St Kilda have made wondrous strides since their last-place finish in 2014. Heavy optimism about the club has reached the point where a return to finals is now an expectation, but are the young Saints ready to take the extra step in 2017?
Let’s have a look at the list changes made in the off-season.
Additions: Nathan Brown (Collingwood), Jack Steele (GWS Giants), Koby Stevens (Western Bulldogs), Ben Long, Josh Battle, Ed Phillips, Rowan Marshall, Ray Connellan, Darragh Joyce (draft)
Subtractions: Sam Fisher (retired), Luke Delaney, Josh Saunders, Tom Lee, Eli Templeton, Tom Curren, Cameron Shenton, Brodie Murdoch, Brenton Payne (delisted)
What happened last year?
St Kilda started 2016 off in poor fashion. While they were unlucky in close losses to Hawthorn and North Melbourne, they were also uncompetitive against the Bulldogs and West Coast as they spluttered to a 2-6 start.
But things turned around. Nine wins from their next 11 games got the Saints up on the win-loss column, but they missed a golden opportunity to book a ticket to September after losing to a woefully out-of-form Kangaroos side.
They finished the year with a strong 12-10 record, but percentage kept them locked out of the eight.
The Saints made some smart acquisitions in the offseason, filling areas of need and not overpaying to do so.
Nathan Brown will be an important free-agent signing for a club in need of a strong key defender, while the return of Jake Carlisle from his Essendon-WADA suspension will boost the club’s key defensive stocks out of sight compared to last season.
Jack Steele adds both grunt and class to a midfield that’s quietly creeping into the AFL’s upper echelons, while Koby Stevens adds depth to an already burgeoning ‘mosquito fleet’.
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What needs to happen in 2017?
St Kilda need to shore up their work on the defensive side of the ball and improve their play away from home if they’re to play finals this season.
The Saints forfeited 13 marks inside 50 a game, from an average of 53 entries in 2016. While those numbers weren’t league-worst, they were considerably worse than any of last year’s finalists.
Brown and Carlisle will go a long way to arresting that poor form, but more pressure around the ball carrier will be essential too, as the club’s average of 59 tackles a game was the lowest in the competition last season by some margin.
As far as their away play is concerned, St Kilda went 0-5 in interstate matches last season, but the average losing margin in those losses was an atrocious 53 points.
While West Coast in Perth and the Crows in Adelaide are fixtures everyone dreads, the Saints need to show something in those kinds of matches this season after showing nothing last year.
St Kilda were good at home in 2016, but not great, going 9-5 at Etihad Stadium. While they did win in all three of their visits to the MCG, competitiveness away from the comforts of home is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
They’ll play the Eagles, Crows and Swans away this season, while also travelling to Launceston to play the Hawks. Nobody expects the team to win all of these fixtures, but ten-goal losses in all four would make for discouraging viewing.
St Kilda are a club that very much looks to be on the right path. They’ve recruited well, have a good spread of talent across the field and look primed to finish serving their apprenticeship in 2017.