There had to be a sense of déjà vu for the St. Louis Blues. They had a second straight strong season ended in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings.
How can the Blues get over the hump?
"I think one thing we feel as an organization is we are in that window of opportunity to have success both regular season and playoffs," general manager Doug Armstrong told NHL.com. "We don't want to let these seasons slip through our fingers without some long playoff runs."
Here are six questions the Blues will need to answer to make that possible:
1. Could the Blues actually have three No. 1 goalies? -- Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott shared the Jennings Trophy two seasons ago and Elliott has been an All-Star. Then there's Jake Allen, who led rookie goalies last season in wins and goals-against average.
"I don't know where we would have been last year without Jake, and I don't know where we would have been without Elliott's strong finish," Armstrong said. "Jaro had a year he'd like to forget … but he's a guy that's taken a team deep into the playoffs.
"I certainly do like the depth we have in that position."
Coach Ken Hitchcock has done a masterful job finding time for Halak and Elliott the past two seasons, but will he be able to add Allen to the equation? And if the 22-year-old has to spend the season in the minors, will he have the right attitude?
Halak and Elliott each is in the final year of his contract, meaning one could be moved to solve the logjam, but in the interim, this could be a situation worth watching.
2. Who replaces David Perron? -- Perron showed he was fully recovered from concussion issues that plagued him the two previous seasons. He had 10 goals and 25 points in 48 games, numbers when prorated over 82 games come out to 17 goals and 42 points, not far removed from the 20 goals and 47 points he scored in 2009-10, his prior injury-free season.
When healthy, Perron was a staple on the Blues' top-two lines, last season playing with Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie. So with Perron traded to the Edmonton Oilers last month, who slides into that spot?
The Blues have plenty of options. Armstrong said Magnus Paajarvi, acquired from Edmonton in the trade, likely will get the first crack at starting there, but nothing is set in stone.
Vladimir Tarasenko had a promising start as a rookie last season but ended as a healthy scratch for all but one game in the playoffs. However, his talent was obvious, and though a natural right wing, with enough time in training camp could make the switch. Rookies Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie also have the talent to earn top-six jobs in their first pro seasons.
3. Can this core group make the next step? -- The Blues surged to the top of the Central Division in 2011-12, won a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2002, then lost in the Western Conference Semifinals to the eventual Cup-champion Kings. This spring the Blues were the fourth seed in the West, drew the Kings in the first round and lost in six games.
Almost the same core group from those two disappointing springs will return this season, and they'll have to again try to put what happened behind them as quickly as possible.
"I think last year there was a feeling that we were a team that could be competitive deep into the playoffs," Armstrong said. "We ran into the defending Stanley Cup champs and we were out early. But I think our goals and our mindset is still the same: We should be competitive with all the teams with an opportunity to be a strong playoff team."
4. Where will the offense come from? -- Under Hitchcock, the Blues have adopted a shut-down defensive mindset, and with Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold, they might have the best defense corps in the League.
Then there's the other end of the ice. The Blues were 17th in the League at 2.58 goals per game last season, then scored 10 goals in six playoff game against the Kings.
The Blues had two players score at least 15 goals last season, and one other reached double-figures. The previous season, David Backes led the team with 24 goals, which tied for 60th in the League.
The hope is free-agent center Derek Roy can help change that.
"We have bigger players, we have scoring centermen, we were looking for a playmaking centerman," Armstrong said. "I think Derek adds diversity to our group of forwards. When you look at the centermen we've had in the past, maybe size down the middle was one of our strengths … now we have [David] Backes and [Patrik] Berglund, they're big men; we have a different component in Derek. We're hoping he's going to create offense for players like Chris Stewart on the wing."
5. How much will training camp help? -- This will be Hitchcock's third season with the Blues, but September will mark his first training camp as the team's coach. He replaced Davis Payne 13 games into the 2011-12 season, then had an abbreviated camp prior to the start of last season.
"It's going to be beneficial," Armstrong said. "We can … reconnect to the foundation that he's built."
Armstrong said he believes it's more important for the players to take a leadership role at training camp.
"We're at the point now where the responsibility isn't on Ken, in my opinion," he said. "The responsibility is on our leadership group and our players to take charge of the team. Ken now is here to guide and to coach, not to have to play the taskmaster on making sure everyone is doing things correctly. That now has to come from the leadership group. Because that's what good teams have -- good teams have internal leadership."
6. Will a rookie step up? -- The Blues have one of the strongest groups of emerging prospects in the League. With Perron's departure and the retirement of Andy McDonald, there will be a chance for Jaskin or Rattie, each starting his professional career this season, to step into a prominent role. But will they be able to?
"We're no longer in that spot where we need to put 18-, 19- or 20-year-old players on our roster," Armstrong said. "These players are going to be given an opportunity, but it's a very difficult lineup to crack."
Jaskin and Rattie are 20, but their talent at the junior level was impressive. Rattie had 48 goals in 62 regular-season games with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, 20 goals in 21 WHL playoff games, and six goals in five Memorial Cup games. Jaskin had 99 points in 51 games with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, his first in North America. He was rewarded with a two-game call-up to the Blues late last season.
Other young players who could compete for jobs are promising defensemen Joel Edmundson, Jani Hakanpaa and Petteri Lindbohm.
"If we have to move out a veteran player because a younger player is better," Armstrong said, "then that's the nature of the beast in the NHL."
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