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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis Blues pre-season starts,

Blues winger Jaden Schwartz (left) and center Brayden Schenn (next in line) lead a group through skating sprints at the end of a Blues practice at Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis celebrated the Blues’ Stanley Cup triumph as a once-in-a-lifetime event because it was just that.

It took the star-crossed franchise 52 years to win its first championship. The breakthrough came when the hockey world least expected it. We might never see something like that again.

Then again, we might — since the Blues will be formidable again this season, regardless of what some experts think.

Across the industry, the Blues are widely viewed as a lovable underdog. The preseason forecasts of their fortunes aren’t terribly optimistic.

“After going through last year, you know that those don’t really mean a lot,” Blues center Ryan O’Reilly said.

USA Today predicted a fourth-place finish for the team in the ultracompetitive Central Division, behind Colorado, Nashville and Dallas. Several NHL.com reporters didn’t place the Blues in their top three division picks in the site’s staff survey.

The Athletic placed the Blues 10th overall in its preseason power rankings, behind Colorado and Nashville but ahead of Dallas.

“How do you really know, right? Where were we in January last year?” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo asked. “You can look whatever rankings or whatever, we know what we have in this room, we know what we had last year. I think most people had us probably 31st last year in January in the power rankings.”

Sportsbetting.ag has the Blues at 16-1 odds of winning the Cup again, the same as Florida and Winnipeg and worse than Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vegas, Boston and Colorado.

Those odds translate to a 4.5 percent likelihood of repeating. The folks at the FiveThirtyEight site couldn’t find another defending champion with a worse percentage.

But here’s what some folks are missing: The Blues still have room for growth. They are loaded with veterans capable of producing much more than they did last season. There is plenty of emerging talent, too.

Let’s start with the obvious: The Jordan Binnington/Jake Allen goaltending combination is far superior to the Allen/Chad Johnson combo the Blues had to open last season. Some regression from Binnington would be normal, but Allen is hungry to reestablish himself in the league.

Winger Jaden Schwartz scored 11 regular-season goals last season. He has produced seasons of 24, 25 and 28 goals during his NHL career and he could easily get back to that level if he can stay reasonably healthy. He proved that while scoring 12 times in 26 postseason games.

Winger Vladimir Tarasenko regained his swagger during the Blues’ second-half surge. He scored 33 goals in his last 64 regular season and playoff contests, a 42-goal pace that could resume this season.

Center Brayden Schenn is in position for a big bounce-back season in the final year of his contract. He is a year removed from a 28-goal, 70-point season — and he will get every chance to return to that level while playing with Schwartz and Tarasenko.

Second-year forward Robert Thomas has a high offensive upside, which he demonstrated while scoring 12 points in 15 March games. He should have more to give after his of adapting to this level.

Justin Faulk strengthened an already talented and seasoned defensive corps when he arrived in training camp for defenseman Joel Edmundson and prospect Dominik Bokk. Faulk, Pietangelo, Vince Dunn and Colton Parayko after all significant offensive threats from the blue line — a strength few teams can match.

The addition of the hard-shooting Faulk and assistant coach Marc Savard should upgrade the Blues’ power play, which was woeful for much of last season.

The Blues also have a bunch of good young players fighting to earn lineup spots and/or bigger roles. Sammy Blais, Robby Fabbri and Zach Sanford keep pushing each other as they battle for playing time.

And don’t forget about top forward prospects Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin, who should both see NHL action this season. Kyrou just needs to get his legs back after recovering from knee surgery and Kostin must build on the confidence he gained with strong preseason showings at the prospect tourney at Traverse City and in exhibition play.

This team is prepared to tackle its title defense. The Blues established their identity last season, building great chemistry with their second-half push and their storybook Cup run.

They gained the intangible strengths that make a good team special.

“I think we all feel comfortable with where we are right now,” Pietrangelo said. “This is a group that has a lot of chemistry. Everybody talked about the way we played for each other down the stretch, nothing changed. We have the same group of guys. We expect the same thing, that character to carry over.”

Coach Craig Berube is not about to let that slide. This Chief’s matter-of-fact intensity keeps the group in line.

“We established ourselves on work ethic,” Pietrangelo said. “That’s the culture we’ve built here for a long time now. Chief really emphasizes that. I think when you add that with the skill that we have, that’s why we were so dynamic in the second half of the season. We have a lot of guys that have top-end work ethic with top-end skill.”

Once again they are prepared to prove that on the ice.

2019-20 Blues season preview

Compiled by Post-Dispatch hockey writers Jim Thomas and Tom Timmermann, and columnists Jeff Gordon, Benjamin Hochman and Ben Frederickson.

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