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Blues look for answers to playoff struggles

Thursday, 08.14.2014 / 3:00 AM
Louie Korac  - NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

Talking about how and why they lost in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs was bad enough for the St. Louis Blues. Little did they know they would be addressing the same issues as reasons for being ousted one year later.

Those points of emphasis are what the Blues have been dealing with since losing in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks in April. The six-game loss to the Blackhawks followed the same script as 2013, when the Blues lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games after they had grabbed a 2-0 series lead.

Amid what seemed like a myriad of issues, one problematic obstacle always seemed to hover as an Achilles' heel: the inability to score the timely goal.

The Blues, who finished 52-23-7 (good for 111 points and a second-place finish in the Central Division), were steadfast and strong during the regular season. They were regarded as a potential replacement for the Blackhawks and Kings as the top team in the Western Conference. But the Kings (twice) and Blackhawks have knocked the Blues down a notch and served notice to St. Louis that it hasn't quite reached that top echelon.

The Blues even went with an all-in mentality near the NHL Trade Deadline with the acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres. It didn't make a difference.

"We're doing some things correctly, but we're not doing enough correctly to win in April, May and June," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "Quite honestly, I've got to quit worrying about May. We've got to get out of April first, and we're not doing that yet. My job responsibility is to peel back the layers and see if we can work together with this group to see if we can get to a new level or make necessary changes to get to a new level."

With failed opportunities, changes seemed inevitable. Armstrong addressed some glaring needs, turned the page, retooled the roster and positioned it for what he hopes is a Stanley Cup run.

The Blues were able to sign the top unrestricted free agent center on the market in Paul Stastny, a playmaker who immediately fills the No. 1 center role. They also signed 2008 third-round pick Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom and Peter Mueller to go with David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Maxim Lapierre. Vladimir Sobotka departed for the Kontinental Hockey League.

The one major change on the blue line was trading Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Carl Gunnarsson, a move made to open up more playing time for Ian Cole. Chris Butler and Nate Prosser were signed for depth purposes.

"It's deeper and it has to be," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told NHL.com when asked about his team's roster. "There's no choice [but] to keep pace in the West. There's other teams that improved dramatically too. Chicago got better, L.A.'s gotten better because they got those young guys that are going to get full-time service. Anaheim's better, Dallas is better, Nashville's better, Colorado's a top team. This is to keep pace.

"We've done some good things to help ourselves, but so has everybody else. This was done just to make sure we keep pace because this is how strong it is in the West now."

Assistant coaches Gary Agnew and Corey Hirsch were replaced by former Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller and Jim Corsi, who spent the past 16 seasons as goalie coach with the Buffalo Sabres.

The team's biggest question mark heading into 2014-15 is in goal.

The Blues allowed Miller to leave as an unrestricted free agent and opted to keep Brian Elliott. The 29-year-old, who re-signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract, will team with Jake Allen, who was 9-4-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .905 save percentage with the Blues in 2012-13, then spent last season with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

"I look at it as an earned opportunity for Brian," Hitchcock said of Elliott, who is 55-24-7 with a 1.86 GAA and .932 save percentage in three seasons with the Blues. "He's paid his dues, he's earned the right.

"With Jake, we just need him to keep building on the things that he's done so well at the American [Hockey] League level. ... Every place Jake's gone with us, he's taken advantage of it. He's done a heck of a job in showing us that he's ready to play in the National Hockey League. I think we've got a good situation."

BLUES OFFSEASON OUTLOOK

2013-14 record: 52-23-7, 111 pts; 2nd in Central Division, 3rd in Western Conference

2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to Chicago Blackhawks in six games in first round

Additions: C Paul Stastny, C Jori Lehtera, C Joakim Lindstrom, D Carl Gunnarsson, D Chris Butler, D Nate Prosser, C Peter Mueller, LW John McCarthy, C Philip McRae, RW Benn Ferriero, C Jeremy Welsh

Subtractions: G Ryan Miller, D Roman Polak, F Vladimir Sobotka, LW Brenden Morrow, C Derek Roy, RW Adam Cracknell

Pending FAs: LW Jaden Schwartz (RFA), D Carlo Colaiacovo (UFA)

Promotion candidates: G Jake Allen, LW Dmitrij Jaskin, RW Ty Rattie

Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: C Robert Fabbri (No. 21), C Ivan Barbashev (No. 33), C Maxim Letunov (No. 52)

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