ST. LOUIS -- After a third straight loss in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was disappointed but saw a number of positives.
"We talked at the end of last year," he said Friday. "I personally thought this year's team was going to be better than last year's team, even when we lost. I thought that [Jaden] Schwartz and [Vladimir] Tarasenko were ready to take another step. I thought [Jori] Lehtera was going to have a year under his belt. I thought Jake Allen was going to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 star goaltender. So I thought there were pieces there that were going to make us a better team. I never recommended to ownership that we start from scratch.
"I said we should tinker. We have to try to get better. But as disappointing as the losses were, I didn't lose sight on how well the team played for six months going into it too."
Armstrong's most significant move was trading forward T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals for forward Troy Brouwer.
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Now the belief he had in his players is being rewarded with the Blues' first trip to the Western Conference Final since 2001. They'll play Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks at Scottrade Center on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
"I think we're getting great efforts from different people," Armstrong said. "This is the first time we've had so many young players in our lineup, first-year players, [Robby] Fabbri, [Joel] Edmundson, [Colton] Parayko, that jump off the charts as being able to play at this level and not be intimidated by the situation. Also, youth is being served with Schwartz and Tarasenko. We sort of take them out of that young player group but their birth certificate still says they're relatively young and they're having a huge impact on our game too.
"I think the veteran players have stepped up, Brouwer and [Paul] Stastny and [David] Backes and [Alexander] Steen, to lead our group. They've been really good for us. We have balance this year. We're getting timely saves and we're getting timely goals."
The Blues have been playing with a full lineup since the start of the playoffs, a change from the regular season when they had to field a different lineup seemingly every night dealing with numerous injuries; Brouwer was the only player to play in all 82 games, and Steen, Stastny, Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott were among those that missed at least 15 games because of injury. Goalies Allen and Brian Elliott also missed significant time.
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It's what Armstrong feels has made the Blues what they are today.
"The interesting part was we never really got to this team until the playoffs," he said. "We had injuries throughout the season so we never saw our full team. When we got to the trade deadline, we weren't prepared to give a second-round pick for a player that was going to end up sitting beside me when we got healthy. We were comfortable that Steve Ott was coming back and getting stronger. We were comfortable that everybody was getting healthier and we just moved forward with that.
"We brought in a couple tryouts at training camp. [Scott] Gomez made it until Christmas and [Scottie Upshall] made it all the way until the end and he's been a really good player for us. We've tinkered but we haven't had to really reinvent the wheel this year. When we got to the trade deadline I didn't see a hole big enough or a replacement player good enough to come in to upset the apple cart."
Armstrong's decision to stick with his core group has the Blues four wins from playing in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970, but he isn't looking that far ahead just yet.
"All I know," Armstrong said, "is we have the opportunity to move ahead."