Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blues shifting gears, expect to be playoff team

Adding veterans provides depth, leadership; Perron
still not ready; captaincy to be resolved by start of camp

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- In recent seasons, the Blues have always been cautious about their choice of words in relation to the playoffs. It's always their "hope" to get in.

But with the opening of training camp three weeks away, "hope" has been placed on the backburner and turned into "expect."

"Yeah, I sure do," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said Thursday at a media session along with team president John Davidson and head coach Davis Payne when asked if he expects to make the playoffs.
"I think when we set into this summer, we realized that this is a very important year for this organization. We've gone through a growth process and I think the growing now is over. We're as close to a finished product as we've been in a number of years. It's time for us to get that done on the ice."

The Blues, who finished 10 points out of a playoff spot a season ago and were on the outside looking in for the fifth time in six seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, feel good about themselves after another strong finish. They have a number of players coming off impressive seasons and they've gone out and added some veteran experience and depth to compliment what they feel like is a playoff-ready roster.

The Blues once again fell behind the 8-Ball a season ago and were forced to play catch-up in a rugged and ultra-competitive Western Conference. Injuries certainly plagued this team, as it lost 300-plus man games to injury after a franchise-best 9-1-2 start.

"That was the one thing that crystallized itself last year," Armstrong said. "Having NHL-ready caliber players at Davis' disposal was something that we didn't have. We had to put a lot of young players in situations that they hadn't been in. To their credit, I thought they all played very well, but we had too many needing to go in there at once.

"I always think you just have to plan on having one guy out all year. So you're starting with 80 games on the injury list, and then you move forward. Unfortunately last year, we had three key players (David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Roman Polak) out at the same time for an extended period of time and we didn't have the depth to overcome that. If we have the same situation happen this year, I think we're more prepared to overcome it. Whether you're still deep enough, time's going to tell."

Armstrong made sure the cupboard was stocked this time with the acquisitions of veteran forwards Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol along with veteran defenseman Kent Huskins. Arnott and Langenbrunner share three Stanley Cups between them.

"Langenbrunner, Arnott, Huskins, Nichol, they're all here to play," Armstrong said. "Part of what the added benefit that we get with their play is they're going to be able to provide leadership. We think they're going to be able to help our group through some of the ebbs and the flows that you go through in a season. But we don't want to take away from the leadership that we have here. Andy McDonald and Barret Jackman have had a lot of experience, even guys like (David) Backes are getting into the prime part of their careers. They have to take the bigger role."

Throw in the emergence of Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Matt D'Agostini and Vladimir Sobotka, the ascension of Oshie, Alex Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo and Polak along with the rising play of blue liners Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues enter the season as deep and as talented from top to bottom as they've been under the current ownership regime, which is in the midst of selling the franchise.

But it's business as usual for the hockey operations people, and that will now rest in the hands of Payne and the coaches when camp opens Sept. 16. Payne and his staff will oversee some intriguing storylines unfold.

"I think there's quite a few that are intriguing," Payne said. "Obviously (Ben) Bishop and (Brian) Elliott (vying for the backup goalie job) is one when you start at the back. We know that that's a legitimate competition to see who's going to back Jaro (Halak) up. You go from a defensive standpoint, you've got some guys there who have experience now in (Nikita) Nikitin and we've got some guys there that are going to be fighting for playing time, for special team time. Where does that fit in based on play? Ian Cole's going to be another guy in the mix in that situation.

"You're talking about a group of forwards up front that you could take nine or 10 of them and really kind of mix them together and say who are going to be the key guys on special teams, who are going to be the key guys in top-line situations, perhaps a matchup situation. These guys define themselves with their roles and responsibilities last year and now you're adding an Arnott, you're adding Langenbrunner, guys with experience up and down the lineup. A guy like Scotty Nichol, who's a good face-off guy. Now all of the sudden, key responsibilities come to play in there with a guy like Sobotka. There's lots of interesting things that go on with the existing guys, and then of course, you've got (Evgeni) Grachev in the mix. Where does a big kid with his skill fit in? How does he adjust? How does he perform? You've got a guy like (Jonathan) Cheechoo who's shown great things and has really shown a lot of determination this summer to make a statement. There's a lot of key things there for us to pay attention to."

Armstrong said there are no notable injuries to players that will affect their time in camp except for Nichol, who's coming off surgery in the off-season to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and of course Perron, who still is out due to post-concussion symptoms suffered in the 10th game last season.

"I think you can go back to what we said in December, January, February, March," Armstrong said. "I've had recent conversations with David. He's feeling better, he's still not at the point where he's beginning to train for an NHL season. He has symptoms occur ... not on a regular basis, but they do occur at certain times. Those symptoms are discussed between he, his medical staff, his doctors and our trainers. But the approach that we take in this organization is until David says that he's ready to actively get into the area where he can start training to participate with the team, then it's status quo.

"The next question to follow is do you think he's going to play this year, and I've heard that quite a bit ... our thought is we think he's going to play, but we don't have any medical backing on that. He's a young man, it's his first concussion. Every time I do have a chance to talk to him, he sounds better. He's progressing ... not as quickly as he wishes and we all wish but he is progressing. I think that one day, he'll push through whatever's there and he'll get to the point where he has to get to."

When camp opens up Sept. 16, the unresolved issue of a captain should come to a head as well, according to Armstrong. The Blues have been without a full-time captain since they traded away Eric Brewer last season and went with a committee of alternates.

Armstrong didn't say one way or the other, but there's a chance the Blues could go full time for the immediate future with a group of 'A's instead of naming a captain.

"We're discussing that now," Armstrong said. "We want to get the input of some of the other people in our organization -- the coaches, some people in our management staff -- and we'll have that decision by the first day of training camp ... whether we go with a group of players that will make up a leadership group or we name a captain.

"We're further ahead than we were at the end of the season, but we're not at the point where we've solidified what we want to do, and that's something that we'll spend the next three weeks discussing."

In the meantime, players have begun to trickle into the team's practice facility at St. Louis Mills, participating in informal skates in preparation for camp, the regular season and from the Blues' perspective, the playoffs.

"I think our fans have been patient and it's time for the organization to reward that patience with a good season," Armstrong said. "... The ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but what we found out last year is you have no chance of winning the Stanley Cup unless you play in the Stanley Cup tournament. We have to get to the playoffs this year and then we'll let everything fall from that point."

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