NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Ken Hitchcock sat at his desk recently, beginning his fourth season as coach of the St. Louis Blues, and he couldn't recall a time when his players came to training camp in better shape and in a better frame of mind.
The 62-year-old, who coached the Blues to the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past three seasons, has stood by and watched his core group of players grow up.
The Blues, who have been eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings (2012 and '13) and Chicago Blackhawks (2014) the past three seasons, in the past would often soak up all the attention received as Stanley Cup favorites. Because they hadn't qualified for the playoffs in five of the six seasons prior to this three-year run, the players became a bit overwhelmed by the attention they were receiving.
"It's a different vibe here right now," Hitchcock said. "There's a really professional, mature vibe here right now. It's like business, and it's impressive. It's the best way to describe it. It's impressive, it's professionalism. It's not bouncing-off-the-wall excitement. It's kind of like a workmanlike mentality. … We've learned a lot the last three years and you can see it in the players' approach right now. They understand the details and things that they can control in the offseason.
"It's what happens when a team really starts to grow up. We've seen it before. I know what it looks like, but it's what happens when a team is really starting to mature and grow up."
The Blues felt their biggest need was at center, and they certainly addressed it.
Adding Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera and re-signing Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott to go along with David Backes and Maxim Lapierre gives the Blues a strong core group they feel can compete with the best of the Western Conference.
The Blues, who won Games 1 and 2 in each of their past two playoff series, only to lose each time in six games, were at a disadvantage at center specifically.
Signing Stastny, formerly of the Colorado Avalanche, to a four-year, $28 million contract gives the Blues a bonafide top-tier center.
"He's a player that you don't see him doing the flashy things or anything like that, but when I was with him at the [Sochi] Olympics, he makes every part of the game so much easier on his linemates," Blues right wing T.J. Oshie said of Stastny, who comes to the Blues off a 25-goal, 60-point season with the Avalanche. "It's getting the puck at the right timing on the tape to make a play instead of just having someone shovel it over to you and making it your problem. He really deals the puck pretty well, and then from there it just makes the game easier and makes it simple and everything works better on the ice.
"It shows how far [Blues ownership] is willing to go and how bad they want to win. They've done a pretty good job getting the right guys in the locker room. As far as a playoff player goes, we want (No.) 26 in our corner."
Stastny has 160 goals and 298 points in 538 NHL games.
"Everybody talks about elevating their game," he said. "I think the best players are the ones that are consistent, don't try to do too much, don't try to overthink, keep it simple. Obviously it's going to be more physical, there's not much room there. But you've got to find those open spots and be the smarter player. It takes a little luck and sometimes you've just got to play the same way."
Lehtera, the Blues' third-round pick (No. 65) in the 2008 NHL Draft who signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract, will debut in the NHL this season after spending the past four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"He's a big body, thick," Backes said of Lehtera. "He's not a 21-year-old rookie or an 18-year-old rookie. He's a 26-year-old man that's ready to come in here and produce. He's done it on an international level, big stage.
"I think the thing that struck me is him and [Vladimir] Tarasenko have some instant chemistry. It's undeniable. I don't know if I've seen two players with that sort of instant chemistry on the ice. Hopefully that carries over to the regular season."
Berglund, who became a restricted free agent, re-signed for three years and $11.3 million once the Blues were out of the running for Jason Spezza, who was traded from the Ottawa Senators to the Dallas Stars.
Steve Ott signed a two-year, $5.2 million contract once it was evident Vladimir Sobotka would leave for Russia. The Blues signed former NHL players Joakim Lindstrom and Peter Mueller to compete for top-nine roles.
Tarasenko is expected to build off his 21 goals and 43 points in 64 games last season.
Another player looking to build off a solid 2013-14 performance is forward Jaden Schwartz, a restricted free agent who signed a two-year contract on Sept. 27. The absence of Schwartz, who scored 25 goals and had 56 points last season, from the early stages of camp created opportunities for Lindstrom (one-way) and Mueller (two-way), each of whom signed a one-year contract.
One fixture on the Blues' defensive unit is the pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. They will be the No. 1 pair, with Carl Gunnarsson (acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs and recovering from offseason hip surgery) expected to slot into the top four and be paired alongside Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Blues acquired Gunnarsson to give them more flexibility with the transition game and to give Ian Cole a shot at cracking the top six.
"We wanted to give Ian Cole a real chance," Hitchcock said. "He's bigger than anybody on our team (6-foot-1, 219 pounds) except for Bouwmeester. He's got a physical edge to him. We felt like to create a spot for him, we needed to find somebody to help us on transition and puck movement, and that's where Gunnarsson fits. But really what it is, Polak's allowing a guy like Ian Cole to play. That's all that is, a chance for Ian. He's paid his dues just like Jake Allen has, just like Brian Elliott has. He's at the right maturity level and age-wise (25). Now is the time to turn him loose and let him play."
Cole, a first round pick (No. 18) in 2007, is ready for the challenge.
"It's nice to hear them say that, and I'm definitely excited to actually be in that situation, to see that come to fruition," Cole said. "It'll be good. It'll be nice. It's definitely nice for them to have confidence in me. I think I've shown them over the last couple years that I can play, play consistently and I can contribute very well. I want to see this team be successful, and really what it comes down to is to help the team win. Hopefully they see that I'm an asset to help the team win, because obviously the last two years haven't been good enough. We haven't finished well."
Veterans Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold round out the top seven, and the Blues brought in experienced players, Chris Butler, who was born and raised in St. Louis, and Nate Prosser to compete for jobs and provide depth. Each signed a one-year, two-way contract.
Elliott comes in as the starter after signing a three-year contract worth $7.5 million. But Allen, the American Hockey League goalie of the year last season with the Chicago Wolves after a 33-16-3 record, 2.03 goals-against average and .928 save percentage, will push for games.
"'[Elliott] definitely deserves that role," Allen said of the starter's job. "He's been, I think personally, one of the best goalies in the League the last three years. To be able to come in here and be a part of it with him is a pretty good feeling for me, and I'm sure the boys as well. I'm looking forward to just watching him and learning from him a bit more. I've been around for a while, but whenever I get an opportunity, I'm going to make the most of it, just try to push him to be the best he can be."
Hitchcock said the games between the two will be competition based.
"Elliott's the heir apparent, Jake's going to be in the National Hockey League," Hitchcock said.
J. Schwartz - D. Backes - T.J. Oshie
A. Steen - P. Stastny - J. Lindstrom
P. Berglund - J. Lehtera - V. Tarasenko
S. Ott - M. Lapierre - R. Reaves
Extras: C. Porter, M. Paajarvi, D. Jaskin, P. Mueller
J. Bouwmeester - A. Pietrangelo
C. Gunnarsson - K. Shattenkirk
B. Jackman - I. Cole
Extra: J. Leopold
Additions: F Paul Stastny (free agent, Avalanche), F Jori Lehtera (free agent, KHL), F Joakim Lindstrom (free agent, Sweden), D Carl Gunnarsson (trade, Maple Leafs), D Chris Butler (free agent, Flames), D Nate Prosser (free agent, Wild), F Peter Mueller (free agent, Switzerland), F Colin Fraser, LW (free agent, Kings), F Paul Bissonnette (free agent, Coyotes), D Ryan Whitney (free agent, Panthers), F John McCarthy (free agent, Sharks), F Philip McRae (free agent, Finland), F Benn Ferriero (free agent, Canucks), F Jeremy Welsh (free agent, Canucks)
Subtractions: G Ryan Miller (free agent, Canucks), D Roman Polak (trade, Maple Leafs), F Vladimir Sobotka (free agent, KHL), F Brenden Morrow (free agent, Lightning), F Derek Roy (free agent, Predators), F Adam Cracknell (free agent, Kings)
Promotion candidates: F Ty Rattie, F Robby Fabbri