind Captains such as Joe Sakic and Adam Foote, Stastny was commonly regarded as part of the leadership group through his consistency in performance, even through some very dark days in Colorado. His father Peter Stastny also had his number retired by the franchise, so Paul always held an extra degree of respect from the fans, media and organization because of the success of his father. While providing a bridge from a time when Colorado was home to several hall-of-fame names to an infusion of young talent, Stastny provided reliable production as the team rebuilt itself around him. In St. Louis, these experiences will play heavily into the new leadership gap caused by the departure of the aforementioned veterans.

Stastny has long been a thorn in the side of most teams in the Central Division throughout his career in Colorado, and he will have the perfect opportunity to return to that level in his elevated role this season in St. Louis. For the first time since signing his latest contract, he will be consistently put in the best situation for him to succeed and could be a true difference maker that helps Blues team remain relevant and competitive through a transitional period for the franchise. While on paper, it may appear that they have taken a step back, but a player like Stastny could be the guy to make a difference if he can stay healthy.