Roster spots still up for grabs; Cheechoo among cuts over weekend
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- With all the attention geared towards the backup goalie job and those few forward positions open, not much has been made of the battle for the seventh defenseman position between Nikita Nikitin and Ian Cole.
But when asked Monday after practice his thoughts, Blues coach Davis Payne didn't sound like someone giving a ringing endorsement for one or the other.
"Both guys have shown some decent play, but I think both guys can perform better," Payne said. "Gotta be honest with you, I think we've seen better hockey out of both guys."
One would think Nikitin may have the edge simply because of the one-way contract he has, and with the free agent signing of Kent Huskins during the summer, it seems like he will be among the top six.
Both Cole and Nikitin scored power play goals in their first exhibition games (a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay) and both played 20-plus minutes and were each plus-1 in a 3-2 win at Colorado Friday.
* Goalie battle still in a dead-heat -- Brian Elliott and Ben Bishop continue the race to the finish to see who will back up Jaroslav Halak this season.
Elliott has seen two games and will likely not play another preseason game, owning a 1-1 record (making 21 stops in a 3-1 win over the Lightning in the preseason opener, followed by a 3-2 loss at Dallas Saturday, making 23 saves). Bishop, who will play Thursday at home against Colorado, was in goal for the 4-3 win over the Lightning last week, recording 21 saves in that contest.
"Right now, I think you're looking at an incomplete picture because they each played one good game, played very well," Payne said of the two goalies. "The second game that Brian got in, there was a goal there ... these things are gonna happen.
"We've got to be patient about saying anything as to what our feelings are until we've got all that information to make a decision upon. Until that, it's we go over what we thought was positive, what we thought needed work and we move onto the next day. Until we get to having to make a decision, we'll continue to evaluate that way."
Elliott, brought in over the summer as a free agent after playing in Ottawa and Colorado last season, will have to earn his keep the rest of the way through practice time.
"He's got to continue to show the battle and stop pucks. We're watching in these drills, too," Payne said. "Shooters are still putting pucks on net. It's important that (pucks) stay out.
"We've got some game simulation stuff going (on) out there, six on five, power play, PK stuff. This is important. (Goalie coach Corey Hirsch is) paying particular attention to who's doing what out there, the pre-ice sessions with the goaltenders out there, who looks good in what. As much as it is getting better, it's also an evaluation for us."
* Cheechoo among cuts -- Winger Jonathan Cheechoo, a former Rocket Richard winner with the San Jose Sharks in 2005-06 for top goal scorer in a season with 56 goals, was among the roster cuts over the weekend.
Signed to a one-year, two-way contract, Cheechoo was among five players placed on waivers Monday (along with forwards Brett Sterling and T.J. Hensick as well as defensemen Danny Syvret and Brennan Evans).
Teams have until 11 a.m. today to place claims on them but they were all still allowed to begin camp with the American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria over the weekend.
"I thought the first couple games he was making some things happen," Payne said of Cheechoo, who had one assist in three games along with multiple scoring chances. "Some real good poise with the puck. Some real, real good creativity. I thought towards the end of that (second) game and into the third game, the pace started and workload started to catch up.
"He's close. Right now, we wanted to get down to this group. The guys we feel in this group are deserving to be here. The other guys performed well, we may get another look at them, but at this point, guys have to perform well to stay in this room right now."
* Down to the end -- Among the last round of forwards fightning for those final couple roster spots up front include Evgeny Grachev, Ryan Reaves, Philip McRae, Adam Cracknell and Chris Porter.
When asked what they can do to enhance their chances of making the opening day roster, Payne said, "Perform our team game and perform their individual skills at a high, high level. Show an incredible amount of drive that demonstrates or says to us that these guys need to be in a Blues uniform on Oct. 8, not just the guys that are here, it's the guys going into that opening day lineup. We've got our work cut out for us, as do they."
Grachev seems to have a leg up on the rest, registering two goals and an assist in three games.
"He's held serve so far," Payne said about Grachev.
* Injury report -- Veteran center Scott Nichol continues to get ready for the opening of the season, rehabbing and skating following a torn labrum in his left shoulder with San Jose last season which required surgery in May.
Nichol, who's targeted to be the opening-day fourth-line center, could get into preseason action at some point this week, maybe even tonight in Minnesota.
"We expect him to be ready to go at some point this week," Payne said. "... We'd definitely like to see him in there as soon as possible, with tomorrow being as soon as possible."
Winger Matt D'Agostini, who tweaked his groin last week and sat out a scheduled game against Minnesota, is expected to play against the Wild tonight according to Payne. D'Agostini, a 21-goal scorer a season ago, was back on the ice Monday.
* 5 in 5 brings 3-2 mark -- The Blues, who will play tonight in Minnesota before wrapping up preseason games at home against the Avalanche Thursday and Dallas Saturday afternoon, wrapped up the busy portion of their preseason schedule that saw them play five games in five nights.
After back-to-back wins over the Lightning, they followed those up with a 3-2 road win in Colorado and a 3-2 road loss in Dallas.
"I liked our team game in Colorado from a team concept, team focus standpoint," Payne said. "It looked like guys were very committed to doing the right things together. I thought we got off that page in the Dallas game. As exhibition games go, it was an exhibition ... game."