Blues shoot for the Stars in the second round of the playoffs

Former Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester fight for the puck against Stars center Tyler Sequin in a playoff game last April. The Blues start a new season Wednesday without both Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester.

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No Bo, no Petro, no Steen, no Jake. It’s a bittersweet roll call.

Between them, defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, forward Alexander Steen and goalie Jake Allen played 2,302 regular-season games and 287 playoff games for the St. Louis Blues.

In fact, Pietrangelo and Allen have played only for the Blues to this point in their careers. Bouwmeester and Steen never have played a postseason game wearing anything other than the Bluenote.

In the age of the salary cap and free agency, players come and go. It’s a given. But that’s a big chunk of experience and leadership, of Blues culture, that headed out the door with Steen retiring, Bouwmeester presumably retiring, Allen traded to Montreal and Pietrangelo signing with Vegas in free agency.

Throw in Robby Fabbri, traded to Detroit in November of last season — yes, it seems like that was years ago — and five members of the Blues’ Stanley Cup team are gone from last season’s opening-day roster.

Now add the prior departures of Pat Maroon (Tampa Bay) and Joel Edmundson (Carolina, and now Montreal), and nearly one-third of the team’s Cup roster has gone elsewhere over a 16-month period.

“Obviously, you miss the guys that left,” veteran center Tyler Bozak said. “You always miss your teammates and what they brought, and the friendships you had. But we have a ton of great leaders in the room. I’m sure O’Ry’s (Ryan O’Reilly) gonna do a heckuva job. He’s perfect for captain.

“And we got a lot of older guys, guys that have been around a long time that can help out. Everybody’s gotta lead in their own way. We’re gonna try and keep the culture the same way it’s been. Keep playing for that logo on the front and trying to make everyone proud.”

As captain, Ryan O’Reilly leads a new leadership group that also includes first-time alternate captains Colton Parayko and Brayden Schenn. Vladimir Tarasenko returns with an “A” but remains sidelined as he completes his rehab from shoulder surgery.

Tyler Bozak, at 34 years and 10 months, replaces Steen as the oldest Blue. Steen, in turn, had replaced Bouwmeester as the team’s elder statesman after Bouwmeester’s life-threatening cardiac episode Feb. 11 in Anaheim.

Jaden Schwartz, who played his first Blues game on March 17, 2012, replaces Pietrangelo as the longest-tenured Blue in terms of continuous service.

Commitment remains

So it’s a different look. But same culture, same commitment to winning and chasing another Stanley Cup.

“I would say that obviously we’re a different team than we were last year,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “I think that’s just natural. Every year your team changes. ... We like the complement of players that we have. We are a little bit different, but the goals remain the same, and that’s to be competitive with the top teams in the league.”

In a time of sharp revenue decline in hockey because of the coronavirus pandemic, Blues ownership has put its money where its mouth is. And general manager Armstrong has gone out and found talent.

When it became apparent that Pietrangelo was headed elsewhere, Armstrong acted immediately to land highly regarded defenseman Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins in free agency. Krug was signed to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract even before Pietrangelo made his free-agent visit to Las Vegas

And with Tarasenko still at least a month away from returning, Armstrong found a way to squeeze high-scoring forward Mike Hoffman under the salary cap and onto the roster.

While teams around the NHL and in professional sports in general are cutting back during the pandemic, the Blues continue to push all their chips on the table. They’re all-in.

New challenges

It will be a different kind of challenge on several levels. For one, it’s a condensed schedule, with Wednesday’s season opener in Colorado the start of a 56-game regular season to be played over just 116 days. Staying healthy and avoiding COVID-19 is paramount.

With rare exception, the Blues play each opponent in two-game sets or mini-series. They’re also in a retooled West Division, featuring Colorado and Minnesota from last year’s Central Division, and Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vegas from last year’s Pacific.

Teams will play each other eight times, breeding familiarity and quite possibly contempt. Colorado and Vegas are considered the favorites in the division, which will send four teams to the postseason. But it would be a mistake to overlook the new-look Blues.

On paper, the Blues could have more sizzle on offense — even with Tarasenko sidelined — as well as a better skating team, and an even better power play. Coach Craig Berube has tinkered with his lines and D-pairings and come up with some fascinating combinations to open the season.

For example, a line of Schwartz-Robert Thomas-Hoffman has the makings of a rush line because all are good skaters. Thomas’ deft passing will give Hoffman plenty of chances to unleash his potent shot.

And a Schenn-O’Reilly-Perron unit has a chance to dominate, or at least dictate the play when they’re on the ice. All three have been all-stars. Perron and Schenn shared the team goal-scoring title last season with 25.

Speedy Jordan Kyrou will get a chance to earn a top-nine role on a line with Zach Sanford and Bozak. And newcomer Kyle Clifford brings muscle and Stanley Cup experience to a fourth line that returns reliable young veterans in Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist.

The most intriguing pairing on defense is Krug and Parayko — two fast skaters with offensive talent. Marco Scandella and Justin Faulk form the shutdown pair, with Vince Dunn and Robert Bortuzzo back for another season as the third pairing.

On the power play, the first unit of Krug, Schenn, O’Reilly, Hoffman and Perron looks formidable. The second unit of Dunn, Parayko, Schwartz, Thomas and Bozak isn’t shabby, either.

The biggest question comes in goal, where Jordan Binnington must quickly put his Edmonton bubble meltdown in the past. And Ville Husso, who has yet to play an NHL regular-season game, must provide quality backup work.

But at its core, Berube says the identity of Blues hockey will remain unchanged. Defense. Forechecking. Physical play.

Jim Thomas

@jthom1 on Twitter

jthomas@post-dispatch.commain story

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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