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Blues need more from goalies, centers to succeed

by Louie Korac / St. Louis Blues

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

When the St. Louis Blues skated off the ice at United Center in April following a Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round, it signified another disappointing exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a promising regular season.

It marked the third straight season the Blues were eliminated earlier than expected.

After losing to the Los Angeles Kings the previous two seasons and the Blackhawks last spring, the players took the onus on themselves to make marked improvements. It was time to look in the mirror.

"After last season, it was really a wake-up call because as players, we felt like it really fell on us," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Everything was done by coaches and the management to put the right team on the ice, and we didn't perform as players. I think that's why we took it so hard last year, so the focus this summer was to get into good shape and just be better professionals.

"Especially when you look at the core group of us here, the younger guys, it's time to grow up. We're not considered young guys anymore."

For the Blues to take the next step and make it a successful season, here are three things that will have to happen:

1. Goaltending must be solid -- After the acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller last season failed to pay off, the Blues have turned to Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, investing $3.15 million in the pair for this season.

Elliott, who signed a three-year contract for $7.5 million, will finally get the chance to be the clear No. 1 after splitting time with Jaroslav Halak and giving way to Miller last season.

"I look at it as an earned opportunity for Brian," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's paid his dues, he's earned the right. We've got two really good goalies."

Elliott is 55-24-7 in three seasons with the Blues, including 18-6-4 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .922 save percentage last season.

"I've never been touted the No. 1 guy anywhere," Elliott said. "… I think I'm more ready for that kind of pace and that workload. I want to show that I can do it."

Allen was the goalie of the year in the American Hockey League last season with the Chicago Wolves. He had a 15-game stint with the Blues in 2012-13 when he went 9-4-1 with a 2.46 GAA and .905 save percentage.

2. Paul Stastny, other centers must prove to be worthy investments -- The Blues felt depth at center was where the Kings and Blackhawks had decided advantages, so general manager Doug Armstrong went out and signed free agent Paul Stastny and past draft pick Jori Lehtera, and re-signed Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott to go with Maxim Lapierre and David Backes, who could be moved to his natural position of right wing.

The Blues did lose restricted free agent Vladimir Sobotka to the Kontinental Hockey League but feel like they have equipped themselves at center to compete with the top teams in the Western Conference.

"On paper we're better," Backes said. "Now we've got to come together as a group, get some cohesiveness and go put a great product on the ice, go win a lot of games and know that we've got big goals for this season."

3. The defensive transition game must produce offense -- Trading for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson signified the Blues' movement from an aggressive, physical, in-your-face style of defense to a more skillful way of getting the puck and making the quick pass out of their zone to the forwards, thus producing more offense.

The Blues, who were 17th in goal scoring two seasons ago but jumped to a tie for sixth last season, haven't been able to consistently produce offensively when it mattered. They hope to change that by adding Gunnarsson to Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Shattenkirk in their top four and getting more from their defensive unit.

Author: Louie Korac | NHL.com Correspondent

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