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30 in 30: Blues well-stocked for deep playoff run

by Adam Kimelman

It's the little things that show St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong the culture is changing around his team.

"This is probably the first year in the five years I've been in St. Louis that we're not leaving a space for an entry-level player," he told "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."

Depth and skill across the entire roster and throughout the organization have the Blues focused on continuing the progress that's been made the past two seasons.

The change in culture started when Ken Hitchcock arrived as coach 13 games into the 2011-12 season. The Blues were 6-7-0 at the time but finished 49-22-11, won the Central Division, finished second in the Western Conference with 109 points, and won a Stanley Cup Playoff series for the first time since 2002.

Last season the Blues recovered from a slow start to finish fourth in the conference, but like the 2012 run, the 2013 trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended in a loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

"We ran into a buzz saw in Los Angeles two years ago," Armstrong said. "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."

Part of that learning curve might have been the signing of free-agent center Derek Roy to a one-year contract in July. Roy averaged 60 points the previous six seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, but in 42 games split between the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks in 2012-13, he had seven goals and 28 points and was limited to two assists in four playoff games.

Armstrong said he envisions Roy centering one of the team's top three lines and giving the team something it hasn't had the past few seasons.

"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 … 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."

Though coming in on a one-year contract might serve as a motivating factor, Armstrong said that doesn't necessarily concern him.

"As a manager I don't really care what motivates these guys to have good years, I just want them to have good years," he said. "If it's a motivation of a one-year deal or the motivation of a long-term contract at the end of a good season is there, then so be it. We need him to be a good player for us if we're going to be a competitive team."

External competition certainly will be there from the rest of the League, including a new-look Central Division that includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Armstrong said he's looking forward to roster battles up and down the lineup.

"What we say to all our players is internal competition makes us better," he said. "We have internal competition in our group of nine [forwards] for power-play ice time, for competitive ice time against other teams' top players. We have excellent competition on our back end for ice time, and now we have great competition for our goal."

Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, barring injury, will start the season as the goaltending tandem, leaving Jake Allen to start the season in the American Hockey League. Allen, a 2008 second-round draft pick (No. 34), showed last season how far he had advanced in his development in his first NHL action when he went 9-4-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in 15 games.

"It's certainly not going to hurt Jake to play the lion's share of the games in the American Hockey League for a year if that's where we get to, and I would say that's where it looks like we're going to be at," Armstrong said. "The strength of our team is our goaltending. 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. Jaro had a year he'd like to forget … but he's a guy that's taken a team deep into the playoffs. You look at his numbers since he's been in St. Louis and they're near the top of the League in goals-against average and shutouts. I certainly do like the depth we have in that position."

The Blues also are extremely deep at forward, even with the retirement of Andy McDonald and the trade that sent David Perron to the Edmonton Oilers.

"We're probably not a team you look at as a top-six team and a bottom-six team," Armstrong said. "We're a group of nine, and maybe even deeper than that, we're a group of 10 now."

With Roy filling McDonald's spot at third-line center, that leaves an open spot at left wing on the second line heading into training camp. Among those who could get a shot there is Magnus Paajarvi, who came from Edmonton in the Perron deal.

Paajarvi was the 10th pick of the 2009 NHL Draft and was expected to be a big offensive producer, but it didn't happen in three up-and-down seasons with the Oilers. The hope is a fresh start will rejuvenate the 22-year-old.

"I think Paajarvi has some history with Berglund," Armstrong said of the Swedes. "I think Ken will give him an opportunity there to start the season, but ultimately he's going to have to fight for that ice time. You look at the left side of our team, it has [Alexander] Steen, it has [Jaden] Schwartz, it has [Vladimir] Sobotka, and it has Paajarvi. There's very good competition for ice time in there.

"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."

Another player who could push for extra ice time is forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who as a rookie had five goals and 10 points in his first eight games, but had two goals and seven points in 21 games after returning March 16 from a three-week absence due to a concussion. He was a healthy scratch for five of the team's six playoff games.

However, his slow finish doesn't diminish what's going to be expected of him this season.

"We left Schwartz and Tarasenko with a clear message: You have that one year under your belt now and for us to be a good team we need to count on you. … If we didn't think both those players were ready for that, those expectations, we wouldn't give it to them," Armstrong said. "We're going to need them to be competitive, probably minimum top-nine players and maybe even higher than that."

Also pushing for ice time will be forwards Ty Rattie and Dmitri Jaskin, and defensemen Joel Edmundson and Jani Hakanpaa, all entering their first full professional seasons in North America. Armstrong said roster spots will be determined on performance, not reputation or age.

"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, than that's the nature of the beast in the NHL."

Whatever the final makeup of the roster, Armstrong said the time to win is now for this group.

"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," he said. "We don't want to let these seasons slip through our fingers without some long playoff runs. I think last year there was a feeling that we were a team that could be competitive deep into the playoffs. 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."


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