For 10 years the routine was as predictable as it was
entertaining. Blues right wing Brett Hull would arrive in camp
in September and spend the next eight months shooting the puck
and shooting off his mouth with equal frequency. No more.
Second-year general manager Larry Pleau let Hull escape to
Dallas as a free agent this summer without even offering the
team's alltime leading goal scorer a contract. Did the Kiel
Center roof fall in? Hardly. Says winger Kelly Chase, "There's
been a lot less bitchin' around here."
Not a bad first move for a franchise desperate to be reinvented.
Though they have made the playoffs in every season since
1979-80, the Blues have never advanced beyond the conference
finals in that span. Entwined with that legacy of springtime
flameouts is a pattern of player-versus-front-office tiffs, many
of them instigated by Hull. With the Golden Brett gone, the
Blues have changed their tune. Already, center Pierre Turgeon
has described Pleau as "first class" for the way the G.M.
handled Turgeon's $4.65 million off-season arbitration victory.
Unfortunately, without Hull (27 goals) and defenseman Steve
Duchesne (14), who also left as a free agent, last year's
top-scoring team lacks firepower. Turgeon (22 goals) and winger
Geoff Courtnall (31) will have to boost their production, and
free-agent winger Scott Young must net more than the 13 goals he
had last season for the Ducks.
St. Louis remains deep on defense. Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger
are rocks on the blue line, and coach Joel Quenneville can roll
out a seemingly endless string of grinders to clamp down his
neutral-zone trap. If ageless goaltender Grant Fuhr (29-21-6,
2.53 goals-against average) has one more solid season in him,
St. Louis could find itself in a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games.
In other words, playoff-type games--the kind the Blues usually
lose. This spring we'll see if things really have changed in St.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Pronger (44): tower of power for St. Louis. [Chris Pronger checking opposing player]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
The Blues have the NHL's longest active streak of making the
playoffs (19 years) and have missed the postseason only three
times in their 31-year history.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--With the exodus of Brett Hull, forwards Jim Campbell and
Pavol Demitra need to develop into topflight snipers.
--Jamie Rivers must adequately replace the departed free agent
Steve Duchesne on the point so the Blues can again be potent
on the power play (ninth in the league in 1997-98).