Oct 11, 2001
The St. Louis Blues have risen to prominence over the past few years. Two seasons ago they were on top of the world after finishing first overall during the regular season. Last year, after a very strong regular season, the Blues stormed into the conference finals, only to be ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Unfortunately the relatively successful seasons the Blues have had possess one common denominator - no Stanley Cup.
Major changes have taken place within the Blues organization recently, with the additions of Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Scott Mellanby, Rich Pilon, Mike Keane and Fred Brathwaite. Owner Bill Laurie has opened the bank vault and generated one of the league's highest payrolls in an effort to bring Lord Stanley's Cup to St. Louis for the first time. Unfortunately, Laurie and General Manager Larry Pleau have been unable to secure the most important piece of a successful team - top-notch goaltending.
Take a look at the past decade. Stanley Cup winning goalies include Bill Ranford, Tom Barrasso, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Mike Vernon, Ed Belfour and Mike Richter. A formidable group to say the least. Winning the Stanley Cup requires great goaltending - not average, not mediocre, and certainly not inconsistent. The Detroit Red Wings, backstopped by Chris Osgood in 1998, are cited by some as an example of a successful team with 'average' goaltending. But the fact that Osgood, at age 29, has 4 fewer wins than Patrick Roy at the same age, certainly qualifies him as a very talented goaltender.
Pleau has apparently failed to notice this trend. Roman Turek, who he brought in two years ago from Dallas, failed in both of his playoff opportunities and is now a member of the Calgary Flames after being traded for Brathwaite. Brathwaite is a very athletic and capable goalie and sophomore Brent Johnson has some promise. However few believe that either can take the team to the promised land.
In Pleau's defense great goalies, available through trade or free agency, have not exactly been plentiful. But some other GM's have certainly been able to make due. Detroit's Ken Holland snatched Dominik Hasek from Pleau's hand in the offseason, Tampa Bay's Rick Dudley secured Nikolai Khabibulin, Pittsuburgh's Craig Patrick found Johan Hedberg, San Jose's Dean Lombardi continues to develop outstanding young goalies from within his organization and the Islanders' Mike Milbury was able to come away with Chris Osgood in the waiver draft.
The Blues goaltending problem is twofold. First, it is clearly inferior to the other major players in the western conference. Detroit has Hasek, maybe the best in the business. Colorado has Patrick Roy and Dallas has Ed Belfour. Last year's rookie of the year Evegeni Nabokov belongs to San Jose and even Edmonton has Tommy Salo, who gives them a chance to win almost every night. Neither Brathwaite nor Johnson can match this level of goaltending over the long haul of the playoffs.
The second problem with the Blues' goaltending is that they don't have a definite #1 stopper. When is the last time a team won the Stanley Cup with a defined goaltending tandem? Certainly anything can happen over the course of the NHL season, as one of the two could surpass the other and become the definite choice as a playoff starter. But more likely, Brathwaite and Johnson will see equal playing time and the Blues will head into the playoffs with a goaltending controversy looming over their heads.
Pleau will hear critics all year long talk about the Blues' issues in goal, and rightfully so. When the trade deadline nears in March, talk will once again heat up about available goaltenders. Names like Kevin Weekes, Mike Richter, Sean Burke, Trevor Kidd, Brian Boucher, Jeff Hackett and others will more than likely be swirling in rumors. Pleau will have a very tough decision to make regarding staying with what he has or pulling the trigger on a deal. Should he ride Brathwaite and Johnson into the playoffs and have one of them falter, Pleau's job may be on the line.
If you're a Blues fan though, you can't help but wonder about the one that got away. Not only did the Blues miss out on an all-world goalie in Dominik Hasek, but he was stolen by their archrival Detroit Red Wings. Hasek in a bluenote would almost certainly make them a favorite for the Stanley Cup.
In the summer of 2000, Pleau aggressively hit the free agent market, nabbing defenseman Sean Hill and winger Dallas Drake. At the trade deadline this past year, his aggressiveness continued, as he acquired Scott Mellanby and Keith Tkachuk. And he capped it off by recently adding Doug Weight, Mike Keane and Fred Brathwaite. In the months ahead, Pleau had better realize what Detroit, Dallas, Colorado, Montreal and other Stanley Cup champions have already learned; that there is no more important position come playoff time than between the pipes.
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