Jason Brough

St. Louis Blues center David Backes, second from left, celebrates scoring a goal with, from left, center Paul Stastny, right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, of Russia, and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For the Blues, ‘no time to be sad’ about departures of Backes, Brouwer and Elliott

ST. LOUIS (AP) The St. Louis Blues have won at least 49 games in each of the past three seasons and advanced to the Western Conference finals last spring.

Doing it again this season will require effort from a bunch of new players.

David Backes, who spent 10 years in St. Louis, is now in Boston. Goalie Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Troy Brouwer, the Blues’ second-leading goal scorer in the playoffs last spring, signed with Calgary. Steve Ott, after two-plus seasons with the Blues, is now in Detroit.

“There’s no time to be sad about somebody,” Blues right winger Vladimir Tarasenko said. “They were great players and they’re still good players, but they play for other teams, so we’re going to play against them now. It seems like we have a really good team right now and I’m just looking forward for our season to start.”

Before the 2015-16 season, the Blues traded T.J. Oshie to Washington for Brouwer and opted not to re-sign defenseman Barrett Jackman. St. Louis went 49-24-9 with 107 points, just two points less than in 2014-15.

The Blues’ core group has changed slightly over the years but Ken Hitchcock’s squad remains one of the most talented groups in the NHL.

Tarasenko set career highs in goals (40) and points (74) last season, ranking fourth in the league in goals and 12th in points, after signing an eight-year contract extension. Alexander Steen (52 points), Paul Stastny (49) and Kevin Shattenkirk (44) ranked second, third and fifth among the Blues in scoring and are all back. Robby Fabbri accounted for 18 goals and 37 points as a rookie last season.

The defensive group, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Shattenkirk and youngster Colton Parayko, is among the best in the NHL.

The biggest change for the Blues is in net, where St. Louis broke up its successful tandem of Elliott and Jake Allen, who went 26-15-3 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .920 save percentage last season. After sending Elliott to Calgary for a second-round draft pick, St. Louis signed Allen to a four-year contract extension that kicks in for the 2017-18 season.

“I think I have a great opportunity in front of me, I’m very fortunate for that, and it’s been a long road,” Allen said. “It’s been four years in the minors, some stints up and down here, a couple seasons here. It’s been quite the grind to get to this point but I feel like the process is finally paying off.”

Related: Backes and Brouwer may be gone, but Hitch says Blues youngsters still have room to grow


After skipping the World Cup, Duncan Keith to make preseason debut tonight

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 28: Duncan Keith #2 of the Chicago Blackhawks keeps his eyes on an airborne puck against the Washington Capitals at the United Center on February 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Capitals 3-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

At one point it looked like Duncan Keith may miss the start of the regular season. But that’s no longer the case — the Blackhawks’ star defenseman will make his preseason debut tonight at home against Detroit. If all goes well and there are no issues with the knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup, he should be ready for next Wednesday when Chicago plays for real in St. Louis.

The big question now is whether young Gustav Forsling will remain with the NHL club. The 20-year-old defenseman has impressed during the preseason, and he’s outlasted the likes of Viktor Svedberg, Erik Gustafsson, Cameron Schilling, and Ville Pokka.

The Blackhawks’ active roster currently has eight d-men, and they may keep that many to start the season. (That list of eight includes Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will miss the first game due to a suspension.)

If Forsling doesn’t stick with the ‘Hawks, he’s expected to return to Sweden for the year.

Related: The ‘Hawks like what they’ve got in Kempny

Babcock believes this year’s Leafs are ‘way better’

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews celebrates onstage with Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock after being selected first overall during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs finished dead last in 2015-16, winning just 29 of their 82 games.

But while the Leafs are still young and in a rebuilding phase, their head coach, Mike Babcock, doesn’t expect a repeat of last season.

“We’re way better,” Babcock told The Associated Press. “We got kids, but we got skill. It’s a way different program than a year ago. We now have a team. We’re like a fast-climbing stock. You want to buy. Last year, you didn’t want to buy.”

The Leafs, of course, turned all of last season’s losses into the first overall draft pick, Auston Matthews. They’ve also got highly touted young forwards like William Nylander and Mitch Marner, as well as a budding star on defense, Morgan Rielly.

Toronto’s goaltending is another area that should be improved after the acquisition of Frederik Andersen, who’s expected to make his preseason debut tonight against Ottawa.

One final thing to consider is that the Leafs were actually middle of the pack in puck-possession last season, finishing with a positive Corsi at five-on-five. If they can maintain that level, their young, skilled players should be able to convert on more scoring chances than last year’s forward group did. And if they get better goaltending and special teams to boot, the Leafs could, indeed, be “way better.”

Granted, that’s a lot of ifs. These young Leafs still have much to prove, and nobody would be too shocked if 2016-17 turned out to be a tough learning experience.

Things are looking up, though. Nobody can deny that. The Leafs have a lot more skill now, a reward for all that losing.

Related: A plan comes together as the Leafs get their man

A ‘very difficult road trip’ is looming for the Ducks

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01:  Head coach Randy Carlyle of the Anaheim Ducks watches from the bench during the preseason NHL game against Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Anaheim Ducks started last season about as poorly as one could imagine. They were 1-7-2 by the end of October, and they’d been shut out five times.

Though they recovered nicely and went on to finish first in the Pacific Division, a first-round exit cost head coach Bruce Boudreau his job.

So to say the least, it was a tumultuous year in Anaheim.

And it doesn’t get any easier to start 2016-17. With Randy Carlyle back behind the bench, the Ducks begin the regular season with five straight road games — in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Newark, and Philadelphia. After that, they return home to face Vancouver, then they’re straight back on the road for a visit to San Jose.

“We have a very difficult road trip to kick the season off,” Carlyle said, per the O.C. Register. “Everybody’s well aware of it. The schedule’s been out since late July. It’s not like it’s any hidden fact. We have a tough schedule coming and we have to prepare to play at a pretty high level. We’re going to open a couple of buildings at the start that are pretty tough to win in.”

The Ducks have struggled so far in the preseason. In fact, they’re the only winless team in the league, going 0-3-1 and getting outscored by a combined margin of 12-4.

Granted, they’ve been without Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, both of whom represented Canada at the World Cup, as well as Hampus Lindholm, who doesn’t have a contract yet, and Rickard Rakell, who’s in the same boat as Lindholm.

But with that “very difficult road trip” looming, it would be nice to get a win or two in their final three preseason games, if only to build some confidence.

The Ducks play tonight in Edmonton and Wednesday in San Jose before finishing their preseason schedule Sunday at home to the Sharks.

Related: Ducks look primed to make a trade

Nolan Patrick headlines Central Scouting’s list of ‘players to watch’

Last year, it was headlined by Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine, and Matthew Tkachuk.

This year, the list of Central Scouting’s “players to watch” includes 29 prospects with an “A” rating (i.e. first-round draft candidates), led by likely first overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Patrick, 18, is a center for the Brandon Wheat Kings. He is the son of former NHL forward Steve Patrick and the nephew of former NHL defenseman James Patrick.

“Patrick is as complete an NHL package as you are going to find,” said Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting, per NHL.com. “From his pedigree, his skills and assets, to his performance impact to date, he has everything any NHL team is looking for in a top prospect.”

Click here for the complete list of players. Among the 29 “A” prospects are two U.S. college players, defenseman Luke Martin of the Michigan Wolverines and forward Ryan Poehling of the St. Cloud State Huskies. Three more are in the USHL and one, Casey Mittelstadt, goes to Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota.