For 10 years the routine was as predictable as it was entertaining. Blues right wing Brett Hull would arrive in camp in September and spend the next eight months shooting the puck and shooting off his mouth with equal frequency. No more. Second-year general manager Larry Pleau let Hull escape to Dallas as a free agent this summer without even offering the team's alltime leading goal scorer a contract. Did the Kiel Center roof fall in? Hardly. Says winger Kelly Chase, "There's been a lot less bitchin' around here."
Not a bad first move for a franchise desperate to be reinvented. Though they have made the playoffs in every season since 1979-80, the Blues have never advanced beyond the conference finals in that span. Entwined with that legacy of springtime flameouts is a pattern of player-versus-front-office tiffs, many of them instigated by Hull. With the Golden Brett gone, the Blues have changed their tune. Already, center Pierre Turgeon has described Pleau as "first class" for the way the G.M. handled Turgeon's $4.65 million off-season arbitration victory. Unfortunately, without Hull (27 goals) and defenseman Steve Duchesne (14), who also left as a free agent, last year's top-scoring team lacks firepower. Turgeon (22 goals) and winger Geoff Courtnall (31) will have to boost their production, and free-agent winger Scott Young must net more than the 13 goals he had last season for the Ducks.
St. Louis remains deep on defense. Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger are rocks on the blue line, and coach Joel Quenneville can roll out a seemingly endless string of grinders to clamp down his neutral-zone trap. If ageless goaltender Grant Fuhr (29-21-6, 2.53 goals-against average) has one more solid season in him, St. Louis could find itself in a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games.
In other words, playoff-type games—the kind the Blues usually lose. This spring we'll see if things really have changed in St. Louis.