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Blues have pieces in place for bright future

by Dan O'Neill / St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS - In the 2016 offseason, the Blues were fresh off their eighth 100-point season and their first trip to the Western Conference Final in 15 years. 

Then, the metaphorical dominoes began to fall. Starting goaltender Brian Elliott was dealt to the Calgary Flames, free agents David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott signed with Boston, Calgary, and Detroit, respectively. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock announced that 2016-17 would be his final season.

The end of the 2015-16 season had a stronger tinge of finality than most seasons. The Blues' core was changing. It's the nature of the beast for every NHL team, but a reality that hadn't faced the Blues in several years. In his postseason media availability last week, Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong spoke to that feeling.

"I saw last year's team, quite honestly, as the ending of an era with a certain group," Armstrong explained. "Last year, when we were in this, I knew there were final words being written on a chapter and now we are on page one or two of a whole new chapter. There isn't as much finality because we only have one unrestricted free agent this year."

The 2017 postseason press conference was much more positive than one may have expected heading into the season. Armstrong even warned of the potential uncertainty prior to the start of the season.

"It's going to be an interesting case study on how quickly this group takes up leadership," he told reporters prior to the season. "Obviously you want them to pick it up as quickly as possible. We don't want to take any backwards movement in our organization. But sometimes you do expose yourself to maybe taking a half a step back to take a couple steps forward."

Video: Reflect on some of 2016-17's best moments

The idea of taking a step back, though candid and born from Armstrong's wealth of experience, rattled fans. For some, it even snowballed into the idea of the dreaded rebuild. Many Blues fans can remember with great clarity the dark days of the mid-2000s.

Armstrong, though, couldn't have predicted the amount of hurdles the Blues would eventually face during the season. Along with the roster case study came the early departure of Hitchcock and the installation of Mike Yeo. Then, four days later, promising second-year forward Robby Fabbri tore his ACL and 23 days after that, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was dealt to Washington. Not long after that, Paul Stastny went down with a regular season-ending lower-body injury. Finally, 22 days after Stastny's injury, Alexander Steen broke his foot in Game 1 of the Blues' first-round series with the Minnesota Wild.

Despite all the variables, the case study proved to be a success. In rare fashion, the Blues were able to reinforce their foundation instead of rebuilding it.

Today, fans should feel pretty encouraged by the state of the Blues. They qualified for the postseason for the sixth straight season. The only other teams that can make that claim are the Blackhawks, the Penguins and the Rangers.

 Vladimir Tarasenko went for 70 points for the third straight season. Jaden Schwartz collected 19 goals despite a 43-game stretch where he scored just three times. Jake Allen's incredible playoff performance assured Blues brass and fans alike that he can indeed handle the rigors of the No. 1 job. Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson emerged as one of the League's most effective shutdown defensive pairs. In fact, Blues fans now have three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Parayko will come out of a board battle with the puck.

Looking further down the depth chart, the picture is equally bright.

The Blues were able to get an NHL assessment of players such as Ivan Barbashev, Jordan Schmaltz and Zach Sanford. Barbashev contributed 12 points in 30 games, Schmaltz had two assists in nine games, and Sanford collected five points in 13 games. All three figure to either be on the roster or on the cusp of selection come 2017 training camp.

The Chicago Wolves, led by head coach Craig Berube, saw great returns in their efforts to cultivate the Blues' young prospects. Vince Dunn, now a 20-year-old second round pick of the Blues in 2015, led all AHL rookie defensemen with 45 points, including 13 goals, in 72 games. Samuel Blais, a sixth rounder in 2014, ranked second among all AHL rookies with 26 goals. The Wolves also boasted Kenny Agostino and Wade Megan, who ranked first and fourth respectively, in regular season points. Both Agostino and Megan are on one-year deals with the Blues.

Further down the pipeline, 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson led UConn with 32 points this season, while 2016 second-round selection Jordan Kyrou ranked sixth in the OHL overall with 94 points. On the back end, 2014 third-round pick Jake Walman led Providence College defensemen with 25 points, while he's recorded six points in 14 games as a member of the Wolves.

This summer, the Blues will continue to stockpile the talent. They own seven picks overall, including a pair of first-round selections. 

At the beginning of the season, the foundation of the franchise seemed to be exposed. But after a turbulent season, the Blues are back where they started, fresh off a significant playoff run. Only this time, the dominoes have been reset. 

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