The St. Louis Blues could have been preparing for Game 7 of a second-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday.
Instead, after being eliminated by the Predators in six games, the Blues were packing up for the offseason, reflecting on a tumultuous 2016-17 campaign and eagerly looking forward to next season.
"It still stings," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the team captain. "After a couple days of reflection, I think you have to be proud of the point that we got to. I bet you halfway through the season not many people thought we'd be where we are today having this conversation. It's obviously still disappointing to us. The ultimate goal is always to win a Stanley Cup and to watch someone else do it this year again is extremely frustrating. But we've got a young group here, we feel like we've built some things here and I think we really have an opportunity to take a really big step next year."
After winning 49 games and advancing to the Western Conference finals a year ago, veteran forwards David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott and goalie Brian Elliott left the Blues as either free agents or via trade. The roster shake-up continued into the season with the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1 and the trade of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk not long after.
The Blues were 24-21-5 when general manager Doug Armstrong replaced Hitchcock with coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo and the team surged down the stretch to finish 46-29-7 and claim the third spot in the Central Division.
"This was probably the hardest season of my career and the longest one with the World Cup," said forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who had a team high 39 goals and 75 points. "We had a lot of emotional stuff going on through the season, and a lot of ups and downs. I think we stayed together as long as we could — even from Game 1 to the last game we were always close to each other — and I think that's a really big step forward for us."
The Blues won their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild in five games but then lost to the Predators in six close games. St. Louis scored just five goals over the final four games of the series and lost three of them.
"I thought Games 4, 5 and 6 were the most complete games we played," Armstrong said. "They were able to manufacture the timely goal that we couldn't manufacture this year."
The Blues have plenty to be excited about going forward and could return most of the same team next season.
They have just one unrestricted free agent, fourth-line forward Scottie Upshall, but could lose someone in the Vegas expansion draft. Armstrong said they will protect seven forwards, three defenseman and one goalie.
The Blues feel good about their nucleus, led by players like Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Sobotka and Robby Fabbri, the growth of second-year defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson and the resiliency of goalie Jake Allen, who shook off a rough stretch, was stingy down the stretch and then posted a .935 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average in 11 playoff games.
"We believe that we have a group that obviously we can build with and we can build internally with our young players and we can build internally with the competition of those young players," Yeo said. "We all have to come back and find a way to be better. We're all capable of it. For me, personally, I look at this group and I'm very excited about this group moving forward."