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Blues hope minor changes lead to playoff wins

by Louie Korac continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

ST. LOUIS -- When the St. Louis Blues were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the first round for the third consecutive season, there wasn't a doubt there would be change. The question was, when would it happen?

Blues fans were expecting a massive overhaul after losing to the Minnesota Wild in six games, with questions about the core leadership group and how many of them would return. Coach Ken Hitchcock's contract expired June 30, and there was question whether he would return for a fifth season.

The reigning Central Division champions shuffled the deck to an extent, with the most notable offseason move coming in a trade. The Blues traded popular forward T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals for a package that included right wing Troy Brouwer.

Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, 23, a star on the rise after setting NHL career highs in goals (37), assists (36) and points (73) last season, was signed to an eight-year, $60 million contract, a move signifying a transition to a younger core.

Defensemen Barret Jackman and Zbynek Michalek are gone; Jackman signed as a free agent with the Nashville Predators, and Michalek re-signed with the Arizona Coyotes after the Blues acquired him in a trade from the Coyotes on March 2.

Center Kyle Brodziak was signed as a free agent to help the fourth line.

And after some calculated thought and talk that the Blues had interest in hiring Mike Babcock as coach, Hitchcock decided to return for at least one more season.

"I wanted to make sure that Ken and I were on the same page, that he had that desire to continue down that path," general manager Doug Armstrong said.

Hitchcock, 63, said he feels the Blues' opportunity is the best one for him.

"This is going to be one great challenge because the four teams that were in a year ago that were out (Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks), they're not going to be taking it very lightly," Hitchcock said. "They're going to be pushing. It's going to be the hardest job we've ever had to get into the playoffs. ... Putting all of our focus and energy into that is going to be really important."

The Blues have accumulated the most points in the NHL since Hitchcock's arrival in 2011 (389); last season, they were in the top five in offense (fifth at 2.92 goals per game) and defense (tied for fourth, 2.40 goals per game). But they have one playoff series win since 2012. The Blues were active trade partners during the offseason but were not going to completely tear apart what's taken a great deal of time to build.

Trading Oshie, a first-round pick (No. 24) in the 2005 NHL Draft, was a move the Blues deemed necessary, and bringing in 30-year-old Brouwer, who had 21 goals and 43 points in 82 games with the Capitals last season, is the type of strong body the Blues feel will help in areas missing in recent seasons.

"Troy is a power forward in today's game, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds," Armstrong said. "A consistent 20-goal scorer, plays the way that the Blues are looking to play moving forward. You can put him on the right wing with any of the three centermen. He's played up the line in Washington, but also played a third-line role. Very effective on the power play. Quite an ironman who doesn't miss many games.

"This trade allowed us to go in a little bit of a different direction. It opens up space for some of our younger players."

Those include forward Jaden Schwartz, who set an NHL career high in goals (28), assists (35) and points (63) in 75 regular-season games last season; and forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who scored 13 goals in 54 games.

Along with Tarasenko, goalie Jake Allen, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, Jaskin, center Jori Lehtera and Magnus Paajarvi signed a new contract. Defensemen Peter Harrold (New Jersey) and Andre Benoit (Buffalo), and right wings Jordan Caron (Boston) and Danny Kristo (New York Rangers) were signed as free agents.

Fourth-line wing Chris Porter departed for the Philadelphia Flyers and defenseman Chris Butler was re-signed to add depth.

Lehtera, who had surgery on his right ankle Aug. 4, is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.

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