A superior second half of the season resulted in the St. Louis Blues reaching the playoffs, perhaps even ahead of schedule.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at one of the league's promising young teams and what they might do to further their development.
When the Blues found out that defenceman Erik Johnson and left winger Paul Kariya would miss most (in Kariya's case) or all (in Johnson's case) of the season, there was little reason to have high expectations. For the first half of the season, the Blues stumbled along.
But, something happened on the way to another season out of the playoffs as the Blues changed goaltenders, top centre Andy McDonald returned from injury, the young guns started firing and the Blues roared to a sixth-place finish. More importantly, they announced that this franchise is once again relevant.
With young players like Johnson, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Backes only figuring to get better, expectations are going to be higher for the Blues, next season and for several years beyond.
"I think we have a group of players that can take a real step forward," team ownder Dave Cheketts told the Belleville News-Democrat. "A nucleus that can one day bring a Stanley Cup here. That's the goal."
It's all well and good to have that goal and the Blues have some pieces in place to challenge for it, but they should still make some moves this summer to accelerate the process.
A savvy addition or two, along with the returns of Johnson and Kariya will make the Blues a force to be reckoned with, which means an even greater level of responsibility to build on this breakthrough season.
Larry Pleau/Andy Murray
Top Prospects: Lars Eller (12-17-29, plus-15 in 48 GP; Vastra Frolunda-SEL), Aaron Palushaj (13-37-50, plus-25 in 39 GP; Michigan-CCHA), Brett Sonne (48-52-100, plus-39 in 62 GP; Calgary-WHL), Philip McRae (29-31-60, plus-6 in 59 GP; London-OHL)
Veteran Paul Kariya only played 11 games before he was sidelined with a hip injury, but he was on the verge of return when the Blues were bounced from the postseason. Kariya's game has been in decline in recent seasons, but he had 15 points in 11 games last season so, if he's healthy, he could be a productive scorer.
Shifty Andy McDonald creates chances with his speed, but he's also minus-30 in 98 games with the Blues, so he could stand to get better without the puck. Nevertheless, like Kariya, McDonald is a valuable veteran leader for the younger Blues forwards.
Though he managed just five goals before the All-Star break, David Perron is a rising star with slick hands and a steadily improving all-around game.
When the Blues matched the offer sheet to power forward David Backes last summer, they surely hoped he would respond with a good season, though no one could have reasonably expected 31 goals. Backes plays with an edge, but it wouldn't hurt for him to play with a tad more discipline.
T.J. Oshie made an immediate impact with the Blues, playing a frenetic hard-hitting style and showing signs of future stardom, though he'll need to stay healthy if he's going to reach his potential.
Somewhere between the promising young snipers and the veteran scorers, Brad Boyes slides in, having scored 76 goals over the last two seasons with the Blues. While his minus-20 rating last season was discouraging, Boyes was a plus player after the All-Star break, as the Blues started moving in the right direction as a team.
Not only did Patrik Berglund show impressive offensive ability as a rookie, but his all-around game was much more refined than that of most rookies. With more ice time and maturity, Berglund has the size and skill to be an impact player.
While he rebounded somewhat from a slow start in Toronto, Alexander Steen still finished with career lows of 28 points and a minus-10 rating. Steen has the capacity to provide more, but hasn't found a way to build on his 45-point rookie season of 2005-2006.
Provided D.J. King can return from shoulder surgery the Blues have the knuckle-chucking under control. King is a true heavyweight who has nine points in 89 career games.
Cam Janssen doesn't have the size of the biggest scrappers, but isn't afraid to move up in weight class, racking up 37 fights (and six points) in 116 games over the last three seasons.
As for pugilists who can take a regular shift, B.J. Crombeen had 12 goals and 16 fights and was a nice waiver wire pickup from Dallas.
Jay McClement is a hard-working checker who was the Blues' best face-off man in 2008-2009. For hustle and durability (McClement has missed two games total in the last three seasons), he's a reasonable option and has just been re-signed to a multi-year contract.
With so many talented young forwards on the roster, the Blues need to keep the premium ice time available for them, which means that the right free agent addition is likely a good two-way centre, particularly if Keith Tkachuk is allowed to leave as a free agent. John Madden, Manny Malhotra or Samuel Pahlsson would all add a responsible checking element.
Considering the New York Ranger ties in the Blues' executive suites, there could also be an attraction to veteran sniper Alex Kovalev.
Top Prospects: Alex Pietrangelo (8-21-29, plus-1 in 36 GP; Niagara-OHL), Ian Cole (6-20-26, plus-15 in 38 GP; Notre Dame-CCHA), Cade Fairchild (9-24-33, plus-5 in 35 GP; Minnesota-WHCA), Jonas Junland (13-18-31, minus-1 in 70 GP; Peoria-AHL)
While he was considered fragile and out of shape in Toronto, Carlo Colaiacovo responded well to a fresh start in St. Louis, playing a career-high 73 games and scoring 20 of his career-high 30 points with the man advantage. Colaiacovo had never played more than 48 games in an NHL season, so next season will provide a good indication whether or not he's officially turned the corner.
Shot-blocking has become increasingly important in the NHL and few do it better than Jay McKee. He's scored all of 17 points in three seasons with the Blues, so he may not provide much bang for the buck, but he's a steady veteran who recorded his highest plus-minus (plus-11) since 2001-2002.
There's no denying the competitiveness of Barret Jackman and he played in all 82 games for the first time since 2002-2003, despite nagging injuries, but he also was a career-worst minus-17. Jackman led the Blues in ice time, by a significant margin, but that may simply be evidence that the Blues need a more capable workhorse.
Now 30 years-old and having his career threatened by multiple back surgeries, Eric Brewer doesn't figure to suddenly achieve what was expected of him when he was drafted fifth overall by the Islanders in 1997. He's also on a streak of four straight seasons with a double-digit minus rating.
One of the biggest reasons for optimism next season is the anticipated return of Erik Johnson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Johnson showed promise in his rookie season, though his play slipped in the second half, so it wouldn't be fair to expect an immediate All-Star berth upon his return. Nevertheless, he'll be a welcome addition to a defence corps in need of a star attraction.
Tyson Strachan didn't play a lot, but acquitted himself well enough when he did. He has size, toughness and provides serviceable depth in a limited role.
It's taken some time for Jeff Woywitka to establish his presence as a reliable pro defenceman. He could still use his size more effectively if he's going to climb the depth chart.
Using his size isn't an issue for Roman Polak, the bruising young Czech defenceman. Polak has potential to be a shutdown-style defenceman, but it could take some more seasoning before the 23-year-old is totally ready for that job.
If the Blues are going to make a splash in free agency, the blueline would be the most logical position to address since there is a decided lack of star power. If Jay Bouwmeester is beyond the Blues' reach -- maybe he is, maybe he isn't -- then either Mike Komisarek or Mattias Ohlund would provide significant improvement.
Free Agent Goaltender
Top Prospect: Jake Allen (28-23-2, 2.94 GAA, .913 SVPCT in 53 GP; Montreal-QMJHL), Ben Bishop (15-16-1, 2.81 GAA, .897 SVPCT in 33 GP; Peoria-AHL)
Chris Mason took over the starting goaltending job and ignited the Blues' strong finish to the season, setting career highs in wins (27) and shutouts (6). It's up to him to hold down the number one job for a full season, something the 33-year-old has yet to do in his NHL career.
Considering Mason's history, then, the Blues should look for an experienced backup to provide support. Some of the better backups on the market would include Antero Niittymaki, Manny Fernandez, Mathieu Garon and, digging into the Rangers organization, Stephen Valiquette.
Bringing in a strong backup goaltender would also allow the Blues to give prospects Jake Allen and Ben Bishop more time to develop.
17th - Jacob Josefson, John Moore, Simon Despres.
The Blues have approximately $43-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Blues needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender
Who did they add? Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie, Brad Winchester, Mike Weaver, Chris Mason.
Alexander Steen, Jeff Woywitka, Jay McKee.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca