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Armstrong: Time is now for Blues to take next step

by Mike G. Morreale
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong wanted to make certain his assigned leaders were put in charge the moment players stepped on the ice for the start of training camp.

With the announcement of fan favorite David Backes as the 20th captain in franchise history on Sept. 9, he did just that. The Blues open camp Sept. 16.

"David exemplifies everything we want as part of our team -- he's articulate and well-spoken in the room and community," Armstrong told "He plays a style of hockey we want to be known for. He's known as a physical player, but he has the skill set to produce points. We feel he's entering the prime of his career now and he signed a five year deal with us (in November 2010). We're the team that drafted him and it seems like he's the guy who can lead us into the future."

John Davidson, the club's president of hockey operations, felt Backes was the perfect fit to wear the "C."

"The timing is right," Davidson said. "We've wanted to find someone who's developed into a really good player, and David plays the game the right way, treats people right on and off the ice and is a Blue. He's grown up as a Blue, so all that stuff adds up to making the choice and he's been surrounded by guys like Jamie Langenbrunner so it'll be good."

Mark Cundari replaces Joel Edmundson

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- The St. Louis Blues have replaced defenseman Joel Edmundson with Mark Cundari for the remainder of the Traverse City Prospects tournament here at Center ICE Arena.

Edmundson, who was drafted in the second round (No. 46) in 2011, injured his right ankle during the team's morning practice session on Saturday. Cundari will likely join the team at some point on Sunday.

Cundari, 21, played 69 games for Peoria in the American Hockey League last season and produced 10 goals, 30 points and 106 penalty minutes. He was signed as a free agent by St. Louis in September 2008.

--Mike G. Morreale
It was an industrious offseason for the Blues, who signed forwards Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott and Scott Nichol and defenseman Kent Huskins and re-signed winger Matt D'Agostini. They also added depth with forward Jonathan Cheechoo.

The 27-year-old Backes, the Blues' second-round pick in the 2003 entry draft, tied career highs with 31 goals and 31 assists last season and scored a career-best 62 points. His plus-32 rating led the League among forwards.

In addition to discussing the team's unanimous choice as captain, Armstrong also provided some other answers to intriguing questions during an intermission break at the Traverse City Prospects tournament at Center ICE Arena.

In particular, does he expect T.J. Oshie to bounce back after missing time due to ankle surgery and disciplinary issues in 2010-11?

"It's not just T.J., it's an organizational thing where we all have to mature," Armstrong said. "We all had to mature as an organization. We were categorized as a young team learning to become pros, and I think now we have players in their third-and fourth-year pro so youth is no longer an excuse for anything on or off the ice. We have to take our organization to the next level and T.J. is a focal point of our team."

Oshie, who was suspended two games for missing a practice last season, finished with a career-low 12 goals, 22 assists and 34 points in his third season with the Blues.

"He had the injury that set him back, but I think he certainly trained harder this summer than he's ever trained," Armstrong said. "Seeing him get ready for training camp, you can tell his body structure is more prepared to play, and hopefully he'll reap the rewards of the work he's put in."

Armstrong is also confident the stock of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo will continue to rise, but not without hard work. Pietrangelo was actually a participant in the 2010 Traverse City prospects tournament before earning a spot along the blue line for the Blues in 2010-11, producing 11 goals and 43 points in 79 games.

"He had an outstanding season, but I think that he has an opportunity to be an elite player," Armstrong said. "He understands that when you come in as a first-year player, he wasn't … when you go into the visitors dressing room his number wasn't circled. I think when we start this season, everyone will say 'This is what Alex Pietrangelo is going to do.' He'll face a whole new set of pressure and a whole focal point but he understands that and is up to the challenge. It's going to be a good year for him to learn that responsibility, not only internally from our team, but also as the focal point of the opposition."

While there were several notable prospects competing in the tournament for St. Louis, including goalie Jake Allen and forward Phil McRae, the organization's top man wasn't -- Russian right wing Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tarasenko captained the Russians to a gold medal-winning performance at the 2011 World Junior Championships behind a goal and an assist in the championship game against Team Canada. The native of Yaroslavl returned to play a fourth season in the Kontinental Hockey League with HC Sibir Novosibirsk.

"We think he's close," Armstrong said. "We talked about bringing him over this year but he felt he wanted to have one more season in the KHL. I think he would have been pushing for a roster spot this year, quite honestly. He's that close but when you draft someone in the first round (No. 16 in 2010), you're in it for the long haul. One more year in the KHL won't hurt, and I think he'll be NHL-ready very quickly."

Armstrong believes the Blues are a playoff team and expects the club to earn a postseason berth for the first time in three seasons.

"I think the time is now to take that next step," he said. "We have to be very competitive. You see every year how making the playoffs gives you an opportunity, but we have to be a good regular season team first and we think adding those vets to the core group returning gives us a good opportunity to have a successful season.

"We have rebuilt through the draft and developed, but we're past that point now. We're a team that has expectations of being competitive, making the playoffs and playing well in the playoffs and I think our fans need that, they deserve that, and that's the mandate we're giving our players, coaching staff and, more importantly, ourselves."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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