In recent summers, any mention of the Blues in a preseason publication included the label of being the NHL's next "breakout" team. And though the last two seasons ended without a trip to the postseason, the pundits are once again projecting the Blues to be a potential sleeper in 2011-12.
Fool me once, shame on me, but fool me three times?
There is reason for optimism as the Blues get set for their regular-season opener tonight against Nashville. The club is mostly healthy and has added depth and experience to an already talented roster. But optimism was abundant in the past two seasons, and the Blues missed the playoffs by five points in 2009-10 and 10 points in 2010-11. So after falling short twice, why do the "experts" and even the Blues themselves believe that this is the year?
"I feel like we've been right there for a few years now and just haven't been able to get over that last hump to be an elite team," Blues forward Alex Steen said. "I think this year is definitely a year of buzz within the group ... everybody feels the potential that this team has.
"The mentality of the group, it's going to be a lot more consistent this year. We have some veteran leaders on the team, a good mix of youth, but our youth isn't that young anymore. I just think we're a better prepared group. We've learned from our mistakes."
Buzz, however, can quickly turn into boos, as the Blues found out last season when they carried a record of 20-12-5 into January and then went 2-8-2 that month, tumbling in the standings. The 30-day span saw losing streaks of five games (0-4-1) and three games (0-3).
Injuries were a factor, but "you look at teams last year like Detroit and Chicago, they went through the same injury troubles," Steen said. "They may not have been as long, but they had key guys go down. Detroit had seven or eight guys (out), but nobody was talking about their injuries. We need to cut out the excuses and just go out there and execute."
While no one in the organization wanted to go through the injuries at the time, or has any desire to deal with them again, Blues coach Davis Payne said the trials last season hardened the club.
"Any experience you go through positive or negative is something you learn from, and our guys have done that," Payne said. "Sometimes, those lessons are tough to swallow, but they are going to make us better when we get into some tough stretches and face some adversity, face some guys coming in and out of the lineup."
The additions of Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott and Scott Nichol on offense and Kent Huskins on defense were designed to give the Blues depth should the injury bug bite again.
"We've got three lines of guys that can really produce and we've got a fourth line that I don't want to play against, and I don't think any line in the league will want to play against," Blues captain David Backes said. "And I think this year we see that we're a lot more deep to deal with those injuries ... if they happen, we've got guys that can step up, take different roles.
"The optimism is there on the forward side. The defense is a younger group, but a group that's very talented and works their butts off. We'll be solid on the back end and with 'Jaro,' he gives us a chance to win every night."
Many eyes will be on Jaroslav Halak, who finished 27-21-7 in his first season in net with the Blues.
"I feel good, conditioning is fine, my body is healthy," he said. "If I can stay healthy along with the rest of my teammates, it should be a great season. We've got talent in here. It's the first game after a long summer. I can't wait to play the game (tonight)."
Halak isn't the only one who sounds eager.
"You take one look at our lineup and there's no reason why we can't be a winning hockey team," forward Chris Stewart said. "It's got to work from the get-go. It's Nashville, a big inner-division game, it's the home opener ... we've been waiting for this day for a long time."
The Blues are ready to drop the puck on what could be a breakout season.
"The guys are itching," Payne said. "We've been building this thing through training camp and obviously all through the entire summer. The things we've gone through, the guys we've added, I just think there's an incredibly strong belief in our room right now ... enough's enough."