After being a perennial playoff team for 25 years, the St. Louis Blues have missed the postseason each of the last two seasons. A late surge in 2006-07 and the addition of seven-time All-Star Paul Kariya could be enough to get them back there.
Kariya will make his St. Louis debut, and the Blues will try to win a season opener for the first time in 11 years when they visit the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams.
The Blues improved greatly when Andy Murray took over as coach after Mike Kitchen guided them to a 7-17-4 record before being fired on Dec. 11. St. Louis went 27-18-9 under Murray, but still finished 10th in the Western Conference.
Last season, St. Louis scored the fifth-fewest goals in the league with 208 and had the second-worst power-play percentage at 12.1 percent, but the signing of Kariya is expected to provide an offensive spark.
"People are talking about him," Blues team president John Davidson said. "We competed last year, but this is something fresh. This is a very significant time for our franchise."
Kariya has long been considered one of the league's fastest players, but turns 33 later this month. He still has the offensive tools, though, as he was Nashville's leading scorer in each of his two seasons there. In 2006-07 with the Predators, Kariya finished with 24 goals and 52 assists - his 76 points was 17 more than St. Louis' leading scorer, Doug Weight.
Kariya, a 12-year veteran, said he's in the best shape of his career.'
"I feel like my best hockey is ahead of me," he said. "I never want to be playing this game if I'm not at the top of my game. It's a great situation here, a terrific fit, and I'm really excited to be a part of it. I know we're a playoff team. Let's go win a Cup."
The Blues, who have never won a Stanley Cup in their 40-year history, would probably like to first start by winning their season opener - something they haven't done since beating Colorado in 1996.
Erik Johnson, the top overall pick from the 2006 draft, hopes to help out a defense that allowed the 11th-most goals (248) in the league last season. The 19-year-old defenseman is slated to make his NHL debut after playing for the University of Minnesota last season.
Goaltender Manny Legace went 23-15-5 last year in his first season with the Blues after five years in Detroit. He went 0-1-1 with a 3.90 goals-against average in two games against the Coyotes, and is 6-3-1 with two ties and a 2.30 GAA in 13 career games against them.
The Blues went 1-2-1 last season against the Coyotes, but are 2-0-2 in Phoenix since 2005-06.
The Coyotes are hoping to put a disappointing season behind them, and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02 - but it won't be easy.
They finished with the worst record in the West last year at 31-46-5, and worst since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. They also didn't make any major offseason moves to improver their offense while cutting ties with veterans Yanic Perreault, Jeremy Roenick and Owen Nolan among others.
The Coyotes scored the seventh-fewest goals (211) in the league a year ago, and captain Shane Doan lead the team with only 27. No other player scored more than 19.
Phoenix's offense hopes to get a boost from rookie center Peter Mueller, the eighth overall pick in last year's draft. The 19-year-old was the Western Hockey League rookie of the year in 2005-06 when he had 26 goals and 32 assists in 52 games for Everett.
Playing for the Silvertips last season, Mueller posted 21 goals and 57 assists in 51 games.
The Coyotes also are looking to improve on defense, as they allowed the third-most goals last season with 282.
Mikael Tellqvist likely will start the opener. He went 11-12-3 with a 3.34 GAA last season, and was 1-0-0 with a 2.83 GAA in two games against the Blues. Phoenix didn't re-sign Curtis Joseph - a 446-game winner - but inked veterans David Aebischer from Montreal and Alex Auld from Florida.
It's not immediately known who will get the start.