A new captain, a strange coaching arrangement and a youth movement have Blues buzzing

The Blues belong to Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko now. Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

To suggest this is an intriguing season for the St. Louis Blues would be understating things.

This is a team, I would humbly opine, that is at an interesting crossroads.

After reaching the Western Conference finals last season and unburdening themselves of some playoff demons in doing so, the Blues finally turned a powerhouse regular season into a spring of substance.

But of interest to me now is where this team goes from here. Are the Blues taking that next step? Or is their window beginning to close? For one, this is Ken Hitchcock's last season behind the St. Louis bench -- with the team making the unusual arrangement that newly hired associate coach Mike Yeo will take over next season.

There's also the transition of leadership with longtime captain David Backes leaving via free agency, as did clutch playoff performer Troy Brouwer. And those departures came a year after star winger T.J. Oshie was traded.

This, more than ever, is now the team of new captain Alex Pietrangelo as well as Alexander Steen, one of the team's alternate captains and respected leaders.

"A bit of a change -- obviously Backes was the big piece that was here for a while," Pietrangelo said over the phone Wednesday from Edmonton. "But if you look at the fact that Hitch is still here, you got myself, Steener, [Kevin Shattenkirk], [Patrik Berglund], [Jaden Schwartz] -- there's a bunch of guys, pretty much the same core that's been here a long stretch. While there has been change, at the same time for the most part it's the same group of guys, with the same coaching philosophies. Pretty much the same identity we've had, just a bit younger.''

Yes, the core is a bit younger. Which is a good thing. Superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko can take more ownership now of this team, ditto for two-way winger Schwartz. Center Paul Stastny has been terrific early on this season, feeding off his solid playoff performance of last spring.

Nobody is going to pretend to be Backes, the fiery leader who would drop the gloves at a moment's notice, the ultimate alpha male who left it all on the ice for the Blues over 10 seasons.

But there are other ways to lead, too.

"I'm not going to change who I am," said Pietrangelo, who last month helped Team Canada win the World Cup. "I said the same thing to the guys: If I'm not who I usually am, I expect these guys to let me know. Obviously, they gave me the 'C' because they don't mind who I am. I'm going to continue to be the same person. I'm not going to change my personality.''

Nor are the Blues changing how they play all that much. Sure, they want to be a bit faster -- the San Jose Sharks made them look slow while beating them in the conference finals -- but this is still Blues hockey that can suffocate you by coming in waves. They're off to a fast start with seven out of eight points in four games.

"They're big, skilled and play a heavy game," said one Western Conference general manager who recently saw them play. "This is still Hitch's team, so they play his style of hockey."

The players insist having Hitchcock's replacement standing next to him during every game is no big deal.

"When you think about it, obviously it's an odd situation, but Mike has been great," Pietrangelo said. "He's the first one to tell you that Hitch is the coach. The best part about Mike, he even told me and some of the other guys, he wants to learn from Hitch and wants to take this year to understand why a guy like Hitch has been so successful. You know, I'm treating Hitch as the head coach and Mike is the assistant. It starts with me. If I don't do that, it's not fair to Hitch. Different dynamic, obviously, but we'll deal with the transition in the summer when the time comes. So far it really hasn't come up. Mike has been nothing but professional, and that makes it a lot easier.''

Former executive Craig Button doesn't see anything unusual about the arrangement.

"This is a good succession plan," said Button, a former GM of the Calgary Flames. "Organizations, outside professional sports teams, do it all the time and it is not only important, it allows for an orderly transition. We only hear of firings in sport, and then that leads to other changes and the inevitable feeling-out process for players and coaching staff.

"There will be familiarity with Mike for the players, it will allow Mike to know the players better and, most importantly, it doesn't force player changes based on lack of knowledge. A new coach that knows the team can keep the group moving forward and continue the process that Doug believes in."

A long season is ahead. But the intrigue with this team is undeniable. Can they take the next step?

"We made some big strides last year getting to the Western Conference finals, but after that excitement, and knowing we made it that far, that wears off and you wonder what went wrong [after losing] and how you get to that next level," Pietrangelo said. "That was a big topic of conversation throughout the summer and going into the season.

"The big thing for us is building and getting to our best hockey as quickly as we can and carrying that into the playoffs like we did last year.''