ST. LOUIS (AP) -- These are not baby Blues anymore.
Not long after the St. Louis Blues fell short of the playoffs last spring, the franchise put players on notice. They're not going to lean on youth and inexperience anymore.
It's playoffs or bust.
"Absolutely. We have no excuses," forward David Backes said. "I think we'll have one or two young defensemen but other than everyone has at least a few years under their belts. It's time to put that together."
The Blues have been in rebuilding mode for a while, stockpiling young talent. Defenseman Erik Johnson was the top pick overall in 2006 and forwards T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund were first-round picks.
Coach Davis Payne said Perron made the biggest strides in the preseason.
"It looks like his game is complete," Payne said. "He's playing in all three zones and he's playing through situations and staying involved through the team structure much more efficiently."
St. Louis was five points out of the final Western Conference playoff slot last year, doomed by one of the NHL's worst home records and a succession of blown third-period leads.
"Instead of learning from it and moving forward and sticking with our confidence we kind of let it get to us and it snowballed from there," forward Alex Steen said. "We got out of it, just a little too late."
Now they believe it's their time. Johnson said the team is faster, tougher, stronger on the backcheck.
"I think this is going to be a big year," Johnson said. "This is the most buzz I've felt for a season in a long time.I haven't been here very long, but I feel really excited about the team and I think all the guys feel the same as well."
Payne enters his first full season as head coach after taking over for Andy Murray last January. He made expectations clear before the first practice and has been pleased with the response and the confidence players will take into the opener Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We're going to get our work boots on every day, go out there, get something accomplished," Backes said. "He's smart, he's played the game at this level and it's constructive quality work day in and day out."
Management did its part to get the Blues over the hump by acquiring goalie Jaroslav Halak, who has been spectacular in the past, from the Montreal Canadiens. Halak projects a cool, can-do attitude in net.
"When he's out there, he's not very tense, but he's very focused on what he has to do," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "It's kind of calming to the rest of the team."
Philadelphia opened Thursday night with a 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh. That game offered the Blues a scouting report, too.
"They'll have a game to knock some rust off and get right up to that regular season intensity and we've got to make sure we get there ourselves," Payne said. "It gives us a chance to look at how they're playing. We're going to be focused on how we're playing."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)