ST. LOUIS -- The pieces are in place for the St. Louis Blues to have prolonged success.
The foundation begins with goaltending and filters through a solid cast of defensemen, and then to forwards that don't have the elite names in the game but are certainly capable of carrying a sizeable offensive load. It's all led to the Blues being among the top teams in the NHL standings the past two seasons.
It is a team that had a goaltending duo (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott) win the Jennings Trophy two seasons ago and has a group of defensemen (led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester) that has helped them rank in the top 10 the last two seasons in goals allowed and goals-against average, including first overall in 2011-12.
So why have the Blues not advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the last two seasons?
Well, when looking at the offensive numbers, the Blues ranked 21st in the League in scoring (2.51 goals per game) in the 2011-12 season when they finished two points from the Presidents' Trophy with 109 and then 17th in the League last season at 2.58.
The Blues, once again being picked to finish near or at the top of the standings this season, are fielding questions whether they can keep up in scoring if necessary. But in the words of coach Ken Hitchcock, known more for his defense-first mindset and often-used cliché of a 200-foot team game, scoring more tends to lead to other deficiencies.
"When I hear the words 'score more,' that's a red flag, alarm bell, whatever, that goes off for me … because that usually becomes the license to cheat," Hitchcock said. "You're hanging on the wrong side of pucks, you're leaving the zone early … you can't win that way.
"I don't understand when people say they sacrifice their offense to get back (defensively). I've always believed that that's just a bloody excuse for not sticking with things a little bit longer. For us, we don't want them to sacrifice any offense, but we just don't want them to cheat to think they have to score. If you play the game the right way, you'll get all the scoring chances you need."
But Blues general manager Doug Armstrong went out and fortified the forward position, not just to help increase scoring with the signing of Derek Roy at center, but more importantly, add the depth to help make this Blues team one of the deepest in the League.
"If we can have all four lines scoring goals, it's going to take pressure off of one line having to do all the damage," said right wing T.J. Oshie, who had seven goals and 20 points in 30 games last season. "It's always been like that, but I think this year, the scoring's going to be even more spread out than normally just because of the talent level we have through all 12 forwards plus a couple extra guys that aren't going to be in the lineup.
"At the end of the night, the 'W' is the most important part, whether it's 1-0 or it's 10-1. As long as we're winning games, that's all that's important."
Armstrong also signed agitator Maxim Lapierre to add grit to the back-end of the lineup and recently brought in a familiar face with the signing of veteran left wing Brenden Morrow, who played for Hitchcock in Dallas when Armstrong was the GM of the Stars. But Roy's signing, for one year and $4 million, was done with the intent of adding scoring punch towards the top of the Blues forward group and solidify the center position, which has been an area teams felt like they could expose.
"It's good to see that they wanted me to play in that position," said Roy, who played for both Dallas and the Vancouver Canucks last season and finished with seven goals and 28 points in 42 games. "Over the years, I've had a couple point-a-game seasons. I've put up some points and I have confidence in myself. That's the main thing, you go out there and have confidence in yourself.
With David Backes anchoring the top line along with Roy, Patrik Berglund, Lapierre and perhaps all-purpose forward Vladimir Sobotka, the Blues are equipped to have the necessary components to complement the guys on wing expected to contribute offensively, including Oshie, Alexander Steen, Chris Stewart, Morrow, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
"I think we have a pretty solid group of center icemen and forwards overall," said Berglund, who was second in goal scoring (17) behind Stewart's 18 last season. "The team may not have looked this good in, I don't know how long, but I think a lot of us have very much experience now. It looks really good. I think everyone's on the same page too, and we all want the same page."
But playoff exits against the Los Angeles Kings, especially last season's six-game ouster in the opening round in which the Blues scored a total of 10 goals, was another indicator the team needed more. It was a series they led 2-0 and lost four straight, but putting the puck in the net was the main deficiency.
"We'd like to score goals, especially against L.A.," Berglund said. "I think we all thought we were a very good team in that series. We just didn't execute when we had to.
"I can't say we're going to score more goals. I don't know that yet, but we sure know how it feels to lose and we all know what it takes to really get through the tough games. It's just something we have to work on every day. Obviously one game, we're probably not going to score goals and the next we might score a bunch. I think we have to be mature about it and find a way to do it the next game if it doesn't work out one game. The group with leaders and experience, it will take us far."
"Everyone is a year older, everyone is a year wiser and, everyone's just going to be a year better," Oshie said.
"We've got a pretty young team," Oshie continued. "Berglund's still growing, I'm still growing, Petro's still growing, Shatty's still growing. That growth's going to not necessarily make us goal-scorers, but just make us aware that we need to shoot the puck more, we've got to shoot it with authority. And when there's a chance around the net, we can't shy away and try to make a cute play. We've got to try and bury it."
But in the end, the Blues won't shy away from doing what they do best: shut the opposition down and make life miserable trying to put the puck in their net.
"I think that's one of Hitch's mottos, is to make sure you take care of your own end first and then you worry about the offense," Roy said. "… You can't win a Stanley Cup by just throwing pucks at the net, hoping it just hits off a skate and go in. You've got to make plays. You've got to make plays to get out of your own zone, you've got to make plays in the neutral zone, you've got to make plays at the net.
"You keep building and you keep stepping in the right direction. I think this organization's going in the right direction. We just need a few different pieces to the puzzle and we'll work hard all season long. That's the only way we're going to get it done."
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