Originally Published: September 26, 2013

St. Louis Blues: No more tomorrows

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs two years in a row is hardly anything to be embarrassed about. Not when the Kings won the Stanley Cup one year, then got to the Western Conference finals the next. But for the St. Louis Blues, it's about getting over the hump. They are serious contenders; the time to win is now. And there are lessons from those two playoff losses to the Kings.

"It would be foolish to put the same team on the ice and think you'll get a different result," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com as camp opened. "You have to change. That's what the coaches are working on. I'm not a big believer in just working harder and things will be different; you have to work different, you have to work smarter. We have to have a different way to attack some of these teams in the playoffs."

Still, Armstrong resisted the temptation to blow it up after a first-round playoff exit. Yes, there were roster changes, but the core remains.

"I didn't believe, and it was a sentiment shared by others in the organization, that it was time to reinvent the wheel here," Armstrong said. "So we tweaked it, we made adjustments, but there's a belief that having those two defensemen we picked up last year -- [Jay] Bouwmeester and [Jordan] Leopold -- here for a full season will be beneficial. And having some of our younger players like [T.J.] Oshie, [David] Backes, [Chris] Stewart, [Patrik] Berglund -- they've been through this a couple of times now. And that's a good thing."

Armstrong points to the model of the Boston Bruins, who in 2010 blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli didn't panic in the ensuing offseason, trusting his core would bounce back.

"Peter came back and gave them another opportunity. He showed his faith in them, and they won the Cup," Armstrong said.

The Blues would love that script to play out this season for them.

Andy McDonald retired and David Perron was traded to Edmonton, opening up two top-six forward spots. Also gone: fourth-line forwards Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner and depth blueliner Kris Russell.

The new faces: The Blues signed top-six center Derek Roy and got winger Magnus Paajarvi in the Perron deal. The Blues also signed checking center Maxim Lapierre as well as depth forwards Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Bolduc. But essentially this is about Roy and Paajarvi replacing McDonald and Perron. A fairly quiet offseason in terms of roster changes got a little boost this week when the Blues signed gritty free agent Brenden Morrow, who played for Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock in Dallas. Morrow's addition gives the Blues a bit more backbone.

"The core group is coming back, but from a year ago from training camp to training camp, we've put in a pair of top-five defensemen in Bouwmeester and Leopold, we've put in a new top-six center-ice man [Derek Roy] and a new winger in Paajarvi. So it may not seem like a lot of change but from a year ago, there has been some change."

It has to start on defense, where a deep and talented blue line is perhaps unmatched in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk. Filling out the group are Jordan Leopold, Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, Ian Cole and possibly veteran Ryan Whitney, who was invited on a camp tryout.

That's deep, folks. And to Armstrong's point, the Blues get a full year now of Bouwmeester and Leopold, who were trade-deadline additions last season. Now they get the full impact for the next few years, both players signed to extensions.

Up front, it's nearly just as impressive. While Roy and Paarjarvi were key additions, the internal growth of youngsters Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko suggests a healthy competition for top-six jobs around the likes of mainstays David Backes, Chris Stewart, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie.

"I really like our depth up front," Armstrong said. "Because we like internal competition, which is much better than external pressure from the coach."

On the one hand, the Blues view their goalie depth as a positive given that all three of Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen played roles in the Blues finishing fourth in the Western Conference last season. On the flip side, Halak battled injuries once again, and Elliott for a second year in a row was badly outmatched by Kings star Jonathan Quick in the playoffs. Allen has a two-way contract this season that doesn't require him to clear waivers to go down to the minors. So the business end of things suggests strongly he'll start the year as No. 3 behind Halak and Elliott, both of whom are headed into the final year of their respective contracts.

"But Jaro and Brian also know that we're in the winning business right from the start of camp," Armstrong said.

It's all about Halak if the Blues are to win a Cup this season. He needs to be healthy and rediscover his form of the 2010 playoffs, when he was with the Canadiens. If he's that guy, the Blues will be scary. But if he's not, I just don't think they'll win with Elliott, who is a terrific 1B, but he's not an elite netminder in this league. Halak stayed in St. Louis in the offseason for the first time and worked hard in workouts, dropping his body fat from 14 percent to 8 percent as he rededicated himself. But if for whatever reason Halak isn't back in form by the March trade deadline, do the Blues look at Ryan Miller? Just a thought ...

In the new Central Division, the Blues saw division-rival Detroit depart for the East and basically replaced them with the Winnipeg Jets. No matter how you cut it, that's a break. It might hurt ticket sales in St. Louis losing those extra dates with the Red Wings, but from a competitive advantage, it's a win for St. Louis.

LeBrun: First place in the Central Division.

Burnside: Second place in the Central Division.

Custance: Second place in the Central Division.

Melrose: Second place in the Central Division.

Strang: Second place in the Central Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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