NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the St. Louis Blues:
The St. Louis Blues broke through the Western Conference First Round last season for the first time since 2012 and played in the conference final for the first time since 2001. They're looking to knock down the final few hurdles and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.
After the loss of veterans David Backes, Brian Elliott, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott, the Blues believe that in order to take that next step, it will have to come from a crop of rising stars.
Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:
1. Vladimir Tarasenko continues to evolve
Tarasenko, 24, who led the Blues in goals (40) and points (74) last season, was obviously disappointed in their six-game loss to the San Jose Sharks in the conference final. He could be primed to be the NHL's next 50-goal scorer.
"It's a really good feeling when you know what you're working on and you can see results after," Tarasenko said. "I'm looking forward to playing better next year.
"We know we can go this deep and we know we can beat good teams. It just gives you more expectations from the team next year and we just want to be there every year and go deeper and we want to win the Cup, and that's what we're playing for."
2. Robby Fabbri builds off rookie season
Fabbri tied for the Blues lead in points (15) and led them in assists (11) during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had 18 goals and 19 assists in 72 regular-season games and is one of the reasons the Blues believe absorbing the losses of veteran players to free agency will soften the blow with more production.
"What Robby does for me is it shows you age is irrelevant," coach Ken Hitchcock said of the 20-year-old forward. "It's the moxie the player has. He has an unbelievable opportunity based on his competitiveness."
3. Jaden Schwartz becomes a top scorer
Schwartz, who signed a five-year, $26.75 million contract on July 15, is coming off a left ankle injury that limited him to 33 regular-season games last season. But he had 14 points in 20 playoff games, and the Blues are hopeful the injury is behind him and the 24-year-old can return to the form he had during the 2014-15 season, when he had NHL career highs in goals (28), assists (35) and points (63).
"He's an important player in the future," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "He's entering the best part of his career. ... He's a player that could be pushing to a point-per-game player, or maybe a little bit higher. When you're doing it at 22-23, then at 25-30, that's not unrealistic that that's the next step."
4. David Perron thrives in familiar system
Perron spent the first six seasons of his NHL career with the Blues, averaging 14 goals and 19 assists.
He has played for three teams (Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks) the past two seasons; he fit in with the Ducks and had 20 points in 28 games.
The Blues are counting on Perron, 28, to offset some of the veteran losses.
"The experience of playing for other teams kind of shows you things of what you need to do to be successful," said Perron, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract. "I think it really hit home when I got to Pittsburgh and realized that it was a different style of play than I had been used to playing before. When I got to Anaheim, which is a very similar style of play to St. Louis, it's a style which I had been playing for a long time and had a lot of success that way."
Here are three key questions facing the Blues:
1. Can a coach-in-waiting system work?
Hitchcock announced this season, his sixth in St. Louis and 20th in the NHL, would be his last. He realized after a two-hour, face-to-face meeting that Mike Yeo is the best option to replace him.
Yeo will be an associate coach this season.
"I was really impressed with his willingness to learn, his willingness to be part of a staff," said Hitchcock, who is 757-453-106-88 in 19 seasons. "Mike has a burning desire to be a really good coach and I think there's some elements where we can both help each other. He's going to challenge me and he's going to make me better, and I think long-term I can help him get through the mine fields."
2. How do the Blues replace the veterans they lost?
By trusting veterans Alexander Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Stastny and Alex Pietrangelo, as well as the younger core to move up to that next wave of players who lead by example.
The Blues showed their trust in Pietrangelo by naming him captain, replacing Backes.
"At some point, our younger players have to become our leaders," Armstrong said. "And now as Pietrangelo and Steen are the players with the most seniority here, Tarasenko and Schwartz are going to have to take a bigger part of that, as does [defenseman Colton] Parayko, and certainly Kevin Shattenkirk has been here for a number of years. The leadership is changing, and now it's going to be interesting to see how these younger guys evolve into leaders."
3. Is Jake Allen ready to be a No. 1 goalie?
The Blues believe he is, and they signed Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension on July 1.
Allen is 57-26-7 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 99 regular-season games; he won an NHL career-best 26 games last season.
Elliott, who started 38 games for the Blues last season, was traded to the Calgary Flames on June 24.
"We feel Jake is the guy," Armstrong said. "I talked extensively to [goalie coach] Jim Corsi and [assistant GM] Marty Brodeur about it. Everybody was feeling that it's Jake's team now, it's his turn and it made it easy. We really think that Jake is going to be a real good player and he wants the ball, and he's got it now."