The St. Louis Blues emerged as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender last season, winning the Central Division with 109 points.
But can they carry that breakout success into the abbreviated 2013 season? Can they reach the playoff bracket again and make a deeper run?
Yes, and here are the reasons why:
The two-goaltender system: The NHL will condense its post-lockout schedule, eliminating some off-days and putting more strain on starting netminders. Also, individual and team funks are magnified in the shorter season. A three-game downturn will have the impact of a five-game slump in an 82-game season. The Blues will benefit from having the No. 1 Jaroslav Halak and No. 1-A Brian Elliott ready to go. This team should be able to stay fresh and sharp in goal.
The Ken Hitchcock Factor: The venerable coach inspired full buy-in from Blues players last season. They embraced his demanding full-rink defensive style. They outworked opponents game after game. Almost everybody is back from that breakthrough team. So while other teams search for a team identity, the Blues will know exactly who they are from Day 1 of the shortened season. They should hit the ice flying.
Starting at full strength: How often have the Blues had offensive forwards Andy McDonald, David Perron and Alex Steen simultaneously available during the past two seasons? That was a rarity. Barring a training setback, all three should be ready to start the season – giving Hitchcock ample firepower at even strength and on the power play. The Blues are much more skilled than many NHL fans realize.
Offensive depth and versatility: The Blues don’t have a dominant scorer, but they have lots of forwards who can do lots of things. Steen, Vladimir Sobotka and T.J. Oshie are just three of the Blues capable of filling various roles and doing a lot of things well. Injuries will become a huge factor in the condensed schedule, so having interchangeable offensive parts is very important. Hitchcock should be able to successfully adjust on the fly.
Alex Pietrangelo’s growth: Last season he blossomed into one of the NHL’s elite defensemen. And while the Red Wings deal with Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement and the Predators try to replace the departed Ryan Suter, the Blues will benefit from Pietrangelo’s strong play in every aspect of the game. Kevin Shattenkirk and Ian Cole are still ascending defensemen, too. This group should only get better.
The Vladimir Tarasenko Factor: Fans should not expect the Russian rookie to become the second coming of Alexander Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk. But they should expect to see a sturdy, KHL-seasoned goal-scorer fit in somewhere on one of the first three lines. Tarasenko’s development will likely come in fits and starts as he adapts to North American play, but he should become a difference-maker by the spring. The Blues haven't developed many players like him.
Chris Stewart’s last chance here. The big fella could make a lot of money playing in the NHL or just OK money. General manager Doug Armstrong signed him to a one-year deal and challenged him to earn a long-term contract. Stewart saw what his cohort Wayne Simmonds got in Philadelphia – almost $24 million over six years – so he has every reason to play hard this season. The Blues won despite him last season. How good could they be if he regained his 30-goal scoring form?
Payroll flexibility: Armstrong must operate on a budget, owing to the financial realities of the St. Louis market. But the Blues will enter the season with vast salary cap space. As other franchises look ahead to potential cap compliance crises, the Blues will have opportunities to upgrade. Tom Stillman and his investors may have decisions to make as the playoffs near.
Even if the Blues stand pat, they have the pieces needed to win. They have some organizational depth with prospects like Jaden Schwartz and Cade Fairchild ready to fill in. The have the veteran grit element with Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol.
Their second-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings gave them a better appreciation of the postseason grind. They rolled into that series with tremendous momentum and got squashed, Notre Dame-like.
Now they get another opportunity with most of the same individuals in place. If they can get to spring with reasonably good health, long-suffering Blues fans could finally get their postseason to remember.