After losses to the Los Angeles Kings the last two years in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the question surrounding the St. Louis Blues is whether their core group is ready to take the next step.
"I think last year there was a feeling that we were a team that could be competitive deep into the playoffs," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong told NHL.com. "We ran into the defending Stanley Cup champs and we were out early. But I think our goals and our mindset is still the same -- we should be competitive with all the teams with an opportunity to be a strong playoff team."
The Blues added playmaking center Derek Roy for depth up the middle, but otherwise left intact a team with the hope of not just advancing past the second round of the postseason, but bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis for the first time.
Roy arriving as a free agent gives the Blues impressive depth up the middle, with David Backes and Patrik Berglund centering the top two lines.
What Roy also gives the Blues is an element Armstrong believes has been missing from his team's lineup.
"We have bigger players, we have scoring centermen; we were looking for a playmaking centerman," Armstrong said. "I think Derek adds diversity to our group of forwards. When you look at the centermen we've had in the past, maybe size down the middle was one of our strengths … now we have Backes and Berglund, they're big men; we have a different component in Derek. We're hoping he's going to create offense for players like Chris Stewart on the wing."
Who fills out the lines around the three centers remains to be seen. A top line last season saw Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen flanking Backes, with David Perron and T.J. Oshie skating with Berglund. Perron's departure in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers, however, opens a hole at left wing on the second line.
Magnus Paajarvi, who arrived from the Oilers in the Perron trade, will get the first shot at filling that spot, but who wins the spot on a permanent basis will be one of the more interesting battles of training camp. He had 15 goals as a rookie in 2010-11 but has 11 in two seasons since, and morphed into a bit of a defensive role with the Oilers. The Blues hope past chemistry with Berglund will re-ignite Paajarvi's offensive game.
"I think Paajarvi has some history with Berglund," Armstrong said. "I think Ken [Hitchcock, coach] will give him an opportunity there to start the season, but ultimately he's going to have to fight for that ice time."
However, if Paajarvi doesn't fit, the Blues won't hesitate to find someone else for that spot.
"You look at the left side of our team, it has Steen, it has Schwartz, it has [Vladimir] Sobotka, and it has Paajarvi," Armstrong said of a group that grew Sept. 23 with the signing of veteran Brenden Morrow. "There's very good competition for ice time in there. Magnus understands he's going to have to come in and earn that ice time. He's going to a totally different environment than he left in Edmonton. Edmonton was one of play the young players and allow them to grow through their learning curve; we're a team that's trying to win today."
The Blues will have young players of their own competing for roster spots. Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko will look to build on strong 2012-13 rookie seasons, and top prospects Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie are waiting in the wings.
One place the younger players could find ice time is with Roy and Chris Stewart.
Jaskin, a 2011 second-round pick (No. 41) had 99 points in 51 games with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, his first season in North America, and went scoreless in two late-season games with the Blues.
Rattie, taken nine picks earlier than Jaskin (No. 32), was third in the Western Hockey League with 110 points in 62 games with the Portland Winterhawks last season, and led the WHL in goals (20) and points (36) in the postseason.
Also competing for spots on the bottom two lines are agitator Maxim Lapierre and veterans Keith Aucoin and Chris Porter. However, Armstrong said talent rather than age will dictate roster spots.
"These players are going to be given an opportunity, but it's a very difficult lineup to crack," Armstrong said. "That's that internal competition. … If we have to move out a veteran player because a younger player is better, then that's the nature of the beast in the NHL."
The signing of Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year contract earlier this month solidifies one of the more impressive six-man units in the League.
"As far as our defense -- self-serving, for sure -- I think we have the best defense in the NHL," Armstrong told reporters while announcing Pietrangelo's contract. "I'm excited to have an opportunity to work with these guys. I'm excited to watch them perform. I think that when we go into any building, teams are going to say, 'Wow, that's a heck of a team they have … offense coming from the back end.'"
That starts with Pietrangelo. In three full seasons, the 23-year-old has established himself as one of the best young defensemen in the League, and while last season he had five goals and 24 points in 47 games, he had 12 goals, 51 points and a plus-16 rating in 81 games in 2011-12.
Joining Pietrangelo on the top pair likely will be Jay Bouwmeester, who signed a five-year contract extension in August. Bouwmeester joined the team at the trade deadline last season and had seven points and a plus-5 rating in 14 games. He also hasn't missed a game in more than eight seasons.
The Blues' second pair also could feature a young, dynamic offensive player and a dependable veteran in Kevin Shattenkirk and Jordan Leopold.
Shattenkirk, 24, followed his breakout 2011-12 season with five goals and 23 points in 48 games last season. Leopold, acquired days before Bouwmeester, had two assists in 15 games.
A third pair likely will feature tough veterans Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. Polak led the team's defensemen with 110 hits and was third with 78 blocked shots while playing all 48 games last season. Jackman was second in blocked shots with 89, and was second on the team in shorthanded ice time per game for a penalty-kill unit that was seventh in the League.
There is young depth behind them, led by Joel Edmundson, a 2011 second-round pick (No. 46) who has shown strong physicality and solid defensive play.
"He's a mean player to play against and a big guy," Tim Taylor, Blues director of player development, told NHL.com. "We see him as a third/fourth guy in the NHL who can play a lot of minutes and be a physical force to play against."
The Blues' organizational depth at the goaltending position is among the best in the League.
At the NHL level they'll start the season with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Both had their ups and downs last season, but are less than two seasons removed from sharing the Jennings Trophy for the League's lowest goals-against average.
Injuries limited Halak to 16 games last season, but he posted a 2.14 goals-against average and three shutouts. Elliott struggled early, but returned from a conditioning stint in the American Hockey League to go 11-2-0 with a 1.29 GAA, .947 save percentage and three shutouts in the final month of the regular season.
"I don't know where we would have been without Elliott's strong finish," Armstrong said. "Jaro had a year he'd like to forget. It started with the lockout and ended with injury, but he's a guy that's taken a team deep into the playoffs. You look at his numbers since he's been in St. Louis and they're near the top of the League in goals-against average and shutouts. I certainly do like the depth we have in that position."
Part of that depth also is Jake Allen, who led rookie goalies last season in wins (nine), GAA (2.46) and save percentage (.905), and showed he belonged at the NHL level. However, with Halak and Elliott in place for at least one more season -- each is signed only through the end of the 2013-14 campaign -- it's likely Allen spends at least one more season playing most of his games in the American Hockey League. And Armstrong isn't disappointed by that fact.
"It's certainly not going to hurt Jake to play the lion's share of the games in the American Hockey League for a year if that's where we get to, and I would say that's where it looks like we're going to be at," Armstrong said. "The strength of our team is our goaltending."
Another highly regarded young player, 20-year-old Jordan Binnington, will compete for a spot to be Allen's partner in the AHL. A 2011 third-round pick (No. 88), Binnington won the Ontario Hockey League's goaltender of the year award last season.
IN: Derek Roy, C (free agent, Canucks); Brenden Morrow, LW (free agent, Penguins); Magnus Paajarvi, LW (trade, Oilers); Maxim Lapierre, C (free agent, Canucks); Keith Aucoin, C (free agent, Islanders); Alexandre Bolduc, LW (free agent, Coyotes); Mark Mancari, RW (free agent, AHL)
OUT: Jamie Langenbrunner, RW (free agent); Andy McDonald, LW (retired); Scott Nichol, C (retired); David Perron, RW (trade, Oilers); Kris Russell, D (trade, Flames)
Alexander Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz - Derek Roy - Chris Stewart
Magnus Paajarvi - Patrik Berglund - Vladimir Tarasenko
Brenden Morrow - Maxim Lapierre - Vladimir Sobotka
Chris Porter, Adam Cracknell, Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Jordan Leopold - Roman Polak
ONES TO WATCH: Jake Allen, G; Ryan Whitney, D; Ty Rattie, RW; Dmitrij Jaskin, LW; Sergey Andronov, RW; Jani Hakanpaa, D; Taylor Chorney, D; Joel Edmundson, D