One of the changes the Blues made this season is to install Jake Allen as their starting goalie after trading Brian Elliott to Calgary. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Nicholas Hand

The start of the 50th season in Blues’ history is just two weeks away, a year that is expected to feature a team with a new style of play, highlighted by a new captain and increased responsibility for a young nucleus.

Reaching the Western Conference Final last season has put an end to preseason questioning about the Blues mental strength to get over the hump and advance past the first round of the postseason. No longer is it wondered if Ken Hitchcock’s coaching will fatigue his players to the point where there is nothing left in the tank come April. And gone is last season’s captain David Backes, playoff hero Troy Brouwer, and veteran goaltender Brian Elliott.

The biggest question now facing the Blues is if the young core can absorb those key subtractions and continue to build off last season’s success.

It all starts in between the pipes, as goaltender Jake Allen has been given the reigns to the number one spot for this season and the future by general manager Doug Armstrong. Armstrong showed faith in the 26-year old Allen by signing him to a four-year, $17.4 million extension after trading Elliott to the Calgary Flames in the offseason.

Allen posted a 2.35 goals against average and a .920 save percentage in 47 regular season games last year and is likely to see 55-60 starts carrying the number one load this season. Allen providing the same solid goaltending this season will play a large role in moving the Blues ahead.

The Blues signed free-agent goaltender Carter Hutton to serve as the veteran backup to Allen. Hutton, 30, signed a two-year deal in July after playing three seasons for the Nashville Predators. Hutton should be a dependable number two goaltender and has also shown an ability to provide consistent goaltending for long stretches in Nashville behind star goaltender Pekka Rinne.

On defense, the Blues have brought back the same core of defenseman that provided one of the best bluelines in the league last season. New captain Alex Pietrangelo and veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester are playing for Team Canada and will join the team after the World Cup of Hockey final this week. Bouwmeester has been noticeably impressive during the tournament, which is encouraging for the Blues after he suffered nagging injuries that affected his play at times during the past few seasons.

Colton Parayko emerged last season as one of the best young defensemen in the NHL and will be heavily relied upon in an increased role this season. In addition to being a tremendous skater, Parayko’s powerful shot will be counted on to produce offensively, especially on the power play.

In the off-season’s biggest surprise, Kevin Shattenkirk entered camp with the Blues after multiple conversations with other teams failed to produce a trade. Shattenkirk is scheduled to become a free agent after this season and remains St. Louis’ biggest trade chip, drawing attention around the league. The offensive defenseman’s salary demands after this season still makes it likely that Shattenkirk is dealt at some point before the trade deadline.

Rounding out the defensive corps will be the steady Carl Gunnarsson and second-year Blue Joel Edmundson on the left side. Robert Bortuzzo, Thomas Vannelli, and Petteri Lindbohm will all battle for the sixth and seventh spots throughout the season.

The biggest question fans want answered as the season approaches is if the Blues have enough offensive firepower up front after the departures of Backes and Brouwer, who accounted for 39 regular season goals and had tremendous postseasons offensively.

Vladimir Tarasenko will be asked to duplicate his 40-goal season as the lynchpin to the Blues’ offensive success. Newly re-signed Alexander Steen should be healthy after off-season shoulder surgery and is poised to increase his goal scoring output after only 17 goals in a 52-point season. Paul Stastny is looking to build off of a strong second half and playoff run that showcased his dynamic playmaking ability with a team-leading 39 assists.

Three key players in making up for the lost production of Backes and Brouwer will be Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and David Perron. Schwartz missed 60 percent of last season with a broken ankle and came back below 100 percent, contributing only eight goals in the regular season. A healthy Schwartz should be marked for at least 20 goals and a 50-point season.

Berglund also missed half of last season following surgery for an injured shoulder that plagued him the previous two years. Berglund had 10 goals in 42 games last year and looked like the player who netted 22 in 2010-11.

Perron, who started his career in St. Louis from 2008 through 2013, is back in the fold after signing a two-year, $7.5 million deal on July 1. He struggled last season with the Penguins before a trade that sent him to Anaheim. With the Ducks, Perron regained his offensive touch with eight goals in 28 games and had a solid postseason. If Perron performs the same way with the Blues, he should have close to a 20-goal season.

The Blues also are counting on young forward Robby Fabbri to duplicate his impressive rookie season that saw the 20-year old score 18 goals in 72 games. Even with the concerns of a sophomore slump, Fabbri is an incredible talent who rose to the occasion in the postseason and could see a greater breakout this season.

Center Jori Lehtera’s $4.7 million salary kicks in this season and the pressure will be on him to produce more than his 34 points in 2015-16. Lehtera will play a huge part as to whether or not the Blues can develop three consistent lines of scoring throughout the season.

Dmitrij Jaskin is another wildcard who received a two-year, $2 million extension in the summer. He struggled with only four goals in 65 games but played well in the second and third rounds of the postseason. Jaskin can play either of the wings and has all of the tools to be a third-line power forward capable of 15-20 goals. If he puts it together this season, the Blues’ investment becomes a terrific value contract for the next couple of years.

Rounding out the Blues at forward are Magnus Paajarvi, Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshal, and Ryan Reaves, who can combine to form a solid fourth line. The Blues will also likely be looking more towards Brodziak and Upshall for penalty killing duties, with the potential that Brodziak could also see time on the Blues power play in a net-front role, taking the place of the departed Backes and Brouwer.

As far as other forwards who will likely crack the Blues roster at points throughout the season, Landon Ferraro, 25, signed a two-way deal during the off-season after playing 58 games with the Bruins in a fourth-line role last season. Ferraro brings serious speed to the table which could help his cause in the Blues aggressive puck-hunting system. Ty Rattie, Ivan Barbashev and Kenny Agostino are also trying to stick with the club out of training camp.

Assuming the Blues carry a 23-man roster, the team will have more than $3 million of cap space in the regular season after the news that forward Vladimir Sobotka could not agree to terms with his KHL club to buyout his contract and return to the Blues, meaning he will be spending this season in Russia.

This marks the first time in years that the Blues have had $2 million or more in legitimate cap space to start the season without the long-term injured reserve provision, which could be incredibly valuable to the Blues by the trade deadline.

Since the salary cap is calculated by a daily average, the Blues could bank the cap space to the trade deadline and acquire more than $13 million in salary on the day of the deadline. This throws another variable into any potential trade involving the Blues and is something to follow as the season progresses.

The regular season will begin on Wed., Oct. 12 when the Blues play the Blackhawks in Chicago. The home opener will follow the following night against the Minnesota Wild. One of the highlights of the season will be the first outdoor game in team history, when the Blues host the Blackhawks in the NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium.