1. How will the new personnel affect the team’s playing style?
Perhaps more significant than the loss of veteran leadership is the Blues’ loss of size and physicality up front. With Backes (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), Brouwer (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), and Ott (a 6-foot, 190-pounder who played like he was 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds) gone, the Blues don’t have nearly as much size among their forward corps, and they’ll need to adapt.
While guys like Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, and Dmitrij Jaskin (perhaps along with Vladimir Sobotka, if he returns) are strong and disciplined enough to defend big, physical opponents, this is no longer going to be a team that’s built around aggressiveness and frequent checking from their forwards. Of course, it’s already been trending that way over the last few years as Paul Stastny has become a factor and Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri have become primary offensive contributors, but it will definitely be different now with Backes and Brouwer gone.
Ironically, the two teams that the Blues can most look to for inspiration are the last two clubs to take them down in the postseason: the San Jose Sharks and the Minnesota Wild, two teams that are built on an insane level of speed and offensive skill. Both play with such an aggressive tempo that they wreak havoc on opponents, and while both possess big forwards (i.e. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu), those guys are valuable much more because of their disciplined defense and ability to move up and down the ice than their ability to physically punish opponents. Basically, they play much more like Steen and Berglund than they do Backes and Brouwer.
As Hitchcock explained in an August interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Jeremy Rutherford: “This is the first time in five years that there’s going to be a significant change in a part of the system that we play,” Hitchcock said. “We’re able to cherry-pick what Minny did. Their team was built the same way that our team is going to be built this year, not really big on size, but a bunch of puck-hunters.”
While many people who watched the Blues throughout 2015-16 would say that Tarasenko and Fabbri were the team’s most valuable forwards during the regular season, at least from an offensive standpoint, it was quite clear that Backes and Brouwer were the most important forwards as the Blues fought through three playoff series. Their willingness to play at a hundred miles an hour was unbelievably valuable, and they both have an ability to stay strong in front of the net like no one on the Blues’ current roster has really shown an ability to do.
One thing is undeniable: the Blues won’t have as much overt physicality as they did in 2015-16. Brouwer and Backes accounted for 439 of 1,291 (34 percent) Blues hits last season. There’s definitely not an in-house option to assume that level of aggressiveness.
Now it is worth noting that David Perron has substantially increased his level of physicality since his first stint in St. Louis. After topping out at 78 hits in a season with the Blues, he’s had 116, 171, and 142 in the three seasons that he’s been gone. Vladimir Sobotka, who averaged over two hits a game during his first stint in St. Louis, could also help out in that department if he returns.
But for the most part, since Ryan Reaves–who had 206 of the remaining 528 hits–isn’t expected to play a major role on this team, the Blues will definitely need to find a new way to antagonize opponents as they cut down on the hits.