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Blues feel pieces are in place for long postseason

by Louie Korac / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

ST. LOUIS -- It's business as usual for the St. Louis Blues as they enter the 2015-16 season.

Business as usual from a standpoint of continuing regular-season success, which has been a staple the past four seasons under coach Ken Hitchcock; their 389 points are more than any other team.

But despite all the regular-season success, the Blues have one Stanley Cup Playoff series win to show for it, including last season's loss to the Minnesota Wild in a Western Conference First Round series.

Change was expected during the offseason, but much of the core remains in place. The biggest change was the acquisition of right wing Troy Brouwer, goalie prospect Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft from the Washington Capitals for right wing T.J. Oshie.

With a few other minor alterations, the Blues feel they're in a good position to be among the Stanley Cup contenders again. And with a new season starting Oct. 8, Hitchcock, who signed a one-year contract May 26, wants his players looking ahead and not back.

"My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good," Hitchcock said. "If you learn from the past, that's when you do yourself a whole bunch of good. We want to learn from what happened, which is why we're doing the things we've done in training camp. We've learned and we want to put it in place, but we want to focus on Game 1 of a very important season. But it's like learn and now move on. And the moving on means getting better and not running and hiding."

Forwards

Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak, a free agent who signed July 2 after spending the previous six seasons with the Wild, were the Blues' top offseason acquisitions. Both provide the abrasive, tough, physical style the Blues believe they will need moving forward in Hitchcock's fast and reckless style of play.

"Reckless for a 63-year-old man might be different than reckless for some young bucks," captain David Backes said. "[Hitchcock's] seen something that's going to be tweaked in our systems where we are more reckless and more on the move and playing a faster game rather than slowing it down. Not that we played slow; but making that fast game our identity and trending in that direction and getting transition, capitalizing on odd-man rushes and being more dangerous off the rush. That makes us a better team."

The Blues' top line is expected to consist of left wing Alexander Steen, who set NHL career-highs in points (64) and assists (40) last season; center Paul Stastny, who had 46 points in 74 games in his first season with Blues; and right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the Blues in goals (37) and points (73) last season. The Blues signed Tarasenko to an eight-year, $60 million contract July 7.

Left wing Jaden Schwartz, who set NHL career-highs in goals (28), assists (35) and points (63) last season, is expected to play with center Jori Lehtera, who had surgery Aug. 4 to remove a bone chip from his right ankle but returned late in the preseason, and either Dmitrij Jaskin or Brouwer at right wing.

Depth at forward could push Backes, who scored 26 goals last season, to third-line center. His linemates could include Robby Fabbri, the 21st pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, at left wing, and Jaskin or Brouwer. Brodziak will center the fourth line with left wing Steve Ott and right wing Ryan Reaves.

Schwartz has gotten time in camp at center and Backes has played some right wing, his natural position, so there's plenty of choices for Hitchcock.

Center Patrik Berglund will start the season on injured reserve while recovering from Aug. 28 surgery on his right shoulder and isn't expected back until January. The Blues brought in veterans Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall on professional tryouts.

Defensemen

The Blues, who finished tied for fourth-fewest goals allowed with 197, will have the same top-four defensemen as last season: Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
51-24-7 (109 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost in the Western Conference First Round to the Minnesota Wild in six games

Key additions: RW Troy Brouwer, C Kyle Brodziak, C Robby Fabbri

Key subtractions: RW T.J. Oshie, D Barret Jackman, D Zbynek Michalek, LW Chris Porter, C Marcel Goc, C Olli Jokinen

The big change comes with the third pairing.

Gone are veterans Barret Jackman, who signed with the Nashville Predators, and Zbynek Michalek, who signed back with the Arizona Coyotes after being traded to the Blues on March 2. They'll be replaced by Robert Bortuzzo, acquired March 2 from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and 2012 sixth-round pick (No. 176) Petteri Lindbohm.

"It'll be different," said Bouwmeester, who had his streak of consecutive games played end at 737 last season because of a groin injury that bothered him the rest of the season. "It's a couple younger guys I guess, but I think it's good. Nowadays you look around and it's more than ever a young man's League. Both of those guys [Bortuzzo and Lindbohm] came in last year and showed they can play. They've got to be excited of course. It's good when you have fresh blood. That excitement kind of wears off on guys."

Chris Butler, a native of St. Louis, was re-signed to be the seventh defenseman, and draft picks Joel Edmundson (2011, No. 46) and Colton Parayko (2012, No. 86) have pushed hard during training camp but likely will start with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

Goalies

Brian Elliott and Jake Allen provided a strong 1-2 punch for the Blues last season, and they'll return to form a solid duo again.

Allen, who was 22-7-4 with four shutouts, a 2.28 goals-against average and .913 save percentage, got more playing time than Elliott down the stretch and earned the starting role during the six-game series loss against the Wild.

Elliott, was 26-14-3 with a 2.26 GAA and .917 save percentage in 46 games, and his five shutouts gave him a Blues-record 21. But it was the second time in as many seasons and third time in four he started the playoffs as the backup.

Last season Allen played well after Elliott sustained a knee injury and Hitchcock stuck with Allen during the postseason.

"We turned away from Elliott twice because of injury, not because of play," Hitchcock said. "It's unfortunate that he got hurt, but when he got hurt the other guy jumped on it last year so that's the way we went. Elliott had a better year than Jake. Jake had a great finish and so that's the way we went."

Special Teams

The Blues were one of three teams, along with the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, to finish last season in the top 10 in power play and penalty kill. The Blues' power play was fourth at 22.3 percent and the penalty kill was seventh at 83.7 percent.

Brouwer could further boost the power play. Of his 46 goals the past two seasons with the Capitals, 20 of them came with the man-advantage, including eight of his 21 goals last season.

Coaches

There was some question whether Hitchcock would return for a fifth season with the Blues after the first-round playoff loss to the Wild.

Hitchcock would not commit to coming back when the Blues held their close-out meetings, but after some soul-searching and conversations with general manager Doug Armstrong, he decided to return to try to make good on not only the regular-season record but the postseason record. The entire coaching staff, which includes associate coach Brad Shaw and assistants Kirk Muller and Ray Bennett, return.

"We own both records," Hitchcock said. "We own the record in the regular season and we own the record in the playoffs, so let's learn from it; let's use it to get better."

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