The past two seasons have traveled similar paths for the St. Louis Blues -- strong regular seasons followed by losses to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We ran into a buzz saw in Los Angeles two years ago," Blues president of hockey operations Doug Armstrong told NHL.com. "A team that sort of was in playoff mode the last month of the season just to get in the playoffs, they were a dominant team throughout that run [and] we weren't a match for them that season. I thought last season was a much more competitive series. Still, we weren't able to find the necessary goals to push that in our favor. I think we have learned."
The Blues will look to put those lessons to good use this season, but we won't know just how much they learned until they reach the postseason. For now, here are a few issues they'll have to deal with heading into the 2013-14 season:
1. Who will be in net? -- The Blues are so rich in goaltending, last season's top rookie NHL goalie will start the season in the American Hockey League. Jake Allen played 15 games (13 starts) and led all first-year goaltenders in wins (nine), goals-against average (2.46) and save percentage (.905).
"I don't know where we would have been last year without Jake," Armstrong said.
But Allen has Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott standing in his way, and Armstrong said if both are healthy, they will start the season as the top pair in the NHL, with Allen heading to the club's AHL team, the Chicago Wolves.
However, that doesn't mean Allen will be in Chicago forever. Injuries limited Halak to 16 games and Elliott played twice between Feb. 11 and April 1 due to poor play and an AHL conditioning assignment.
"The strength of our team is our goaltending," Armstrong said. "… Internal competition makes us better. We have internal competition in our group of nine [forwards] for power-play ice time, for competitive ice time against other team's top players. We have excellent competition on our back end for ice time and now we have great competition for our goal."
2. What happens on the second line? -- When healthy, David Perron was a solid offensive contributor with a pair of 20-goal seasons. But his trade this summer to the Edmonton Oilers opens a big spot on the second line, and there's no shortage of competition for the coveted spot.
Magnus Paajarvi, who came from Edmonton in the trade, started training camp in Perron's spot at left wing on a line with center Patrik Berglund and right wing T.J. Oshie.
"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."
The Blues will have other options on the left side if Paajarvi doesn't fit. Veteran free agent Brenden Morrow was signed Sept. 23, and Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Sobotka all were listed as options by Armstrong. Prospects Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin also could earn consideration.
"There's very good competition for ice time in there," Armstrong said. "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."
3. Does a young player have to step up? -- Armstrong said this is the first time since he's been with the organization that the team will not be depending on a younger player to step into a prominent role.
"We're no longer in that spot where we need to put 18-, 19- or 20-year-old players on our roster to rejuvenate our fan base that we're in the growth process or out of necessity because we don't have competent veteran players," he said.
However, that doesn't mean one or two couldn't make it. Last season's top rookies, Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, both 21, will play major roles. Rattie (20) and Jaskin (20), 2011 second-round picks, are primed to compete for top-nine spots. On defense, Joel Edmundson (20) and Jani Hakanpaa (21) will push for spots in an already deep defense corps.
Armstrong said the playing field entering training camp would be level, with the best players staying.
"These players are going to be given an opportunity, but it's a very difficult lineup to crack," he 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."