ST. LOUIS - Signing cornerstone defenceman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year contract extension was just a matter of time for the St. Louis Blues. Two days into training camp, it was a done deal and there was happy talk he will be here for life.
The Blues believe the ice-hogging, offensive-minded Pietrangelo is the guy who can lead a team built to go deep into the playoffs. And it's a team that knows exactly what management wants after winning two, then losing four in a row to the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs last year.
"For those key guys that have been here a while, we've got to take a little bit of a leadership role and make sure that every line's going," forward T.J. Oshie said. "There's nothing worse than sitting at home or sitting wherever you're at watching the team you had a chance to beat go on and play after you."
The biggest move of the off-season actually left the Blues just as flush in players once judged as top-end talent. Plus, Oshie, David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko got the message when flashy playmaker David Perron, a first-rounder in 2007, was dealt to Edmonton for Magnus Paajarvi (first round '09) and a second-round pick in 2014.
"I believe the core group coming back wants to win," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I was disappointed that we didn't fulfil something that was in our grasp. When I say it's a big year, it's a year where we should believe and be comfortable believing we can walk into any building and walk away with two points."
Here are five things to watch once the Blues open the season Oct. 3 at home against Nashville:
PRESSURE POINTS: During the preseason, Hitchcock put more pressure on Berglund and Chris Stewart, the forward obtained for former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson. "I don't want to say we're going to demand more of those guys, but I think we're going to expect more from those guys," Hitchcock said. "For us to get to the next level, we need those guys to join what's already here."
STAR POWER: The Blues are short on marquee names. Unlike last season, Armstrong said it's a team that has everything it needs to win it all. "Are we the favourites? I don't know. Do other people view us that way? I don't know," Armstrong said. "That's the way I view us and that's what I want to impress upon our players."
DEEP BLUE SEE: Hitchcock rolls four lines, the last of them at times as dangerous as the first down the stretch, with veteran pickups Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow replacing departed Andy McDonald and Scott Nichol. "I think the Blues have been a team that's been knocking on the door the last few years and I think they can be a team that can push through it," Morrow said after getting a one-year deal Monday. "I wanted to be a part of that."
ITCHY Defence: The Blues are strongest on the blue line, with defencemen who are offensive threats. Kevin Shattenkirk also itches for a chance to jump into the play while veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold are steady in front of a deep goaltending crew. The tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott is getting pushed by Jake Allen, who was impressive extended duty last season.
CUP OR BUST?: Rather than more offence, Hitchcock said across-the-board improvement is the key to making that leap for a franchise that's yet to win a Stanley Cup. Everything is on the list: a better power play and penalty kill, tighter checking and a determination never to ease off the gas. Bouwmeester got a long-awaited first taste of the playoffs last spring, followed by a five-year contract extension in August. He welcomes the pressure.
"There are high expectations, but that's a good situation to be in because that's the business we're in," Bouwmeester said. "I think we've got a group that's got as good a chance as anybody."