- Craig Custance
The St. Louis Blues were one of last season's best stories. They were a young team that blossomed under the leadership of veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, stunning Western Conference division rivals on the way to a 109-point season and a division title, beating out favorites like the Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings for the top spot in the Central.
It's a breakout season that will be hard to duplicate by others, but every year there are surprises during the regular season and this year won't be any different. To find this year's version of the Blues, it helps to look at what made that team poised for success last year.
• They were a talented group of young, homegrown players on the verge of raising their games together to achieve team success.
• Key players stayed healthy after suffering through injuries the previous season. David Perron went from 10 games played to 57 games. T.J. Oshie went from 49 games played to 80. Barret Jackman went from 60 games to 81 games.
• St. Louis has a general manager in Doug Armstrong who proved he wasn't going to be overly patient with the homegrown talent in dealing potential franchise defenseman Erik Johnson to Colorado the previous season and then firing coach Davis Payne after just 13 games into last season. The message was clear -- the time to win was now.
Last season was a critical year for the Blues to prove that this group could win in its current form, and there are a number of NHL teams at a similar moment in their development. Here are the three best poised to make a Blues-like progression this season.
1. Dallas Stars -- There are a few similarities between this year's version of the Stars and last year's Blues. First, there's young talent. Jamie Benn is one of the best young players in the game and just turned 23 years old. He's arguably more talented than any forward on the Blues. Benn, along with Alex Goligoski and Loui Eriksson are entering a stretch in their careers where they should put up their best seasons.
Like Armstrong, Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk has shown that he's not going to wait forever for this group to produce. He shipped out Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott this summer, making additions he says now put players in their proper positions on the team. It was also a message to the team that falling just short of the playoffs doesn't cut it.
"Change is sometimes hard for people to understand, sometimes it's a necessity," he said after adding center Derek Roy in the deal with Buffalo. "We are a team that has been real close the last couple years. We haven't made the playoffs in four years. You continue to try to push the young guys."
2. Colorado Avalanche -- GM Greg Sherman has done a strong job on a tight budget, accumulating an impressive core group of drafted players in Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene. When Armstrong acquired Jaroslav Halak from the Canadiens, part of the appeal was adding a goaltender who was in a similar age range as his homegrown talent. Sherman did the same thing in trading for goalie Semyon Varlamov last summer, who finished his first season in Colorado with a 26-24-3 record and solid .913 save percentage. Like Armstrong, Sherman has proven he's not afraid to make deals and since the start of last season has added Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn through trades and P.A. Parenteau through free agency. After missing the playoffs by seven points last season, it's time for this group to make the jump into the top eight and coach Joe Sacco will be under as much pressure as Payne was to make sure it happens. If this team flounders early, he could be one of the coaches on the hot seat.
3. Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres are a bit different from the Blues in that this isn't a young group looking to put together a breakout season. But it is an important year for the leadership group of Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford to prove they are the ones to guide this team to real success.
Like the Blues of two years ago, injuries sidetracked the Sabres last season. On defense, Tyler Myers played only 48 games and Christian Ehrhoff was limited to 66 games. Roy wasn't 100 percent over his shoulder injury, despite playing 80 games. Goalie Ryan Miller suffered a concussion early in the season and it took time for him to regain the necessary mental focus to be one of the league's top goalies. That focus was there late in the season where Miller turned in a record of 19-6-5 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage after the All-Star break. GM Darcy Regier altered the makeup of this team, adding needed edge with the additions of Steve Ott and John Scott. If the Sabres stay healthy, they're a playoff team capable of advancing.
After the St. Louis Blues emerged as one of the NHL's top teams last season, Craig Custance looks at what spurred their breakout and which teams could mirror that success in 2012-13.