ST. LOUIS -- Despite losing in the Stanley Cup Playoff each of the past four seasons, the St. Louis Blues don't feel they've taken steps backward.
It likely will be more difficult to qualify from the Western Conference this season, so getting off to a quick start will be pivotal to remaining at or near the top of the standings. St. Louis started last season 9-3-1, including a seven-game winning streak.
After opening at home Oct. 8 against the Edmonton Oilers, the Blues head out for their longest road trip of the season: six games, including five to Canadian cities.
"The players themselves feel like we underperformed in the playoffs from what we did in the regular season," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "There's real disappointment, and I think we're going to see a higher level of focus than we've ever seen here before from the people that this really, really matters to. I think you're going to see a whole other gear get performed by some people who don't want this to ever happen again."
Here are four reasons for the Blues to be optimistic:
Vladimir Tarasenko will continue to improve: Tarasenko is the face of the franchise after the Blues signed the right wing to an eight year contract on July 7.
Tarasenko, 23, is eager to bring St. Louis its first Stanley Cup. He has 66 goals and 135 points in 179 NHL games, 58 goals and 116 points in the past two seasons.
"We're investing in the person as much as we are in the player," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I'm very comfortable in the person that he's going to give us everything that he has. We feel he's a franchise player. I believed that Vladi showed us things last year that we haven't seen. He's only scratching the surface at how good he can be."
Paul Stastny will have a bigger impact: After signing a four year contract last July 1, Stastny was expected to slip into the Blues' talented mix of forwards and pick up where he left off with the Colorado Avalanche.
But it was a challenging first season for the 29-year-old. From an early-season shoulder injury to bouncing between lines, Stastny fell short of the 25 goals and 35 assists he put up in 71 games with the Avalanche in 2013-14. He slipped to 16 goals and 30 assists in 74 games last season.
With the chance at taking a leadership role with the departures of Barret Jackman and T.J. Oshie and opportunity to play as a No. 1 or No. 2 center, Stastny is poised for an improved season.
Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm ready to step into top six on defense: The Blues are confident in Bortuzzo, 26, and Lindbohm, 21, to play everyday minutes, and were willing to part with veterans Jackman and Zbynek Michalek.
Bortuzzo and Lindbohm have combined to play 149 games (126 by Bortuzzo) with five seasons of NHL experience. Jackman and Michalek have combined to play 1,514 games with 24 NHL seasons.
Depth and experience at every position: The Blues have two goalies capable of being the No. 1, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. They also have a stingy defense with Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson. And with a forward group that includes David Backes, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera, Stastny, Tarasenko, Troy Brouwer and Patrik Berglund as two-way forwards, the Blues have a balanced unit that can shut down teams. Steve Ott, newly signed Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Reaves make up a solid fourth line.