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Blues counting on youth to step up

St. Louis GM optimistic despite departures of veterans Brian Elliott, David Backes, Troy Brouwer

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

In July, amid major changes to the St. Louis Blues, general manager Doug Armstrong said they might have to take a half-step back to take two steps forward.

In August, a month before training camp, he sounded more optimistic.

"Maybe we'll be better," he said.

The Blues have been good the past five regular seasons, with more than 100 points in each of the past four 82-game regular seasons and finishing first or second in the Central Division in five straight seasons.

They broke through in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, making the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001 and coming within two wins of their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970.

But now they're a team in transition.

Video: CHI@STL, Gm7: Parayko rings it in off the post

Coach Ken Hitchcock will be behind the bench for one more season before stepping aside for Mike Yeo, the new associate coach. Assistant coach Kirk Muller left to become associate coach of the Montreal Canadiens after orchestrating one of the League's best power plays the past two seasons.

Captain David Backes left for the Boston Bruins and forward Troy Brouwer for the Calgary Flames via free agency after bringing scoring, toughness and leadership. Goaltender Brian Elliott was traded to the Flames after often putting up excellent numbers.

The Blues are smaller and younger.

More major changes might be coming too. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and forwards Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen can become unrestricted free agents after the season.

"It's a different group," Armstrong said. "We've been a little bit on autopilot the last couple of years, just bringing back a good group year in and year out. This is the first time we've had some change, and I think everyone's excited about it."

What is there to be excited about?

As well as the Blues have performed in recent seasons, they fell short of their ultimate goal, and the League is ever-evolving. Whether they liked it or not, they had to refresh.

Hitchcock is nearing the end of his long, accomplished coaching career, and he has a new staff with Yeo, Rick Wilson and Steve Thomas. The Blues will have to play a new style. But Hitchcock always has been a student of the game who has stayed current, and while he can help Yeo transition, Yeo can help him with new ideas.

"I think it's a really strong staff, maybe the strongest staff we've had," Armstrong said.

Video: STL@SJS, Gm4: Allen makes a nice pad save

Youth is not necessarily a negative. The Blues traded Elliott because they felt Jake Allen, 26, was ready to be their No. 1 goaltender full time. Defenseman Colton Parayko, 23, and forward Robby Fabbri, 20, impressed as rookies last season. Fabbri had 18 goals and 19 assists in 72 regular-season games, then four goals and 11 assists in 20 playoff games.

"I think the game is getting faster, and youth is being served," Armstrong said. "I think we were going to transfer to this regardless."

St. Louis still has lots of experience and depth. They signed forward David Perron, who played for the Blues from 2007-13 and whose offensive production should offset the loss of Brouwer. They have Berglund, Steen, Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko, along with a solid bottom six. They have a strong defense.

Tarasenko, 24, could play an even bigger role.

"He'll be really good, and he expects to be really good, and we need him to be really good," Armstrong said.

Tarasenko was fourth in the NHL in goals last season with 40 and tied for 12th in points with 74. He absorbed a lot of blame in the Western Conference Final, when he was held without a point against the San Jose Sharks until he scored two goals in the third period of a 5-2 loss in Game 6. But he had seven goals and six assists in 14 games in the first two rounds.

Video: SJS@STL, Gm5: Fabbri cranks power-play goal for lead

Armstrong referenced Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who started strong in the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs and didn't produce in the Final until late in a six-game loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

"People questioned him, and then I think he won the Conn Smythe the next year," Armstrong said. "Until you go through these things as a player, it's an unknown. Now there's less and less unknown for our players because of making it to the third round this year and understanding there's quite a bit farther distance to go. …

"The last two years he's getting better and better each year. Can he win the scoring title? Can he win the goals title? He's a dynamic player. That's going to be interesting to watch."

That would be something to get excited about.

"I don't think we have to do anything extraordinary to be a good, competitive team in I think the best division in hockey," Armstrong said.

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