The St. Louis Blues are no strangers to playoff failure. Coming up on their 50th anniversary, they've yet to finish a season by skating the old mug.
But the end of this latest run hurts more than usual, and not simply because the wound is still fresh.
It's because this group was so easy to believe in. It was built as well as a team can be under the limitations of the salary cap, blessed with depth and skill and loaded with the kind of grit needed to survive in the playoff trenches. This really could have been their year.
But the Blues ran up against an opponent in the Western Conference Finals that beat them at their own game. The San Jose Sharks were faster, grittier, deeper and more disciplined.
St. Louis was good. Just not good enough. And now the Blues face the prospect of a summer of significant change that could affect their standing as one of the elite teams of the West.
Moving forward, they're well appointed in net, with both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen signed through next season. It's as good a combo as any in the league and they're locked up for a million dollars less in total than Dallas is paying the wildly inconsistent Kari Lehtonen alone.
The defense is set as well, with eight blueliners on the books and a nice mix of strengths and styles. Alex Pietrangelo reasserted himself as the stud No. 1 that every Cup aspirant needs. Colton Parayko might have been the year's most unexpected rookie success story. And both Joel Edmundsson and Petteri Lindbohm could step into larger roles next season, with the offensive-minded Jordan Schmaltz seeing spot duty as a prelude to a steady job down the road.
There are question marks, though. Kevin Shattenkirk has been mentioned as an expendable asset. He frequently struggled this spring, and has just one year remaining on his current deal before unrestricted free agency, but there's always a market for established defensemen. He could bring a sizable return highlighted by a young, NHL-ready top-six forward. The Bruins, Panthers and Oilers seem like viable partners.
Jay Bouwmeester is likely to serve out the final three years of his deal ($5.4 million), but he was a major disappointment in the playoffs. It would surprise no one if he was shopped as well, although the Blues would have to retain a chunk of his salary to make any deal work—and they'd have to add someone who could handle his top-pair minutes.
There's a solid group of forwards returning next season, led by 40-goal man Vladimir Tarasenko, second-line center Paul Stastny and RFA winger Jaden Schwartz (due for a large payday that could impact the team's cap structure).
And then there's the straw that stirs the drink. Robby Fabbri was a revelation in the playoffs, a player whose speed and creativity and boundless energy demanded your attention every time he stepped on the ice. The Blues have a legit gem in the 20-year-old winger.
But while their youth looks solid, there are some tough calls to be made on some key vets. Captain David Backes is one of five UFA forwards on the docket. As recently as last month he seemed likely to be on his way out the door. That may have changed. Backes was brilliant in the playoffs, scoring seven goals (including two game winners) and 14 points to help pace the attack. More important, he set an example for the entire team with his heart and his commitment. If there's a deal to be made that works under the team's cap, then GM Doug Armstrong should do everything in his power to ensure that Backes remains a Blue for life.
He should also find a way to re-sign Troy Brouwer. Like Backes, Brouwer played his best hockey of year in the postseason. He scored big goals, and helped establish the team's identity with his physical play and his commitment to two-way hockey. There's only so much they can pay him, but he made his value obvious.
The other three forwards on expiring deals—fourth liners Steve Ott, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak—are likely to move on. Young players like Dmitri Jaskin, Ty Rattie and Ivan Barbashev deserve a longer look, and the team may have Vladimir Sobotka back after a stretch in the KHL.
Finally, Armstrong has to make a decision on the future of coach Ken Hitchcock. There's a large segment of the fan base that would like nothing more than to see a change behind the bench, but Hitch is inarguably one of the best in the world at what he does. He's not the taskmaster he once was. He's learned when to ease up and when to back away completely. And he's one of the sharpest minds in the game. It could go either way—his contract has expired—but there's no clear upgrade on the market. Until there is, it makes sense to retain the future Hall of Famer.