The timeline for teams who have committed to rebuilding through the draft has worked almost like clockwork in cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington. Absorb many defeats on the ice for two-to-three years, collect high picks and watch the franchise go from pretender to contender almost overnight.
This is not how the script played out in St. Louis. After the Blues were bad for a few years (with a slightly surprising surge toward the middle after hiring Andy Murray mixed in), they made the playoffs in 2008-09 but were knocked out in the first round. Instead of taking the next step forward and becoming a serious contender, the Blues went sideways for two years.
The collection of young talent finally, after another coaching change, put it all together in 2011-12. St. Louis roared toward the top of the Western Conference, winning arguably the strongest division in the League and earning the No. 2 seed for the postseason.
With Ken Hitchcock in charge, the Blues expect their upward development curve to continue. To that end, the only major addition to the lineup this season will likely be top prospect Vladimir Tarasenko. Considering that the only other playoff team from the West last season to add an impact player without subtracting was San Jose -- the team St. Louis dispatched in the first round -- the Blues should be considered one of the favorites to win the conference this season.
Two of the contenders in the Central Division lost franchise defensemen (Detroit and Nashville), while Vancouver's path to a Northwest title (and the No. 1 seed) looks quite a bit tougher after each of the other four teams in the division improved this offseason. Toss in how competitive the Pacific was last year and should be again this season, and the top seed in the West could be a possibility for St. Louis.
NOTES: Hitchcock will make Tarasenko earn important minutes, but if he's as advertised and the forwards can collectively stay healthy, the Blues are going to score more goals this season. There's so much potential for improvement here beyond adding Tarasenko, whether it is a full season from Perron, McDonald and Steen or Stewart returning to pre-2011-12 form. The team's second-best forward prospect, Jaden Schwartz, could also force his way into the lineup with a strong training camp.
There is less known depth on the blue line, but that perception would change if Cole and Fairchild are ready. Pietrangelo is a star, but he also spent nearly 73 percent of his even-strength ice time with either Carlo Colaiacovo or Kent Huskins, both of whom are no longer with the team. If Cole isn't ready for big minutes, any of Jackman, Shattenkirk or Russell could slide into that spot on the top pairing. If Cole or Fairchild aren't going to be every-night guys, expect them to be sent to the American Hockey League instead of the press box.
Halak and Elliott formed a deadly tandem last season, but Elliott struggled in the playoffs against Los Angeles after Halak got hurt. Expect Halak to see a little more of the workload this season if both guys stay healthy.
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