Will anything ever come easy for the St. Louis Blues?
Once every decade or so, the Gateway City club manages to turn the league on its ear in the regular season, only to become undone by bad luck or a team of destiny in the playoffs.
Two years ago, all an early-season coaching change, Central Division title and shot at the Presidents' Trophy along with a Jennings Trophy win for fewest total goals allowed got the club was an unceremonious second-round exit by sweep to eventual Cup champion Los Angeles. Last year, a strong start and decent finish behind the Blackhawks in the mulligan of a lockout-shortened year couldn't prevent another infamous defeat, this time in the first round after wasting a 2-0 series edge, to those same Kings.
Now, Ken Hitchcock is at a crossroads for the first time in his brief St. Louis tenure. Lacking in the traditional set-up which proved successful in stints with Dallas and pre-lockout Philadelphia -- multiple seasoned veterans invested in winning it all acting as a buffer between the aloof head coach and a roster of young hopefuls -- Hitch needs to find a way that works, and fast.
As if the atmosphere wasn't already charged with expectation, the Blues head into the 2013-14 season expected to challenge Chicago for primacy in the reformatted Central and hit the ice in October as the presumptive Stanley Cup victors picked by none other than "The Hockey News" itself.
W.C. Handy would be hard pressed to pen a song that sets the scene so fraught with tension and emotion.
FORWARDS - The most significant move the club made in the offseason up front was one which seems to contravene Hitchcock's method of success. David Perron, a seven-year pro at age 25 and coming off a 10-goal season was shipped to Edmonton for Magnus Paajarvi (22 years old and coming off a nine-goal year) and a second-round pick.
However, any apprehension from that transaction was smoothed over when the Blues locked up Brenden Morrow for a one-year deal worth $1.5 million just a week before the start of the regular season. The 34-year-old winger began his career in Dallas as one of the kids who needed a buffer, and he'll bookend his career being one of the vets whose job it is to be one of Hitch's envoys. After 12 goals and 25 points in 44 games for the Stars and Pens, it should convince even the toughest cynics that he's got enough left in the tank for one more run.
Even for a club which prides itself on two-way play, whether it's the regular season or playoffs, you can't win if you don't score. More output will be expected from team captain David Backes (6G in 48 games), Alex Steen (8G in 40 games), Andy McDonald (7G in 37 games) and from sophomore Vladimir Tarasenko (8G in 38 games), who began his rookie year like a house afire only to slump due to injury and the realities of the NHL game.
Chris Stewart led the Blues with 18 goals and 36 points in 48 games last year, which projects to 30-plus scores and 60-plus points if healthy over the course of a full campaign. He'll have to at least equal, if not exceed those numbers if St. Louis wants to compete with the high-octane offenses of Winnipeg and Chicago inside the reconstituted Central. A power play which needs to click higher than 19.5 percent wouldn't be a bad thing, either.
Patrik Berglund lit the lamp 17 times, and with some luck, should brush right up against the 30-goal mark this season without letting defensive responsibilities hinder his effort. With Perron gone, it's an opportunity for 25-year-old center Jaden Schwartz (7G, 13 pts. in 45 games) to step up and show what he's got in his third pro circuit.
On the bottom six, over-30s Derek Roy from Vancouver and Keith Aucoin from the Islanders arrive to add depth and grit along with the usual suspects Adam Cracknell, Max Lapierre, Vladimir Sobotka, Chris Porter and prospect Ty Rattie.
DEFENSE - One thing for certain on any club Hitchcock leads, is that performance in their own zone will not be a concern. It helps when every member except one is over six feet tall and they're all north of 200 pounds and you're penalty killing is top-10 in the NHL (84.7 percent, seventh-best).
Jay Bouwmeester returns to the second-stingiest defense in the West (115 goals) thanks to a $27 million deal over five seasons consummated in free agency. The former third-overall pick of the Panthers in 2002 motors into his 11th season as the old man of the group, but the anchor of the blueline.
Now that Alex Pietrangelo's contract situation, which extended until the start of training camp, has been resolved, the 23-year-old, who scored 17 goals in the last season-plus, can attend to the business of being the primary mover from the back end as he'll be called upon to do for the next seven years.
Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak and Jordan Leopold form a solid core on the second tier, but it remains to be seen if Ian Cole, Joel Edmundson or Jani Hakanpaa will do enough to rise through the ranks and get a shot at sticking in The Show.
GOALTENDING - If a team has two No. 1 goalies, that's one too many. But the Blues may end up having three potential starters and that's two too much.
Should there be anything lasting to the rumors of unhappiness Jaroslav Halak (6-5-1, 2.14 goals-against average, 3 ShO) displayed with his playing time last season, Jake Allen is waiting in the wings for his shot.
Halak is understandably upset, having been pushed out of Montreal for Carey Price in 2010, then named starter in St. Louis and winning 53 games over two seasons before being shunted aside for Brian Elliott (14-8-1, 2.28, 3 ShO) and Allen (9-4-0, 2.26) last season.
That can change if Allen doesn't hold up to pressure, or if Halak sets the world on fire early enough in the year to keep Allen in the minors, or if Elliott ends up missing significant time due to injury.
Or this could all be a mirage: Allen will be safely stashed in suburban Chicago with the Wolves, both Elliott and Halak returning to form as the two- headed monster which only permitted a staggeringly-low 165 goals over a full schedule two seasons ago, and they live happily ever blocking puck after puck just to the west of the Arch.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Blues, for reasons only the hockey gods can reveal, are one of those franchises which never quite live up to expectations, then defy them when the heat is off.
That said, their only serious competition -- now that Detroit has been shipped to the new-look Atlantic Division -- are the defending champions from Illinois, so it's not unreasonable to expect St. Louis to top out with more than 40 wins and close to if not more than 100 points. It's also not unreasonable to believe the Blues can play possum and "underperform" slightly in the regular season.
Even so, it's incumbent upon the players who have been indoctrinated, not the head coach, to take the system imparted and lessons learned and work up the mental resolve, focus and drive to overcome obstacles down the stretch and in the postseason.
While it's often said you can't fire the players, Hitchcock is rare in the coaching ranks because he possesses enough pedigree and credibility to dodge any changes coming in the wake of another playoff disappointment. He will be afforded at least one more shot, but who on the roster will?