St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong set his plan to win a Stanley Cup in motion by stockpiling a number of strong young players before handing them to coach Ken Hitchcock early last season.
When the Blues closed January with a 6-1-0 record and a goal differential of plus-13, they appeared to be the team to beat. But they followed that run with five straight losses, showing that even a shortened NHL season has its share of ups and downs.
Now that the Blues have punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and are ready to start the second season, here are five important questions to consider as they look to capture the Cup for the first time in franchise history:
Each of St. Louis' goaltenders have shown flashes of brilliance this season. And Hitchcock has the security of plugging one goalie in should the other falter -- assuming that Halak is completely past the injury that sidelined him well into April. But it's been three years since Halak become a cult hero in Montreal and Elliott has four Stanley Cup Playoff wins on his resume. Either one has the ability to lead the Blues on an extended playoff run, but Hitchcock first will have to figure out which one can be the hot goalie that is imperative to any team's deep run in the postseason.
2. Can the Blues sustain their tight-checking approach throughout the playoffs?
The Blues imposed their will under Hitchcock last season, causing a variety of matchup nightmares for their opposition. But that seemingly foolproof game plan came unwound in a four-game sweep in the second round of the playoffs at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, another physical, tight-checking team that played smart at both ends of the ice. St. Louis has dealt with bouts of inconsistency this season, but if the Blues can maintain their suffocating play, they could be built for a deep playoff run.
3. Is the young core ready to make the jump?
There have been moments throughout the regular season that demonstrated how this young Blues roster was ready to make the leap. A number of players, most notably Alex Pietrangelo, Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk, established themselves as world-class talents. The Kings found themselves in a similar position entering last year's playoffs, although St. Louis doesn't quite match their veteran leadership. Still, there's no greater stage for a young, emerging star to take the next step than the playoffs -- and it's there that the Blues' young core will need to play its best hockey.
4. Will GM Doug Armstrong's moves at the NHL Trade Deadline pay off?
Armstrong clearly saw holes in his blue line when he made traded for Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames and Jordan Leopold from the Buffalo Sabres. They offer responsible veteran presences on the back end, and Leopold has the experience of playing in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final with the Calgary Flames. Bouwmeester never has played in the postseason, but the revamped defense will have to come up big if the Blues want to bring a championship to St. Louis.
5. Is the window slowly closing?
The Blues should enter the playoffs with a distinct sense of urgency. Armstrong and Hitchcock have done a remarkable job compiling a deep lineup of savvy veterans and talented youngsters. But the team's front office will have to work extraordinarily hard during the next year to keep this talented roster intact. Veteran players Leopold and Andy McDonald can become unrestricted free agents this summer, but Armstrong's real test will be securing the team's formidable group of restricted free agents, a group that will include Stewart, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk and Patrik Berglund. Armstrong's toughest decision could come in the summer of 2014, when both his goaltenders become unrestricted free agents, along with forward Alex Steen. Considering the impending contract status of many of St. Louis' best young players, the time may be now for the Blues.