ST. LOUIS — Signing Paul Kariya gave the St. Louis Blues instant box-office credibility. More importantly, the players believe they’re contenders.
Never mind that the Blues missed the playoffs the last two years. Goalie Manny Legace, predicting the effect of the Kariya signing on a franchise already on the rise after Andy Murray was hired last December, proclaimed St. Louis a Stanley Cup threat on the opening day of training camp.
“I think he’s going to raise the level of a lot of guys,” Legace said. “They’re going to see the way we ended last year is going to be the way we start this year.
“This should be exciting.”
The Blues open at Phoenix on Thursday night, with the home opener Oct. 10 against Nashville. It’s the first step for a franchise trying to end a two-year playoff drought after 26 straight postseason appearances.
Kariya is the Blues’ biggest free-agent pickup since Brendan Shanahan in 1991, getting a three-year, $16 million deal. After leading the Predators with 76 points, he figures to boost a power-play unit that was one of the Blues’ trouble spots.
The Blues also re-signed forward Keith Tkachuk, dealt on last year’s trade deadline to Atlanta. They’ll plug in strapping defenseman Erik Johnson, the first overall pick of the 2006 draft.
“We have all the tools out there to be really good,” Kariya said. “It’s just a question of how quickly we can jell.”
The Blues were 10th in the Western Conference last season, but were among the NHL’s best teams in the final four months, after Murray was hired.
“The whole world turned around for our hockey club,” Legace said. “Having him here from Day 1, it’s just impressive what he does.”
Team president John Davidson has high hopes for the franchise, which has more than doubled its season-ticket base. His rebuilding plan for a playoff contender appears to be a year ahead of schedule.
“We’ve come a long way in one year,” Davidson said. “I think it’s legitimate, I don’t think it’s a pipe dream.
“We’re very well coached, very well organized, very well conditioned. There’s a lot more depth than it used to be so we should be good.”
Murray also is optimistic.
“I think no matter what your situation is as a team, you want to get off to a fast start,” Murray said. “We’re in good condition. We’re fresh and mentally ready to go.”
The Blues enter the season with a blend of experience and promising youth. Forward David Perron, 19 and one of the team’s three first-round picks this year, made the opening-night roster. He’s one of three rookies, also including defenseman Steve Wagner, to make the team.
St. Louis starts the season without defenseman Jay McKee, who’ll be out four to six weeks with a broken right foot sustained while blocking a shot in a preseason game. McKee’s first season with the team also was abbreviated by injury.