1) Vladimir Tarasenko
The young man from Yaroslavl is so talented, he gets his own bullet point here. A breakout 2014-15, in which he potted 37 goals and picked up 73 points in 77 games (not to mention accounting for six of the Blues' 14 total goals in a disappointing first round exit), earned him a massive contract extension a week after he got married. And he turns 24 in December, meaning it's reasonably possible he has yet to reach his prime. Life is good for Vladimir Tarasenko, and for this team to succeed, the team will need him to continue to be very good. Also, think of a three-on-three overtime scenario where this young man is on a line with Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny . . . hoo boy, that's spicy.
Not many teams in the NHL have two elite right-shot defensemen like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, players who are trusted not just with power play time but with heavy minutes on the defensive side of the puck. The team rests a lot on Jay Bouwmeester having recovered from his groin ailment from last year and are looking for a bounce-back season from Carl Gunnarsson. Barret Jackman is gone, leaving a rather large void and shadow that the team hopes Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm can step through. This is not to mention the possibility of players like Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson stepping up to be in line for bigger roles in coming years. But with a duo like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk playing what amounts to half the game on the right side, the blue line is sure to be steady . . . barring injury.
3) Their current playoff window
There is a concern that the playoff window might be closing, especially after last year's playoff failure and the return of not just Ken Hitchcock but the ENTIRE coaching staff (which we'll get to later). But on the player personnel side, not much has changed, signaling that the franchise has one more run left in them with the current group. If that fails, a young core that includes the likes of Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, Jake Allen and Jaden Schwartz—not to mention a farm system that boasts some impressive names in the junior ranks—could keep things going for a few more years . . . if the general manager keeps putting pieces around them and management keeps allowing him to do so.
Up to this point, Ken Hitchcock has deserved every bit of praise he has received both from the team and from the press in doing his part to help complete the rebuild of the St. Louis Blues. But the honeymoon is over, and he has no playoff success to show for his efforts. Call it unfair if you must, but that has to change, and while the franchise thinks that starts with the players, Hitch has to do HIS part to make it happen as well, and I don't see it. Add in that the team chose to bring back not just one or two but ALL of last year's assistants (a couple of which have been with the team for nearly a decade . . . quite the shelf life in the NHL), and you have yourself a steaming hot seat at Scottrade Center. Slip up early, and Hitch may be shipping out quick. Fail in the playoffs again after a solid regular season, and the same is true.
This may be a bit of a nitpick, but . . . without the defense in front of it, the goaltending is not as statistically strong as we'd all like to hope it is. The good news, though, is that Jake Allen is growing into the role he's been primed for since his junior days in New Brunswick . . . being "The Guy" between the pipes in St. Louis. Brian Elliott has the shutout record, and that's fine and dandy, but his collapse down the stretch that led to Allen basically stealing his job heading into the postseason was more than just a little disconcerting. What, really, can we expect from this unit heading into a fresh season? Time will tell.
3) The fourth line
This may cycle right back to Weakness #1. In a league where the trend is to roll four lines of offensively-talented players, Hitch and the staff seem to cling to a philosophy of sending a fourth line out there that works much like an old "third line" of grinders and people of questionable talents in the NHL. As human beings, I do not at all dislike Steve Ott, Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Reaves . . . however, I do not believe any of them belong on a National Hockey League line, even if it's the fourth line. Many folks at St. Louis Game Time know I am a vocal detractor of the $2.6MM cap hit waste bestowed upon Ott. At least Brodziak and Reaves are paid reasonably close to their talent level. So, while the fact that the team's fourth line makes this list is not entirely their fault, it unfortunately doesn't speak well to their outlook. With a league trending toward talent over truculence, I would much rather the team go with more talented players (like Ty Rattie, Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev, for instance) than supposed "grinders" who deliver "grit" and "tenacity".