Ready or not, the Blues will kick off the 2017-18 season Wednesday night against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
After two-plus weeks of training camp, slugging it out with one another, trudging through preseason games and in the Blues' case, trying to stay healthy, the fun stuff gets going against the Pittsburgh Penguins on the national spotlight of NBCSN at 7 p.m.
"Very excited, and I think the players are, too," Blues coach Mike Yeo aid. "Training camp, it's necessary and there's a lot of work that needs to be put in. I think the guys did that, but you could tell today there was a different energy and different pace to practice and everyone's excited to get going now."
The Blues, who finished third in the Central Division a season ago at (46-29-7, good for 99 points), were eliminated from the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Nashville Predators in six games.
St. Louis, which will open the season without Alexander Steen (hand), Jay Bouwmeester (ankle), Robby Fabbri (knee), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Zach Sanford (shoulder), will implement a mix of veterans and youth after making minimal changes to player personnel in the offseason.
"If you kind of look throughout the training camp, we've progressively gotten better," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "Obviously we've implemented some new strategy work and some new bodies. When you get the chance to kind of build within and build with each other, it's an opportunity to gain and to start getting better. I think that we've done good job and I think each game has gotten better throughout training camp. If we implement the game an we stick to our game plan, we're going to be dangerous."
New additions include center Brayden Schenn, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for Jori Lehtera and two first-round picks, center Oskar Sundqvist was acquired from the Penguins and a No. 1 pick for fan-favorite Ryan Reaves, who will face his former teammates in his new home, veteran defenseman Nate Prosser was brought in for depth, and the infusion of prospects in defenceman Vince Dunn, forward Tage Thompson and feel-good story in Wade Megan all fill the missing pieces. The Blues brought back fourth-line winger Scottie Upshall on Sunday and Vladimir Sobotka starts his first full NHL season since 2015.
Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the team in goals (39), points (75) and was tied with teammate Jaden Schwartz with 36 assists, is motivated to be even better, center Paul Stastny heads into the final year of a four-year contract he signed in 2014 and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo begins his second season as captain and No. 1 blueliner.
"I don't think we feel by any means that we're close to the team that we're going to be by the end of the season," Yeo said. "Right now starts a process of trying to get better an making sure that you use every day, whether it's a practice day to get better or a game to make sure you're at your best an to put yourself in a good position. I'm happy with where we're at, but I also know that our level will go up as the season goes on."
So one looming question that remains is what will the identity of the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues be? The team seems to feel it has a pulse of what that can be.
"We talked a lot about it yesterday," Yeo said. "A lot of the things that the Blues have been known for over the past six, seven years is being a team that's really difficult to play against. Obviously you can't try to be something else and somebody else. We have some new players here, but there's certainly lots of elements in our game that are going to be very similar. There's a lot of things that we're going to be harping on to making sure that we're going to continue to be one of those teams that's difficult to play against. Whether it's our ply without the puck and how we smother teams and how aggressive we are in our checking game, whether it's the speed that we attack with or our ability to get on the offensive side of things. We want to be a team that other teams are aware of and don't look forward to playing against."
Parayko added, "Getting to our game is the first thing that we want to do. I think we already know our identity, and it's we want to play fast. We've got a team that's tough to play against, but we've got skill as well, if that makes sense. It's a gritty team, but it's a team that's willing to work hard and get the puck, but at the same time, we're also able to put the puck in the back of the net. That's a great combination. If we're able to move the puck fast, if we're able to use our speed, make it hard on teams to kind of make it to our zone and make it hard for them to score, it's going to be fun."
Yeo doesn't worry about the veterans, because they've been grasping this system for a number of years, but do the young guys have it figured out? Yeo thinks so.
"I do, I really do," Yeo said. "When you're dealing with younger players, they obviously have the challenge of trying to prove that number one, they belong in the league, but they have to make sure they stay consistent with their identity. We're not asking every player to go out and play the same way and be the same player for us. It's quite the opposite. We have a bunch of different puzzle pieces and we'd like to think that they're all going to fit well together. You have to make sure what it is that you do well, you bring it to the table and collectively as a group, we have an idea in mind what our best games look like and we want to start trying to get to it right off the hop."