Blues Head Coach Davis Payne will have a different roster to work with heading into 2011-12.
The Blues’ opening day roster will have at least four new faces since the end of last season. The Blues have brought in free-agents Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Kent Huskins and Brian Elliot over the summer. Elliott and Ben Bishop will be battling for the back-up goalie role behind starter Jaroslav Halak.
With these moves, the Blues’ average age has jumped from 26.121 at the end of last season to 27.428 currently. Obviously, Blues management felt that a little more veteran presence was needed to move this team forward.
But what does this mean for Payne?
Spanning over two seasons, the young head coach has posted a 61-48-15 record. While over .500, the Blues team is yet to see a playoff berth under Payne. It seems that it is pretty much do or die for the coach in 2011-12.
Last season, the Blues finished the season with a 38-33-11 record (87 points), placing 4th in the Central Division, 11th in the Western Conference and 10 points out of a playoff spot. It is difficult to point fingers at the Blues’ coaching staff though.
With the franchise looking for a new investor at the time (Team Owner Dave Checketts still was looking to control the team), the Blues saw their worst month occur in January, when they put up a dreadful 2-8-2 record. This was mostly due to a swarm of injuries to the club, that included star forwards T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald and David Perron, as well as defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo. GM Doug Armstrong wanted to keep the team looking cheap yet attractive to a potential investor, so his hands were tied in making trades or signings that could fully impact the roster. Lest we forget that he did attempt to make small signings of players who were skating overseas (Marek Svatos and Kyle Wellwood), but because of an archaic NHL rule, the players were picked up on waivers by other teams before they could even play one game with the Blues.
As it looks now, the Blues will have a whole new ownership group by the start of the season. It was apparent that the sale looked promising because the Blues were very active in the free-agent market this summer. Now Checketts is all but guaranteeing a new owner will be in place by the start of the season.
This means that injuries cannot be an excuse next season. Payne has been given a roster that will have to compete for playing minutes even if there are major injuries. The depth in this lineup goes much deeper than it did last season. Players that were guaranteed a spot in the 20-man lineup are no longer guaranteed to play every night.
Payne will be making some tough game-day decisions this coming season. If the team drops a few games in a row, he has the ability to remove someone from the lineup and plug-in another NHL talent in the same spot. He did not have that luxury last season; if there was an injury or he had to shake-up the roster, he only had AHL bodies to put in the game. Now he has a full NHL level 23-man roster to work with.
This is not just limited to skaters. If Halak hits a slump, Payne has Bishop and Elliott, both with two-way contracts, to try in between the pipes.
With the summer the Blues had, it seems that they are a team destined to be battling for a playoff spot all season long. Payne has proven that he can lead a young team through an injury-plagued season and still finish in a respectable position, but now it’s time to see if he can lead an experienced roster past mid-April.