The St. Louis Blues had a great season this past year. The Blues, projected to be a low seed in the playoffs and a first-round exit, turned out to be the Central Division champions.
Even with a sweep in the second round to eventual champion Los Angeles Kings, the Blues' season was a success. Some people believe it was a fluke, and the Blues will go back to being mediocre in the NHL.
But the Blues are here to stay. They have the tools to be a top-five team in the NHL and the ability to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup in the next three years.
They have the tools to be a serious Stanley Cup threat, and they should be treated as such.
One of the biggest reasons the Blues were so impressive last season was because of the men between the pipes.
Jaroslav Halak was supposed to be the goaltender of the future for the Blues. Brought into St. Louis in the summer of 2010, Halak was riding quite possibly the best goaltending performance the Canadiens had seen since Patrick Roy. But that was the playoffs, and Halak did not perform the same way without the pressure on.
Cue Brian Elliott.
The Blues signed Brian Elliott to a one-year contract to back up Halak. But when Halak struggled early on, Elliott came in to steal the show. The two became arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. The two averaged a 1.89 GAA, good for the best in the NHL, earning the two the William M. Jennings trophy for lowest combined GAA.
For a team to be successful, the goaltending must be outstanding. Jonathan Quick proved that this postseason. With the experience from this past postseason, the two should be even better next season.
Sometimes the intangibles are what can be the difference in a postseason season, and the Blues gained a whole bunch this season.
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, the Blues had only made the postseason once since the lockout, and that was in the 2008-2009 season. Few players are left from that team, and the ones who were on that team only had one postseason experience.
Now all of that is over.
The Blues went in as the No. 2 seed, and gained home ice advantage for the majority of the postseason. And with a series win against the Sharks and the Kings beating the Canucks, the Blues had home ice guaranteed until the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Blues experienced what it was like to be on the top and have a target on their backs. They have experienced the kind of play that is necessary to win at the highest stage. They felt what it was like to be on the top.
That kind of experience is invaluable when you are back in that position, and thus the Blues will go deep into the playoffs next season
Much like playoff experience, team chemistry is an intangible that can be the difference between being a very successful team and a bottom-feeder.
The Blues have quietly taken care of business in this offseason. The Blues signed former Blue Jeff Woywitka to a one-year contract; re-signed David Perron, Scott Nichol and Chris Stewart; and are currently working to re-sign T.J. Oshie. The only players that are not returning are Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins and Carlo Colaiacovo.
The Blues therefore have 16 of 20 players on the roster from last year's team and one former Blue in his second stint with the team. Replacing those players are Jaden Schwartz and Ian Cole, players who have already been up and playing with the club. The Blues have a 10 that knows each other very well.
This makes playing together on the ice so much easier. They know where their teammates are going to be and how they will react to different situations. They have bonds together that new players can't replace. When you play with people you know and trust, you can make sure they will have your back on the ice when things get intense.
The Blues have basically the same team as last season and should be able to duplicate their success.
The Blues may have the best drafting of the past 10 years. The Blues have young stars such as David Backes, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie and Jaden Schwartz, and all have come through the Blues system.
And even with their great drafting classes, they have acquired talent in Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart through trades.
All point to a young team with plenty of potential.
Backes is one of the youngest captains in the league and leads by example. He plays hard, two-way hockey, can score goals and isn't afraid to drop the gloves.
Perron is a sniper that can score from anywhere on the ice and make beautiful plays with the puck. T.J. Oshie is a power forward that isn't afraid to get gritty to score some goals. And Alex Pietrangelo is the youngest top-five defenseman.
This Blues team has been gearing up for the past few years to be one of the best in the league. Now, that team is entering their prime.
Even with the talent, goaltending, chemistry, and experience, nothing is possible without a brilliant mind behind the bench. Ken Hitchcock is the Blues' Albert Einstein.
Hitch, as his players call him, became a NHL head coach first for the Dallas Stars in 1999, leading them to the franchise's first Stanley Cup. He was behind the bench for the Flyers and Blue Jackets until he came to St. Louis.
He coaches with intensity and holds the players accountable, which is a great combination for the young players. He uses a defense-first team system, where every player plays a vital role to win every game.
Hitchcock turned the team around and led them to the Central Division title. With a year under his belt and relationships already built with his players, the team will use last season's success as a starting point for what is expected this upcoming season.
Hitchcock knows how to win and already has the Stanley Cup ring his players so desperately want. And he knows exactly how to achieve that success again.