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

Blues Stars Hockey

The salary-cap space the Dallas Stars gained when the contract of Jason Spezza (above) expired could make them a more immediate threat to the Blues. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

After 52 years of hunting, the Blues are now the hunted.

That changes the tenor of their offseason. Last year, general manager Doug Armstrong set out to retool his roster after the Blues missed the playoffs. One blockbuster trade and three free-agent signings helped propel them toward their first Stanley Cup.

Now Armstrong is working to maintain much of what he has — coach Craig Berube's three-year contract extension is just one example — while his rivals give chase. The skate is on the other foot.

Several Western Conference contenders are considering the sort of overhaul the Blues made last summer. The changes started with trades at the recent draft in Vancouver, and they will keep coming through free agency starting July 1.

The Nashville Predators set the tone by trading defenseman P.K. Subban to New Jersey for prospects and draft picks to clear $9 million a year in salary-cap space. That move should allow the Preds to upgrade their front lines as the Blues did.

They need more firepower at center, where Ryan Johansen lost his goal-scoring touch and Kyle Turris became an utter disappointment. Free-agent center Matt Duchene could do a world of good in Nashville, and general manager David Poile has the flexibility to bid on him.

"Cash is king," Poile told reporters at the draft. "The Predators for a lot of years operated in that position. I became a little uncomfortable with where we were. I want to see what this week brings. We're going to explore some different things for sure. No promises, no commitment, no exact goals."

The Dallas Stars pushed the Blues to the limit in the second round of the playoffs despite relying heavily on youngsters to replace injured veterans. That experience, plus the cap space gained when Jason Spezza's contract expired, could make the Stars a more immediate threat to the Blues.

"It went to Game 7, double overtime. That's how close the teams are," Stars general manager Jim Nill told reporters after the Blues eliminated his team. "I think St. Louis and us were that close. We were that close all year. They were No. 1 team from January on, and I believe we were No. 2 or No. 3."

The Stars have made one minor move so far, trading Tyler Pitlick for gritty Ryan Hartman — a potential upgrade as a bottom six winger. Unrestricted free-agent winger Mats Zuccarello is open to returning to Dallas, but he is exploring the market. And so are the Stars.

"We're always trying to get better," Nill said. "I know the other 30 teams are doing the same thing. A lot of teams are disappointed in their seasons. We're happy with where we're at, but we're always striving to be better."

The Colorado Avalanche have nearly $40 million in cap space. General manager Joe Sakic traded center Carl Soderberg to Arizona  for defenseman Kevin Connauton. Several veterans reached free agency for that team, and several promising youngsters are ready to step in.

The 'Lanche have one expensive restricted free agent to re-sign, Mikko Rantanen, but otherwise Sakic has ample flexibility to build a contender. (Colorado ranks among the early favorites to win the 2020 Cup; SportsBetting.ag lists 12-1 odds for Stan Kroenke's icemen, the same odds it set for the Blues.)

While Dallas and Colorado are ascending teams, the Winnipeg Jets could step back because of severe salary cap constraints. Last season they jammed a maximum amount of talent under the cap with key wingers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor among those still working on entry-level contracts.

Now they are due massive raises. So is defenseman Tyler Myers, an unrestricted free agent who could attract a seven-year offer for around $50 million from the Vancouver Canucks or another suitor.

Defenseman Jacob Trouba already has departed in an unfavorable trade to the New York Rangers (for young defenseman Neal Pionk and a first-round pick) because he wasn't going to sign another contract in Winnipeg. Scoring line winger Nikolai Ehlers also could move into play for cap reasons.

"I have a very big plate, yes," general manger Kevin Cheveldayoff noted at the Jets' development camp.

So does San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. Like the Jets, the Sharks fell to the Blues in the playoffs and then started wrestling with their salary cap crunch.

Wilson rolled the dice and gambled $92 million over eight years on injury-prone defenseman Erik Karlsson. His rationale: The Sharks have a few more years to contend and they are going for it. If they end up with some terrible contracts in 2022, so be it.

But that deal forced the Sharks to trade steady defenseman Justin Braun to save money. Now Joe Pavelski is testing the unrestricted free-agent market, visiting with other teams.

"I don’t talk about contract negotiations," Wilson said. "But I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions about anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things."

Armstrong can verify that. He built a Cup-worthy roster with a creative flurry of moves last summer, and now many of his peers want to do the same.

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