The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs in 21 straight seasons, but for just the second time in the past 11 did not do so as division champions.
That honor instead went to the St. Louis Blues, who open up this shortened season against the visiting Central division-rival Red Wings on Saturday night.
The Blues lost seven of their first 13 games last season under head coach Davis Payne, leading to his dismissal and the hiring of Ken Hitchcock. St. Louis thrived following the coaching change, going 43-15-11 under Hitchcock to win its first division title since 1999-2000.
The season didn't feature a fairy tale ending as the Blues were swept out of the second round by the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings and now it is up to St. Louis to prove it is in fact a team on the rise.
"I think as the season went on we had more and more expectations of ourselves," said Blues goaltender Brian Elliott. "We want to prove that it's not a fluke, that we are a good team and we have a core group of guys that can win on any given night and make it hard for anybody to play against."
That goes double for Elliott, who led the NHL with a 1.56 goals against average and .940 save percentage in 38 games last year while splitting time with Jaroslav Halak. Elliott had nine of the club's 15 shutouts and made eight postseason starts after going 26-12-7 in the regular season.
Halak, meanwhile, went 26-12-7 with a 1.97 GAA and .926 save percentage and Hitchcock is likely to use both goaltenders again in this 48-game season, with Halak expected to start this game.
St. Louis did little in the way of free agency this offseason, instead re- signing some of its own players, including T.J. Oshie, Jamie Langenbrunner and David Perron. The Blues did make a move late in camp, signing defenseman Wade Redden after he had his contract bought out by the New York Rangers.
Redden won't play Saturday as he isn't expected to take his physical until Sunday, according to the team's website.
St. Louis also traded forward B.J. Crombeen and did not re-sign forward Jason Arnott or defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who joined the Red Wings over the summer.
The Blues will get a quick first look at their former teammate on Saturday as they host a Red Wings club that won the final four of six meetings last season after dropping the first two, both in St. Louis.
"What other way would you want to start. They've obviously a great team every year and we're going to get tested right away," St. Louis captain David Backes said of the Red Wings.
Detroit is coming off its first third-place finish since the 1990-91 campaign, the season before Nicklas Lidstrom broke into the league. All Lidstrom did over his 20 seasons with the Red Wings was win seven Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman, but he announced his retirement and is now a scout with the club.
That also left the Red Wings without a captain, a situation they fixed by naming Henrik Zetterberg to the spot during camp. The Swede has scored at least 20 goals in all but one of his nine NHL seasons -- all with Detroit -- though he slipped to just 69 points in 82 games last season.
Still, Zetterberg had been groomed as Lidstrom's replacement for some time and is ready for the task. He becomes just the club's third captain since 1986, joining Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman before him.
"I think just playing with Nick my whole career here, just to see how he prepared himself, how he handled himself on and off the ice, and just lead by example and that's what he did," said Zetterberg. "I played with many good leaders since I got here; not just Stevie and Nick. There was (Kris) Draper, (Chris) Chelios, there were so many guys that I played with that you learn from. So you try to take bits and pieces from all the guys that you played with and they really formed the player and the leader I am now."
Still, the aging Red Wings saw defenseman Brian Rafalski retire before the start of last season and forward Tomas Holmstrom also hung up his skates this offseason. Add in defender Brad Stuart departing as a free agent and things are changing for Detroit.
Niklas Kronwall now becomes the team's top defender and Colaiacovo was signed to add depth in front of All-Star Jimmy Howard (35-17-4, 2.12 GAA, .920 save percentage last season).
Colaiacovo will play despite a shoulder injury, while Mikael Samuelsson, who returns after three seasons spent with Vancouver and Florida, is hoping to play despite a groin injury. However, center Darren Helm is out with a back injury and forward Todd Bertuzzi did not make the trip due to the flu. He had also been battling a groin injury.