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2016-17 NHL Season Preview: St. Louis Blues

2016-17 NHL Season Preview: St. Louis Blues

It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.

Team: St. Louis Blues

How they did last season: 49-24-9 (96 points), 2nd in the Central, 2nd in the Western Conference. Made the playoffs, lost in the Conference Finals to the San Jose Sharks in six games.

Notable acquisitions: G Carter Hutton, LW David Perron

Notable departures:  C David Backes, RW Troy Brouwer, C Steve Ott, G Brian Elliott

When they will play the Caps: Nov. 23 in Washington; Jan. 19 in St. Louis

RELATED: CAPS PHOTO JOURNAL: CARLSON ENJOYING SUMMER WITH SON

Analysis: It is rare to see a coach in waiting scenario in professional sports because they rarely ever work, but dammit if the St. Louis Blues aren’t going to try it this season.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock signed another one-year deal in May and promptly announced that the upcoming season would be his last. The Blues decided not to wait and tabbed Mike Yeo as the coach in waiting. He will serve as an assistant coach for the season and take over for Hitchcock next year.

The coaching structure for this team will make them one of the most compelling storylines of the season. Can St. Louis actually make this work?

Among the myriad of reasons why this setup usually fails is the rift it forms between coaches and players. Hitchcock and Yeo will be fine, provided they speak with one voice, otherwise Hitchcock becomes nothing more than a lame duck to the players. If some of the players begin to turn to Yeo instead of Hitchcock, this team could implode. Just one year ago, I wondered if Hitchcock could get fired if the Blues had a slow start to the season. Does he really have enough control of the locker room to ensure he keeps control even with the future coach on the staff?

This issue is compounded by the fact that St. Louis lost captain David Backes in the offseason. Perhaps the addition of David Perron will be able to make up for the loss of his offensive production, but in a year this team will need leadership more than ever, it’s the wrong time to have to replace the captain. And who gets to make that decision? Will it be Hitchcock who will only be there for another year or Yeo? It doesn't really  make sense for Hitchcock to make that decision, but could there be any greater indication that Hitchcock is a lame duck coach than if Yeo gets to make the first major decision of the new season?

At least the situation in net finally has some resolution. After years of splitting the starting duties, the Blues traded Brian Elliott to Calgary, thus making Jake Allen the undisputed starter. The addition of career backup Carter Hutton is further proof that the keys to the castle will belong to Allen this season.

Allen appeared in a career-high 47 games last season, but how will he handle starting 55-60? And how will he handle being the starter in the postseason? In 12 career postseason games, Allen has registered a save percentage of only .902. Compare that to the .921 Elliott managed in the 2016 playoff run.

No one can question this team’s talent with players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, David Perron, Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester. And, as good as Elliott was, there’s no reason to doubt Allen’s ability to handle the load as the top starter. Handling that talent, however, and getting it to the point where it can compete for a Stanley Cup is a tough job and it requires great coaching. Does the addition of Yeo really set this team up for success for the upcoming season or will it prove to be an unwelcome distraction that ends up dividing the loyalty of the players?

Season prediction: The structure the Blues have set up for this season has the potential to blow up in their face. What if this team lacks leadership with Backes gone? What if Allen is not able to handle the load as the No. 1 goalie? Can St. Louis rely on Tarasenko? Whatever problems this team may face, you trust a coach like Hitchcock to handle them...unless the team sees him as a lame duck coach.

Let’s face it, no one could label Hitchcock as a players’ coach and I don’t see the Blues rallying in a “win one for the Gipper” type of way. The team’s run in the playoffs last season suggests he still carries weight in the locker room, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the players revolt against him and turn to Yeo. Hitchcock and Yeo will have to handle the coaching dynamic perfectly or the Blues will implode.

Even without coach in waiting situation, St. Louis lost enough this offseason to make me think they will take a step back. Now the coaching situation hangs over this team like a storm cloud.

The management in St. Louis isn’t stupid. They knew the risks and they still chose to grab their coach before someone else could. I think they will do all they can to ensure this season goes smoothly publicly even if it means Hitchcock becomes little more than a figurehead. Internally though, there could be some problems and I am very skeptical that this will work. This team feels like a wild card team at best. Stanley Cup? Not a chance.

MORE HOCKEY: BACKSTROM, CARLSON TRAINING EARLIER AND HARDER FOR WORLD CUP

2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS

Pacific Division
— Anaheim Ducks
— Arizona Coyotes
— Calgary Flames
— Edmonton Oilers
— Los Angeles Kings
— San Jose Sharks
— Vancouver Canucks

Central Division
— Chicago Blackhawks
— Colorado Avalanche
— Dallas Stars
— Minnesota Wild
— Nashville Predators
— St. Louis Blues
— Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division
— Boston Bruins
— Buffalo Sabres
— Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers 
Montreal Canadiens (coming Aug. 19)
Ottawa Senators (coming Aug. 20)
Tampa Bay Lightning (coming Aug. 21)
Toronto Maple Leafs (coming Aug. 22)

Metropolitan Division
Carolina Hurricanes (coming Aug. 23)
Columbus Blue Jackets (coming Aug. 24)
New Jersey Devils (coming Aug. 25)
New York Islanders (coming Aug. 26)
New York Rangers (coming Aug. 27)
Philadelphia Flyers (coming Aug. 28)
Pittsburgh Penguins (coming Aug. 29)
Washington Capitals (coming Aug. 30)

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The human side of the NHL's trade deadline

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USA TODAY Sports

The human side of the NHL's trade deadline

Congratulations! You just got a new job. There’s just one catch: it’s in a new city.

Oh, and by the way, you start tomorrow. Good luck.

That would be a pretty big shock for anyone, but it is the reality that hockey players constantly face and one that is exacerbated as the trade deadline approaches.

“I know fans and media get really excited about it, but they're not the ones that have to pick up and move their families,” Brooks Orpik said following Sunday’s practice. “I think players are looked at as kind of objects at times, just a number. People don't know there's a human side to trades.”

This season’s NHL trade deadline is 3 p.m. on Monday. Until then, every locker room faces a degree of uncertainty.

RELATED: KEMPNY GETS QUICK PROMOTION TO THE TOP-FOUR

Almost no player or prospect is untouchable. Even if there are no rumors surrounding a team or things seem set, the threat of a trade hangs over the heads of the players like the sword of Damocles until the deadline finally comes and goes.

Even for those players who know they won’t be moved or who can’t be moved because of various clauses in their contracts, it still remains a stressful time as they could still see friends shipped to another city.

“I think what happens on that day is all the players, as soon as they get off the ice at morning skate, they're all looking at their phones and trying to see what happens,” Barry Trotz said. “They want to see what happens around the league.”

Sure, a player can go from a last place team to a contender. On the surface, they should be happy. Behind the scenes, however, midseason trades always carry family implications.

“It's tough on guys,” Orpik said. “Guys have kids in schools or have roots in the community of the teams they play for. As fun as it is for some people, I think as players it can definitely be nerve-wracking for people.”

MORE CAPITALS: TRADE TO CAPS POTENTIALLY OFFERS JERABEK WHAT HE NEVER GOT IN MONTREAL

When those trades do happen, they obviously can throw a player’s life upside-down.

For those players who are not traded, the team has to adjust both to losing familiar faces and to embracing new ones into the locker room.

“When someone comes into a new group, it's not much changed except for obviously a new piece,” Jay Beagle said. “But it's definitely harder on them so you try to make it as easy as possible on them.”

Thus far, the Capitals have added defensemen Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek over the past week. While both trades were done in exchange for draft picks, Taylor Chorney was a casualty of the trades as he was placed on waivers to make room for the new additions and was claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“It's tough losing guys, especially guys that are well-liked in our room,” Orpik said. “Taylor Chorney is a really well-liked guy so I think that impacted us a little bit.”

On Monday, fans, analysts, players and coaches alike will all be frantically checking their phones looking for the latest trade news, but while the deadline brings excitement for fans, it bears very different feelings for the players involved. Those players are people working a job and those trades mean uprooting their life in a matter of days. Regardless of whether a player is better off in terms of the team situation, there is still a human cost to doing business.

“It can affect certain guys because their names are obviously spread all over the place,” Trotz said. “They're human too. They pretend to not hear it, but they do.”

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

RELATED: THE TRADE TO WASHINGTON OFFERS JERABEK THE CHANCE HE NEVER SEEMED TO GET IN MONTREAL

“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

MORE CAPITALS: WHY THERE'S NO REASON FOR CAPS FANS TO WORRY