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Blues look to duplicate last season's Central title

by Dave Lozo

After a 109-point season, the St. Louis Blues spent the summer locking up the talent that made it happen instead of making changes after a second-round playoff exit.

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong signed forward David Perron to a four-year deal, then followed that by securing forward T.J. Oshie with a five-year deal. Perron, 24, and Oshie, 26, had arguably their best offensive seasons as professionals. Oshie had a career-best 54 points in 80 games, and Perron's 42 points were nine short of a career high, but he reached that number in 57 games after returning from a concussion.

"With both David and T.J., those are two players that we've spent quite a bit of time cultivating and ... it was important for our organization to keep these players through the prime of their careers," Armstrong told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "Both of these players, especially David Perron at such a young age coming into the League, he'll be right in the middle of his prime years when his contract is up in four years. T.J. Oshie is a little older and signed up for a longer time.

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"It's important to have these guys that we believe can be a large part of the solution signed up."

It's not just Oshie and Perron who are back -- it's almost everyone.

Of the Blues' 18 leading scorers, only Jason Arnott (17-17-34) and Carlo Colaiacovo (2-17-19) won't be back this season. Colaiacovo signed with the Detroit Red Wings and Arnott is an unrestricted free agent.

The biggest addition to the Blues' roster is 6-foot, 200-pound Vladimir Tarasenko, the team's first-round pick at the 2010 NHL Draft who has spent the previous four seasons in the KHL. The 20-year-old winger amassed 131 points in 207 games in a career that began as a 16-year-old, including 31 in 31 games this season before coming to St. Louis.

"He's obviously a right winger coming off the off wing, and I think he needs to play with people who have the ability to play a similar style," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the left-handed Tarasenko to the Dispatch. "For him to be effective, he's got to play in the top nine. I don't think we're thinking that he's a 20-year-old. I think we're thinking that he's a young guy that's had great experience that's really going to help him. I've talked to people that have coached him. They know age-wise he's not an older player, but experience-wise he is."

While the Blues didn't make any big splashes this summer, they can look for a boost by simply having their best offensive players remain healthy this season.

The Blues scored 2.51 goals per game in 2011-12 to rank 21st in the League. A lot of that had to do with key offensive players missing time. Perron (24 games, concussion), Andy McDonald (57 games, concussion, shoulder), Alexander Steen (39 games, concussion) all had extended absences at varying points of the season.

How big a loss were they? Perron, McDonald and Steen combined for 92 points in 125 games, an average of 0.74 points game. To give an idea of what the Blues were missing from their lineup on most nights, Rick Nash averaged 0.72 points per game for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.

There's no guarantee those players exceed their totals in points and games played this year, but if they do, the Blues could be the most dangerous team in the League.

"I think you score in the NHL by committee," Hitchock told the Dispatch. "The formula for winning is the same. It's three competitive center icemen, good depth on defense and great goaltending. That's what wins in the NHL. You look at all the teams that did well this year, that's what they've got. We've got it within our group. If we're healthy, it's sitting there in our group."

Forward B.J. Crombeen (three points in 40 games) was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for draft picks. Defenseman Kent Huskins, who missed 46 games with a fractured left ankle, remains an unrestricted free agent.

The Blues boast one of the best blue-line corps in the League along with a deadly goaltending duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. If this young team can grow, stay healthy and learn from last season's sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, they have a chance to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.

"Every player that I've talked to feels that there's another gear in us, and we can get to that gear now that we have that experience," Hitchcock told the Dispatch. "I think what really showed in the playoffs was that we were inexperienced at the level of commitment necessary to win against a really good team. The temperature of the games went up and we hadn't been involved in anything like that before. It was like 'on-the-job training.' Now we know what it's like and our players won't be surprised by it."


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