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Blues strategizing way to repeat as Stanley Cup champions

'We're in a business where nobody cares what you did yesterday,' GM says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Doug Armstrong hasn't had much time to celebrate, other than bringing the Stanley Cup to his hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, on Saturday.

Since the St. Louis Blues won the first championship in their history, the general manager has navigated the NHL Awards, an NHL Board of Governors meeting, the NHL Draft, development camp, free agency and more.

August will be the time to sit back, reflect on last season and focus on the coming season.

 

[RELATED: St. Louis Blues team reset | Summer with Stanley]

 

"We're in a business where nobody cares what you did yesterday; it's what you're going to do today and tomorrow," Armstrong said, scouting the World Junior Summer Showcase at USA Hockey Arena this week.

"Our players understand that. The economics say they have to have good years if they want to get paid. We all have to have good years if we want to keep our jobs. So that's just the nature of the beast. I don't really think that complacency will set in in our group."

However, Armstrong and coach Craig Berube must figure out how to approach the challenge of repeating, something only the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, have done in the salary cap era.

"I know Craig and I are working internally to do that, and he and I will hook up in August to formulate our plans to make sure we're on the right track," Armstrong said.

The Blues were a great story last season. They changed coaches Nov. 19, were last in the NHL on Jan. 3 and gave goalie Jordan Binnington his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Not only did they rally to make the playoffs, they won it all.

But they were no fluke.

The surprise was their start, not their finish. Though they missed the playoffs in 2017-18, it was by one point and their first miss since 2010-11. Since 2011-12, only the Penguins have had more regular-season wins (370) than the Blues (365). St. Louis added centers Tyler Bozak and Ryan O'Reilly and forwards Pat Maroon and David Perron last offseason and were expected to be contenders.

Video: Craig Berube faces challenges in first full season

"The way I look at it, we've been a successful organization for the last decade," said Armstrong, who became GM on July 1, 2010. "We take pride in preparing every year, and this year should be no different and will be no different.

Though the Blues will come back virtually intact, they have room for growth internally.

Take Binnington, who was the fourth-string goalie not long ago. Can he excel for more than a half-season?

Take forward Robert Thomas, who had a high-ankle sprain and didn't find his footing until January. He had 33 points (nine goals, 24 assists) in 70 games as a rookie.

"We're hoping that he takes a big step, and so we're looking for guys like that to slide into that group of six," Armstrong said. "If he can do that, he's just going to make us that much deeper and stronger."

Forwards Ivan Barbashev, Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford and center Oskar Sundqvist each opened eyes in the playoffs. Can they sustain it?

Defensemen Niko Mikkola and Mitch Reinke, centers Klim Kostin and Jordan Kyrou and goalie Ville Husso will each push for a roster spot.

"We carried 30 guys through the playoffs, and some of those guys, like a Mitch Reinke, were able to take it all in," Armstrong said. "Now he knows who his competition is. And there are other players in that same vein.

"Younger players. Faster players. The game is evolving. The game is changing. We have to evolve and change. We have guys that want to hold their ice time; they want to hold their spot on the team. Guys on the team want to get a higher place in the pecking order of special teams. And younger players want jobs."

The plan to integrate young players into the mix, and the fact the Blues still must sign restricted free agents Barbashev and defenseman Joel Edmundson affects veteran unrestricted free agent forward Pat Maroon.

"We have to make sure we can get those restricted guys in (under the $81.5 million NHL salary cap), and that's our priority now," Armstrong said.

"[Maroon is] talking to teams. He doesn't owe us a phone call if the right deal shows up. But we have a good relationship, and we're just going to stay in touch."

With or without Maroon, Armstrong is confident the Blues will be ready in September for the challenges this season will provide.

"We think we're going to have a really competitive camp," he said. "That's how I think your organization continues to get better."

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