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Picking No. 1 goalie, Stastny among Blues' X-factors

by Louie Korac

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues want to prove they are more than just a regular-season success.

Here are three X-factors that will impact whether the Blues can have success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and reward a fan base that has been waiting for a Stanley Cup for 49 years:

Establishing a No. 1 goalie: Since Ken Hitchcock has been coaching the Blues, it's been a goalie tandem. From Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, to Elliott and Ryan Miller, to Elliott and Jake Allen.

But in Hitchcock's fifth season, he finally appears set to allow one of the goalies to win the job and play a larger percentage of the games.

"When the season starts, we're going to let whoever takes the job evolve," Hitchcock said. "So we're not going to anoint anybody. We're just going to let it evolve and hopefully somebody grabs it. I don't know that we want to get into where we're creating the sharing. We want the play of the goalies to determine who gets more, who gets less. Obviously if both guys play great, then both guys play, but if one guy steps out and plays a little bit better, then he'll get more games than the other guy. Anointing someone with the way it finished [last season] isn't realistic, and I'm not going to go and anoint someone out of training camp either. I'm going to hope that by the time we finish October, somebody's going to grab this thing.

"We're starting clean and fresh. We've got two good goalies. If someone goes out and grabs it, we're going to give him the job. We're going to give him that responsibility. If both guys play equal, we're back down the same path, but if one guy does jump and go, we're going to go with him."

Paul Stastny thrives as the No. 1 center: The Blues signed Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract in 2014 to become their top center. But Stastny, who had 46 points in 74 games last season, was mostly relegated as the No. 3 center with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin.

A shoulder injury slowed Stastny early in the season after a terrific start, but paying a player $7 million to play third-line center left fans scratching their heads.

Stastny's getting his chance to be the No. 1 center this season, playing between Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko.

"It's been good," said Stastny, who grew up in St. Louis after his Hall of Fame father Peter Stastny finished his career with the Blues in 1995. "I think from the start of camp we've been together, even the practices. That means a lot.

"I feel like last year, it was switched up with all different wingers. Sometimes you're going to have that with younger guys, but you want to stick with the guys you're going to play with, playing from the first practice to the games."

Tarasenko builds on his numbers: Tarasenko signed the richest contract in Blues history, an extension worth $60 million over eight years on July 7. But an average annual value of $7.5 million per season hasn't gone to Tarasenko's head.

Tarasenko, who led the Blues in goals (37) and points (73) last season, is hungry to win the Stanley Cup. If the Blues allow him to remain in his comfort zone, he could put up numbers unseen around this franchise since it had Brett Hull.

Tarasenko's goal totals have gone from eight to 21 to 37. He has 135 points in 179 regular-season games.

"I don't think the money's relevant," Hitchcock said. "He got the money because he's a good player. It's handling a good player, it's knowing which part for me is coach-related and which is just let him play-related. Me telling him what to do with the puck, me telling him how to play offensively is not smart from a coaching standpoint. He knows more about the things to do offensively than any coach is going to be able to teach him, but getting him to make the other commitment, to me, which honors the rest of the teammates, that's my job. My job is to try to integrate him into the team part of the game, which is checking and stuff like that, defensive awareness, and then allow him the freedom to do the things he does offensively.

"Not interfering with it and not getting in the middle of it [offensively] I think is smart. But when the puck turns over and it's time to check, we've asked all our players to look the same. That's the challenge. You can't have it both ways. You've got to be able to play that onto the rest of your teammates, and I think he's more than willing to do that, but the money, once the puck is dropped, is not relevant to us. He gets what he's earned because he's a hell of a hockey player."

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