This time last year, the St. Louis Blues were the sexy pick to run the table and capture the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. They lived up to the billing early, playing like the NHL's best team for a good part of the season before stumbling down the stretch and flaming out in a first-round loss to the Blackhawks.
It was a familiar story to the team's long-suffering fans. Good ... but not good enough. Again.
That frustrating finish revealed some obvious flaws in the makeup of the club. Compared to conference heavyweights like Chicago and Los Angeles, there wasn't enough talent in the middle. There wasn't enough depth up front. There was an awkward mix on the back end.
To compete with the big boys, St. Louis needed more than a fresh coat of paint. General manager Doug Armstrong has delivered. After his active summer, the Blues may finally be ready for their close-up.
Armstrong attacked the first problem by signing Paul Stastny
, the best center available in free agency, who is coming off a 25-goal, 60-point season with Colorado. He might lack the size and scoring punch of the classic No. 1 pivot, but he brings other attributes that suggest he's the right fit for the Blues.
Stastny is a smart, two-way player with a consistent, if not explosive, offensive game. (He's averaging .85 points per contest for his eight-year career.) He can assume a key role on a power play that should be one of the league's best (especially now that the game but overmatched Vladimir Sobotka is off it). And he was the only forward on the Avs who finished the season with a positive possession number, making him a natural for coach Ken Hitchcock's system.
Armstrong also signed Finnish center Jori Lehtera, a 2008 draft pick who impressed at both the Olympics and the World Championships, where he tied for third in scoring with 12 points in 10 games.
There's lot to like about Lehtera's size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), his edge, and his touch (12 goals and 44 points in 48 games for Novosibirsk of the KHL last season), but will his game translate to North America? The list of Euro forwards who've crossed the pond mid-career and made an impact in the NHL is shorter than a compilation of great Kevin Smith films (although another former Blues pick, Carl Soderberg, made a nice transition last season in Boston at 28). Lehtera slots in for now as the new No. 3 center, although that may change. Nominal No. 2 Patrik Berglund is weak on the draw at just 47.9% last season while Lehtera was one of the KHL's best at 61.5%. If he's driving possession at anywhere near that rate, Lehtera could see his role increase even if his offense doesn't come right away.
The recently re-signed Steve Ott will likely assay the role of junkyard dog/penalty killer on the fourth line, with reigning Swedish league MVP Joakim Lindstrom looking to claim a top-nine role in his third crack at the NHL. That leaves coach Ken Hitchcock to decide where best to fit David Backes
. There's some thought that the captain will be shifted to the wing, possibly alongside Stastny, but it also makes sense to utilize him as a Mack truck-sized counter to the Ryan Getzlaf
-led lines that the Blues will have to best. Either way, the forward group stacks up to be as deep and skilled as any the franchise has dressed.
The defense is top-heavy with mobile puck movers Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester, but Armstrong needed to address a right/left-shooting imbalance. That led to the trade that sent Roman Polak to the Maple Leafs in exchange for Carl Gunnarsson. You can make the case that the Blues needed more grit, not less, on the back end, but as Armstrong saw first hand in Sochi, the comfort that comes from a natural right/left combination has a positive impact on a team's transition game.
There's still a decision to be made in net, but by allowing Ryan Miller to make his way to Vancouver a path was cleared for top-prospect Jake Allen to finally claim a role of his own. He'll battle the newly contracted Brian Elliott (three years, $7.5 million) for playing time. It's not Jacques Plante/Glenn Hall, but it's a promising tandem.
Will those moves be enough to finally get the Blues over the finish line? There are no guarantees in the West, but Armstrong's reset has them well positioned to battle for the conference title.
Maybe this time they'll be up to the challenge.