A look at five key questions facing the St. Louis Blues as they embark on a lockout-shortened, intensity-driven 2013 season:
1. Does this team have enough offense?
In theory, yes. While it's true the Blues failed to have a single scorer crack the 25-goal mark last season, they did have nine players with 10 or more goals. Four of the team's top forwards -- David Perron, Andy McDonald, Alex Steen and Matt D'Agostini-- missed significant time because of injuries. Perron had 21 goals and 42 points in 57 games, while McDonald had 10 goals and 22 points in 25 games (plus five goals and 10 points in nine playoff games) to bolster scoring leaders David Backes and T.J. Oshie. It's hard to believe Chris Stewart won't be closer to the 28 goals he scored in each of the previous two seasons before 2011-12 than the 15 he scored last year. Offensive production also should be solid from young defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
2. Can rookie forwards Vladimir Tarasenko or Jaden Schwartz make an impact?
Both former first-round picks have produced big offensive numbers wherever they've been. Schwartz is pushing hard to make the Blues and his ability to play well at minor-league Peoria during the lockout only enhanced his chances. Tarasenko is being talked about as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate and his offensive skills are flat-out scary, especially the way the puck explodes so quickly off his stick. However, he still must learn to play a different style of game while also transitioning to the smaller NHL ice surface.
3. Is Chris Stewart ready for a breakout season?
Stewart is working on a one-year contract and spent the offseason getting himself into the best shape of his career. He's dropped weight, has been flying around the rink during camp and drawing raves from everyone who has seen him play. He has every reason to prove last season was an aberration -- and every bit of motivation to make that happen, especially after being a healthy scratch twice during the playoffs.
4. Can the Blues become a perennial Western Conference contender?
Their 109 points and 15 shutouts during the regular season seemed to suggest so, but the Blues faded quickly after a first-round playoff win over San Jose. In the second round, the Kings used their size and speed to pummel the Blues at every turn and injuries to goalie Jaroslav Halak and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo also hurt. The Blues' young nucleus learned a valuable lesson about reaching an entirely different level in the postseason, one they did not reach a year ago.
5. Is there enough defensive depth?
Playing 48 games in a condensed period only enhances the value of healthy, effective defensemen. The Blues will likely need to add a veteran defenseman at some point during the season. The Blues seem intent on giving Ian Cole, a former first-round pick, every chance to earn regular play. He's shown flashes of solid two-way play, but must become more consistent and avoid big mistakes that lead to goals. Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk each are in the final years of their contracts and will be looking for multiyear deals. Barret Jackman and Roman Polak will be counted on for toughness, grit and consistency and will continue to log a lot of minutes, while Kris Russell's speed and playmaking ability are strong assets. The depth right now includes Jeff Woywitka and Taylor Chorney, with veteran Colin White in camp on a tryout basis.
Norm Sanders has covered the Blues for the Belleville News-Democrat since 1996.