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Blues load up down the middle

by Louie Korac

ST. LOUIS -- In each of the past three seasons, the St. Louis Blues have seen their Stanley Cup Playoff hopes ended by two of the premier teams in the Western Conference.

The Los Angeles Kings (twice) and Chicago Blackhawks, winners of the past three Stanley Cups, have sent the Blues into the summer earlier than they would have liked. One reason has been a lack of depth at center.

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong indicated at the team's exit meetings and subsequent media session that things needed to change.

The Blues were one of the teams rumored to be involved in a possible trade for Jason Spezza before the Ottawa Senators sent their captain to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. Instead, St. Louis opted for the free-agent route and landed the biggest prize among available centers in Paul Stastny.

The Blues lured Stastny away from the Colorado Avalanche with a four-year, $28 million contract not long after they signed center Jori Lehtera, a 2008 third-round draft pick, to a two-year contract.

Suddenly, the Blues are stacked down the middle. They were strong before with David Backes there. But Armstrong said Tuesday during a conference call that his top-line forwards could very well consist of Alexander Steen and Backes on the wings with Stastny in the middle. Other lines could have Lehtera centering Vladimir Tarasenko (who played with Lehtera with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League) and Jaden Schwartz, and Patrik Berglund in the middle with Vladimir Sobotka and T.J. Oshie. Berglund signed a three-year, $11.1 million extension last week.

"We've had no options over the years of where David should play," Armstrong said. "He could end up still at center ice, but I sort of feel like the grade schooler, the kindergarten teacher throwing all the toys in the sandbox and let the coaches figure out what they want to play with and how they want to use them.

"I think we've got a lot of different options, and I do think it's easier for a centerman to go to the wing than a winger to obviously play center. I think we're going to have a lot of options. Lehtera has played wing at the international events too. The coaches are going to have some options. It might take them a little bit of time this year; the first few games, maybe the first 15 or 20 games, to find a constant rhythm and then find the right pairings."

The Blues understand that regular-season victories, of which they've had plenty in the past few years, doesn't necessarily translate to postseason success. They won the first two games against the Kings in 2013, then dropped four straight. The scenario was the same this spring, when the Blues scored eight goals to win the first two games against the Blackhawks, only to lose the next four and score all of six goals.

Adding a player of Stastny's caliber was a move that needed to be made, though Armstrong doesn't want to put too much pressure on the son of Hockey Hall of Famer (and former Blue) Peter Stastny.

"We're not asking anyone to come in here with a cape on and be Superman," Armstrong said. "We're just looking for another strong piece to a puzzle that can keep us competitive as we chase Colorado down for the division. They're the champs and they're the first team we have to take a look at catching and then if we're fortunate enough to do that and get into the playoffs, we want to have a guy that can compete at that time of year."

Stastny, who spent his first eight NHL seasons with the Avalanche, had 10 points in seven playoff games for the Avalanche, who lost in the first round to the Minnesota Wild after winning the Central Division title. He adds a versatile mix to the Blues that should highlight his strengths in coach Ken Hitchcock's 200-foot game.

"You look at the roster and you can put yourself in different positions, and see who you can play with, do different line combinations," Stastny said. "There's a variety of scary players on this team and whether some are natural centerman, or they're playing wing, or vice versa, you can move different pieces and I think that's what makes good teams really special. They have the ability to make ... three or four lines or they can go top-heavy and make two really effective lines. I think it's always a good option to have when you have so many good players available."

But the fact that the Blues are Stanley Cup contenders enticed Stastny, who grew up in St. Louis and attended a local high school (Chaminade College Prep)] during his freshman and sophomore years.

"I look at St. Louis and their window to win a Cup is now, and for the next seven or eight years, so I'm excited," said Stastny, who played with Backes, Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk on the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2014 Sochi Games. He and Shattenkirk were also teammates in Colorado.

"You've got to stay consistent [in the playoffs]," Stastny said. "Everybody talks about elevating their game. I think the best players are the ones that are consistent, don't try to do too much, don't try to over-think, keep it simple. Obviously it's going to be more physical, there's not much room there. But you've got to find those open spots and be the smarter player. It takes a little luck and sometimes you've just got to play the same way."

Add Lehtera, who played the past three seasons in the KHL, to the mix, and the Blues feel they have more viable options down the middle against a rugged Western Conference.

"One of his greatest assets is his hockey IQ," Armstrong said of Stastny. "We really think he thinks the game strong. We think that he and Jori, both of these players can make their wingers better. We haven't had a true center iceman with top-end passing skill and I think both of these guys can find their wingers."

"Not only with the signing of Paul, I think that when it comes to Lehtera and getting him over here, who I had the opportunity to play against at the Olympics, you could tell he's just another big forward that we could really use," Shattenkirk said. "He's got great speed and great skill, especially talking here to Vladi Tarasenko, who knows him a little bit. We sign [Berglund], who has been a great part of our team. Someone who is another big body and has a lot of things in his game that really help us out. We've made some great moves ... as usual, Doug Armstrong has done a phenomenal job of putting the right pieces in play."

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