With all of the injuries the Blues are dealing with to start the season, there will be extra pressure on goalie Jake Allen to keep the team in games. (File)

By Nicholas Hand

The Blues enter the new season with lofty expectations tempered by critical injuries sustained over the summer and in the pre-season.

It started with Patrik Berglund dislocating his left shoulder during off-season conditioning in June. The injury required surgery, leaving Berglund sidelined until December. Berglund is coming off his best season as a Blue with 23 goals in a season when he also was able to play all 82 games.

The Blues then had another forward go down with the same injury as Zach Sanford dislocated his left shoulder in the first week of training camp. The 22-year old Sanford may return late in the regular season.

On the same day, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester suffered a fractured left ankle after taking a shot to his skate in practice. He is expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the season. Bouwmeester, 34, appeared in 81 games last season and is a minute-munching blueliner averaging more than 20 minutes of ice-time a game.

The next injury came in the Blues’ first preseason game in Dallas when the Stars’ noted agitator, Antoine Roussel, slashed veteran forward Alexander Steen in his left hand. Steen is expected to miss at least the first week of the season because of the injury.

After suffering injuries to four regular skaters, the worst injury was still to come with Robby Fabbri reinjuring the surgically-repaired ACL in his left knee, forcing him to miss the entire 2017-18 season. The young forward suffered his first ACL injury in February and was expected to be ready for the start of this season before the gut-punching setback.

The injuries have forced the Blues to start the season in survival mode, especially with their forward lines.

While forward depth will be tested, early season success must start with netminder Jake Allen. The Blues need Allen to perform at the high level he did during the stretch run and postseason last year to help keep the team afloat in the early part of the season.

Allen has struggled in the first half of previous seasons, but now is the time for Allen to demonstrate another breakthrough for the Blues with greater regular season consistency at a time when the Blues need it the most. Steady backup Carter Hutton is back for his second season in the role for St. Louis.

The Blues’ top line will likely feature the familiar trio of Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko to start the season. The Blues top line led by Tarasenko’s prolific scoring will shoulder the heavy burden of carrying the offense until additional secondary scoring returns in the form of Berglund and Steen.

The next two lines will likely fluctuate on a game-by-game basis throughout the first half of the season. Vladimir Sobotka is back for his first full season since 2013-14 after re-joining the Blues in the last week of the regular season last spring following a three-year stint in the KHL.

The Blues’ big off-season acquisition, Brayden Schenn, likely will start the season at center on the second line. Schenn was acquired from the Flyers at the 2017 NHL Draft in exchange for center Jori Lehtera and two first-round draft picks. Schenn’s versatility is already helping the Blues as the 26-year old can play all three forward positions. Schenn is a strong power-play contributor and has a keen nose for the net, scoring 25 goals for the Flyers last season.

Due to injuries, the Blues are forced into a by-committee approach for the final top-six spot and the bottom-six forwards. Dmitrij Jaskin, Ivan Barbashev, Magnus Paajarvi, Oskar Sundqvist and Kyle Brodziak likely will start the season with secured spots between the third and fourth lines. Rookie right wing Sam Blais, 21, scored 26 goals with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago last season and despite a strong pre-season will again open this season in the minors.

In a somewhat surprising decision, the Blues kept 19-year-old Tage Thompson, their 2016 first-round pick, on the opening day roster.

Newly re-signed veteran forward Scottie Upshall should anchor the left wing role on the fourth line along with Chris Thorburn being an option at right wing.
Center Wade Megan had an impressive preseason as well and should y start the year in either a third or fourth line role.

The Blues forward also includes Klim Kostin, like Thompson a dynamic prospect who is likely to make an impact at some point this season. The 18-year-old Kostin was the Blues’ last pick in the first-round in the draft this past June after playing in the KHL.

Generally, players that age are forced back to the junior hockey teams for a full season if unable to crack an NHL roster at the start of the season. Even if Kostin is assigned to the AHL, do not be surprised if he makes an impact up front for the Blues as the season progresses.

The Blues biggest area of strength remains their defensive depth. Even with the key injury to Bouwmeester, the team still has a talented pipeline of defenseman ready to take Bouwmeester’s ice-time until the veteran blueliner returns.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo is the linchpin on the blueline but will start the season with a new partner due to Bouwmeester’s injury. The Blues will likely mix and match their three defensive pairings until Bouwmeester’s return. Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson are looking to continue their progression after each had breakout seasons in 2016-17. Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo will round out the Blues top-five defenseman to start the season.

Veteran defenseman Nate Prosser will likely assume a sixth or seventh defenseman role to start the season, leaving one spot open for bluechip prospects Jake Walman and Vince Dunn.

Both Walman and Dunn project to be strong puck-moving defensemen and both have shown terrific mobility along with above-average offensive skills for defensemen. Walman was sent to the minors on Monday but he likely will see time with the Blues during the season.

In the always difficult Central Division, the Blues must avoid a slow start despite the litany of injuries. Six of the seven teams in the division have legitimate postseason expectations.

Only three playoff spots are guaranteed in the Central Division with a maximum of five spots available if both wildcards come out of the Central.

The Winnipeg Jets and the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs last season but both are revamped and will be formidable competition. The Nashville Predators are coming off their first Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks remain a serious threat each season, and the Minnesota Wild have brought back much of the same roster responsible for a 106-point 2016-17 season.

While the Blues want to prove they can contend despite the injuries, it will start by proving they can survive the first two months of the regular season. The season begins with the tough challenge of playing the Stanley Cup champion Penguins Wednesday night in Pittsburgh followed by the home opener on Saturday night against the Stars, which will feature the return of former Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.