A slow start doomed the St. Louis Blues in 2009-2010 and they couldn't quite make up enough ground to reach the postseason.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what a Blues team full of young talent can do this summer to take the next step in their development.
The first step for the Blues this offseason was to keep Davis Payne as head coach. Payne took over from Andy Murray and led the Blues to a 23-15-4 (.595) record the rest of the way, yet the Blues ended up five points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
That makes two years in a row that the Blues have finished strong, but the hole that they are digging out of seems to be reflective of a roster that relies on a lot of young, talented, yet unproven, players.
"Our young people are getting to that area where it's turning the page for them to become core players and some other young players," Blues President John Davidson told the Belleville News-Democrat. "Possibly (Ian) Cole, possibly (Lars) Eller, possibly (Alex) Pietrangelo and people like that, join our franchise. Then we're really growing from within."
Surely, the Blues should expect the likes of T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Erik Johnson to improve as they mature, but if St. Louis is going to do more than just challenge for the last playoff spot, perhaps there are some moves to be made that will help them move along the development curve.
With Keith Tkachuk retiring and Paul Kariya's contract expiring, the Blues theoretically have some money to play with this summer, though Davidson insists that the Blues aren't in the market for a premier goal-scorer.
Considering that the Blues' biggest investor is reportedly trying to sell its interest in the club, the Blues may have to show fiscal responsibility, despite having plenty of room under the salary cap.
Maybe that means the Blues aren't in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, but there are still options available to give this young team the lift it needs to not only get into th playoffs, but possibly do some damage once they get there.
Larry Pleau/Davis Payne
David Backes may be a better fit as a finishing winger instead of a puck-distributing centre, but in either case, he's one of the most dangerous Blues, capable of dominating physical play and the 26-year-old could be more prolific offensively with more of a role on the power play. He would seem to be a natural for the front of the net.
Though his point total climbed from 39 as a rookie to 48 in his second season, T.J. Oshie may not have improved quite as much as expected. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old is a huge part of the Blues' future. He plays a relentless style and still has untapped offensive potential.
A veteran playmaker, 32-year-old Andy McDonald makes him mark on the power play and that's why he's the Blues' leading scorer, yet he's been a minus-39 in 174 games since arriving in St. Louis. Shifting McDonald to the wing eases the defensive responsibilities placed upon him and could put him in a better position to have overall success.
After scoring 43 and 33 goals, respectively, in his first two full seasons with the Blues, Brad Boyes managed just 14 goals last season, despite playing in every game for the third straight season. It's possible Boyes could be on the trade block but, coming off a career-low 42-point season, the Blues might be better to give Boyes a chance to rebound.
Checking centre Jay McClement handles the tough defensive matchups and does it without much fanfare. The 27-year-old has missed only two games in the last four seasons, so he's a steady young veteran presence on a nightly basis.
Following a strong 47-point showing as a rookie, Patrik Berglund fell off a cliff in his sophomore campaign, finishing with just 26 points. He's talented enough to be a productive scoring centre, but coming off a disappointing year, Berglund is at an early crossroads in his career.
Hard-nosed winger B.J. Crombeen isn't a stereotypical enforcer, he's a better all-around player than that, but he has dropped the gloves 34 times over the last two seasons. He's effective as a player who can handle a regular checking role and answer the bell when the game gets physical.
While there were enough Blues that didn't have strong seasons, Alex Steen came on strong in the second half to finish with a career-high 24 goals and 47 points, despite playing in a career-low 68 games. That production means expectations will be higher for Steen next season and beyond.
Possibly the most talented of the Blues, David Perron is a creative winger with a flair for making spectacular individual plays. If the 21-year-old can improve his consistency as he matures, he's going to be a franchise leader.
23-year-old winger Matt D'Agostini has some offensive ability, as witnessed by his 12 goals in 53 games with the Canadiens in 2008-2009, but he had just two goals in 47 games with limited ice time last season and his minus-32 rating in 101 career NHL games in an indication that his game isn't rounded out enough to guarantee a regular spot in the lineup.
In 99 games with the Blues over the past two seasons, Cam Janssen has four points, 38 fights and 321 penalty minutes. He's not the biggest dog in those fights, but there's no denying his pugilistic effectiveness.
Injuries have limited heavyweight D.J. King to only 13 games over the past two seasons, but with five scraps in his dozen games last year, he apparently hasn't lost his appetite for the job.
While the Blues have plenty of potential up front, but with Keith Tkachuk retiring and Paul Kariya possibly joining him, there is room for the Blues to bring in a proven performer.
While the Blues claim not to be in the market for a major free agent goal-scorer, any of Patrick Marleau, Tomas Plekanec, Alexander Frolov or Matthew Lombardi would be nice upgrades.
Hard-rock defender Roman Polak has developed into a shutdown presence. He doesn't do anything fancy with the puck, but he uses his sturdy frame to hit, block shots and make life difficult for opposition forwards.
Though not as physically-imposing as Polak, Barret Jackman has similar defensive inclinations combined with an added dash of nastiness. Now 29, Jackman is what he is: a physical top-four defenceman, who isn't asked to do much by way of puckhandling.
Back woes have been a challenge for Eric Brewer over the last couple of seasons, limiting him to 87 games, but it's even more troubling that he has five straight double-digit minus seasons.
Brewer's career total of eight double-digit minus seasons is the most of any active player and would suggest that he's been miscast as a defenceman expected to handle 20-25 minutes per game. In an extreme case, the Blues could also consider buying out their captain, as the savings would surely add more flexibility when it comes to adding talent this summer.
2006 first overall pick Erik Johnson had a strong season, coming back from the knee injury that cost him all of the 2008-2009 season. He wasn't necessarily at the level that he would have been without the injury, but Johnson's 39 points and plus-1 rating was still a productive campaign from such a young blueliner.
Johnson, 22, needs to continue his development so that he becomes a legitimate workhorse number one defenceman.
If those four are the safest bets to return on the St. Louis defence, there is certainly room for change. The Blues may want to bring back Carlo Colaiacoco, who has bouts of inconsistency, but is an effective puckhandler or penalty-killing whiz Mike Weaver, but St. Louis also has the cap room to make an investment in a top free agent.
Sergei Gonchar may be too far along in his career (and possibly too expensive) to be the right fit for this group, but well-rounded defencemen Paul Martin or Dan Hamhuis might be the best under-30 additions that would improve the Blues' puckhandling while not sacrificing defensive play.
It's not easy to make an immediate impact as a defenceman, but Alex Pietrangelo should get that chance next year, after playing 17 NHL games over the last two seasons before getting sent back to junior both years.
Pietrangelo was a minus-9 in nine games with the Blues last season, but he excelled at the World Juniors and with Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League, so it's fair to expect him to hold one of the regular spots on the St. Louis defence next season and if the Blues add a significant free agent, there will be no need to rush Pietrangelo into a role beyond his capabilities.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
Ty Conklin's streak of reaching the Stanley Cup Final was snapped last season, after two years, but it wasn't the 34-year-old's fault. He had a strong year in a backup role, with a career-best .921 save percentage in 26 games. Having a stable veteran backup like Conklin does give the Blues some freedom when looking for a starter.
If the Blues aren't inclined to keep the status quo and bring back the solid, but not spectacular, Chris Mason -- and they could certainly do worse than keeping Mason -- then there will be several veteran goaltenders looking to take that starting job.
Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore may headline the list, but Dan Ellis, Ray Emery and Antero Niittymaki could get consideration too. If none of those options works for St. Louis, they can always try the trade route.
||9-20-29,+20, 25 GP
||18-39-57,-1, 70 GP
||29-14, 2.20 GAA, .922 SVPCT, 51 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||3-16-19,-16, 30 GP
||11-13-24,-15, 77 GP
||16-35-51,+3, 52 GP
||30-48-78,+3, 72 GP
||23-18-4, 2.77 GAA, .901 SVPCT, 48 GP
||1-13-14,-3, 66 GP
||24-31-55,+6, 70 GP
Alex Pietrangelo seems assured of landing a spot on a thin Blues defence and St. Louis has been patient with him, waiting for the lanky puck-mover's game to evolve. He appears strong enough now that he'll be able to play for St. Louis next year and then it's a matter of just how much he's ready to play.
Danish forward Lars Eller should be ready for his chance in the NHL too, after scoring 57 points in 70 AHL games, along with two goals in seven games with the Blues last season. The 21-year-old isn't necessarily going to be a huge scorer, but could fit in a top-nine role immediately.
While Jake Allen had some troubles at the World Juniors, he enjoyed an excellent season in the QMJHL. He needs some grooming in the American Hockey League, possibly a couple of years worth, but that's to be expected from a 19-year-old goaltender.
21-year-old Ian Cole is a solidly-built physical defenceman, capable of moving the puck and potentially developing into a top-four role. He joined Peoria following his junior year at Notre Dame and figures to get a full season in the AHL to get used to the pro schedule.
Brett Sonne's first pro season was a learning experience, as he followed a 100-point season in the WHL two seasons ago with just 24 points and a minus-15 rating last year. This coming season will present an opportunity for Sonne to show he can score in the pro game.
A forward with good size and willingness to do the little things, Philip McRae seems ready to take his game to the next level. He'll likely need some time in the AHL before he's going to be ready for a checking role in St. Louis.
A big winger who was a fourth-round pick as a 19-year-old last summer, Tyler Shattock had a strong season in the WHL, joining league-champion Calgary midway through the season. Time to see what he can do in the American Hockey League.
6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop handled the No. 1 duties in Peoria last season and, while he wasn't bad, doesn't figure to jump up from number three on the organizational depth chart and he may now fall to fourth as Allen turns pro.
Mammoth blueliner Brett Ponich is a defensive defenceman who could still use some time to develop. He's not going to put up points, but improving his play with the puck should still be one of the priorities so that he'll eventually be ready to challenge for a spot in St. Louis.
Gritty winger Ian Schultz has put up more than 120 penalty minutes in each of the last three WHL seasons and, with 55 points this season, he's shown enough skill to earn his chance in the pros.
St. Louis has many other prospects on the horizon, including Swedish defencemen Jonas Junland, David Rundblad and Kristoffer Berglund, as well as Swedish forward Simon Hjalmarsson, Finnish forward Jori Lehtera, Russian winger Sergei Andronov and University of Minnesota defenceman Cade Fairchild.
14th - Vladimir Tarasenko, Austin Watson, Dylan McIlrath
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blues have approximately $27.7M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 11 players.
Needs: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen, starting goaltender.
What I said the Blues needed last year: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Ty Conklin.
TRADE MARKET Brad Boyes, Patrik Berglund, Alex Steen.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.