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NHL Midseason Report The front-running Blues need only a modest upgrade if they're to win their first Stanley Cup

The upwardly mobile St. Louis Blues would like to own a town house
in the NHL's high-rent district with the Colorado Avalanche, the
New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars, but they can't seem to
move out of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Not only is St. Louis a
nice team--through Sunday the Blues led the league in wins, fewest
goals allowed, goal differential and penalty killing--but it's
also a really nice team.

The Blues have no AWOL goaltender or goalie controversy (even if
one might be warranted), two franchise defensemen who happily
defer to each other, a direct coach who tells players what they
don't want to hear yet makes it palatable, and a conservative
general manager who is not predisposed to do anything more
precipitous than chomp on an After Eight mint at 7:45. "This
isn't a flashy team," says Al MacInnis, one of the two defensive
pillars that support the weight of Stanley Cup expectations in
St. Louis. The wacky NHL awards points for overtime losses but
not for style, a blessing for the Blues. If they win their first
Cup, the postgame question about the chilled stuff sprayed in the
dressing room will be whether it's skim or 2%.

The Blues should be enjoying the fruits of their march through
the first half of the schedule--including starting the season with
only four losses in 32 games, MacInnis's return to dominance
after an injury-plagued 1999-2000, the emergence of 23-year-old
rookie goalie Brent Johnson--but they fret incessantly. St. Louis
is preoccupied with its inability to match the metronomic
consistency it showed in winning the Presidents' Trophy last
season. "Pretty much the same record, but last year we played
extremely well to get there," says Chris Pronger, the other
defensive standout, who won the Hart and Norris trophies in 2000.
"This year we've just scratched the surface of where we can be."

Rather than taking satisfaction in its ability to rebound from
the bizarre, seven-game, first-round playoff loss to the San Jose
Sharks--six of the first 12 Sharks goals went off Blues
players--St. Louis remains consumed by the defeat. "Until we win
in the playoffs, there are a lot of questions," coach Joel
Quenneville says. "We absolutely shouldn't be held in high esteem
the way Colorado or Dallas or Detroit is. We've got to prove it.
We're from Missouri."

Like the teenager who continually examines his pimples in front
of a mirror, the Blues only grudgingly acknowledge that despite a
few blemishes, they look fine. St. Louis has a splendid
foundation, something teams in the ritzy neighborhood--the
Nietzsche-deep Devils excepted--might envy. Given the Blues'
history, this is a minor miracle.

For most of its 34 years in the NHL, St. Louis has been a
seat-of-the-pants outfit, a club that lived in the present
because it didn't have much of a past and its future had been
traded. In 1990 the Blues dealt their first-round draft pick to
the Vancouver Canucks, commencing a string of eight years of
profligacy in which they would make only one first-round
selection. They were a Rotisserie team, shuttling bodies,
collecting veterans, even leasing Wayne Gretzky for two months in
February 1996 as Mike Keenan, the coach and general manager at
the time, fashioned the oldest team in the league. Those were, as
one St. Louis holdover says, "the pins-and-needles years. You'd
come to the rink and wouldn't know if your sweater would be
hanging in your locker or in the hall. Mike could make a trade
just because he was in a bad mood."

Before he was fired in December 1996, Keenan did acquire three
of the players who form the core of this year's team--Pronger,
center Pierre Turgeon and left wing Pavol Demitra--but general
manager Larry Pleau has filled in smartly around the edges. In 3
1/2 years he has stockpiled the talent found by Ted Hampson, his
highly regarded chief amateur scout. Nine of the Blues' regulars
have spent a collective 20 1/2 seasons in the minors. The
reliance on patience in player development, the backbone of New
Jersey's success, was pioneered in the late 1960s by the
Montreal Canadiens, for whom Pleau, a center, played three

"In the early 1990s we all thought we were one good player
away," says Pleau, who worked in the front office of the New
York Rangers from 1989 through '97 until getting the St. Louis
job. "The free-agent market was opening up; unrestricted guys
were coming in. Teams were making trades and giving up so much
that the organization, if it didn't win, was always trying to
catch up."

While other teams would Nasdaq, Pleau clipped Blue chip coupons.
The dividends have been solid in cases such as those of rookie
defenseman Bryce Salvador and second-year pot-stirring forward
Tyson Nash, low-priced free-agent pickups who combined for a
numbing seven years of minor league schooling. Salvador,
MacInnis's partner, has emerged as a more well-rounded defenseman
than expected. Meanwhile Nash, a fourth-liner last season who was
so physical that he might as well have been playing without a
puck, has become a valued third-line checker and penalty killer.
He scored a shorthanded goal in a 4-2 win in Anaheim last week by
hustling down his off wing and roofing a puck on Mighty Ducks
goalie Guy Hebert.

In the case of the 6'2" Johnson, a veteran of 149 minor league
games, the benefits have been spectacular. First in the NHL in
goals-against average (1.62) and second in save percentage
(.927), Johnson is big, athletic and poised. That last attribute
is one that 30-year-old Roman Turek, the nominal No. 1 goalie,
sometimes lacks. Turek, in nets for the playoff meltdown last
spring, still finds the most inopportune moments for his
occasional gaffes, like failing to cover a puck in a 2-1 overtime
loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 8. After Johnson handled
the Ducks in that 4-2 victory for his 15th win, Turek was blitzed
the next night in San Jose 6-3, making several spectacular saves
but not enough big ones when the Blues were still in the game.
Turek has allowed four or more goals six times this season,
Johnson once.

"We can't expect more from Pronger, MacInnis and Turgeon," Pleau
says. "They have to play to their level. We need more from our
young guys, like Johnson and [centers Jochen] Hecht and [Michal]
Handzus. When they get better, we'll get better. These guys are
maybe B players now. The question is, Will they become A players
or slip to B-minus players? Sometime in the next few years, we'll
find out."

Perhaps the timetable shouldn't be so leisurely given the
aggressiveness of such Stanley Cup contenders as Dallas, Detroit
and Colorado in the search for veteran talent. Avalanche general
manager Pierre Lacroix has made bold, preemptive trades the past
two seasons, spiriting away right wing Theo Fleury in 1999 (a
bust) and defenseman Raymond Bourque in 2000 (a bonanza). He aced
out Pleau for the latter. The stand-pat Blues were left
practically naked up front when an injured Demitra (concussion)
missed the series against the Sharks, who merrily hounded
Turgeon, the only other dangerous St. Louis forward. The thinness
of the front line was exposed again in recent weeks. Through
Sunday, St. Louis had dropped four of eight games since Demitra
sustained a bruised retina in his right eye on Dec. 30, a setback
compounded by the loss of Turgeon to a concussion (he caught a
right to the jaw in a fight) 11 days later. Demitra should return
after the All-Star break, Turgeon this week.

The Blues could use one more quality forward with a righthanded
shot, which would allow them to set up the power play on
Pronger's side and free a diagonal pass back to MacInnis at the
right point for his 98-mph slap shot. "You'd like to see a move,
but it has to be the right match," Pronger says. "With the way
the last three years have gone, you don't necessarily want to
squander the future for right now."

The problems of the best team in the first half were trifles, the
wailing of the well-heeled. The potential difficulties in the
second half, when a nice team must turn into a championship one,
are more profound. After only five playoff series wins in 10
years, it would be a pity if the sweaters the Blues tug on in
April were zip-up cardigans.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO ON TARGET Right wing Scott Young, who has 20 goals, was yet another astute free-agent signing by general manager Pleau.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HE'S NO ORDINARY JOE Sakic has been both the high scorer and top leader.

COLOR PHOTO: ELSA/ALLSPORT HITTING HIS STRIDE Despite being only 5'9", Sullivan is putting up some big numbers.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO AIR MALE Nash and St. Louis are going all out to put last spring's failure behind them.

Lords of the Rink
Here is SI's All-Star team for the first half of the season.

Surprising save-percentage leader (.934 through Sunday) faces a
blizzard of quality shots behind mediocre defense.

Back to 1998-99 Norris Trophy form, he has been superb at making
breakout pass; his blistering shot, of course, is legendary.

Not as dominant as during MVP season in 1999-2000, but defensive
skills give him the edge over the Kings' Rob Blake.

C JOE SAKIC, Avalanche
The NHL's top scorer (25 goals and 37 assists at week's end), he
held Colorado together through a glut of early-season injuries.

Second in league in points-per-game (1.39), he's a fabulous
scorer and gets the nod over Penguin Jaromir Jagr and Senator
Marian Hossa.

New Vancouver captain has blossomed; with 27 goals, he holds the
edge over the Devils' Patrik Elias at NHL's weakest position.