Blues thinking big down middle; Petro's partner could be familiar face
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Imagine being the Blues' opponent and trying to dissect a strategy of containing certain elements to their game.
Look no further than their centers.
When the Blues line up in October, they'll do so up front -- specifically down the middle -- with the intent of imposing their will with size and strength.
Picture 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, then 6-4 and 220, followed by 6-5 and 220.
Welcome to David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Jason Arnott ... coming soon to a rink near you.
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At 6-3, 225, David Backes will lead a big group of centers in 2011-12.
It's an idea general manager Doug Armstrong felt was a necessity to compete in the rugged Western Conference on a nightly basis. So when talking about the Blues' balance, the center position was a place to upgrade, especially physically.
"I think that balance starts with the depth we have down the middle," Armstrong said. "One of the things we talked about when Jason's name came up was you go into San Jose, you've got Big Joe (Thornton); you go into Anaheim, you've got (Ryan) Getzlaf. We're hoping it's a role reversal. If you're going to check Backes tonight, then who's going to take Berglund? Who's going to take Arnott's group? When you run those three centers that are 6-2, 220-plus, that's big down the middle.
"Maybe we don't have any of the top 50 players in the game by all the publications, but we think some of our parts are going to be greater than one or two top 50 players."
Both Backes and Berglund are signed for at least the next two seasons, and depending on if the 37-year-old Arnott is a good fit on his one-year contract, this could be what Blues' opponents will line up against in the seasons to come.
"I think we're a defined top nine group," Armstrong said. "I think we're going to have really good balance."
* Perron in town -- All the talk centered around winger David Perron has been the progress he's made in his lengthy battle to overcome a serious concussion suffered last November.
Perron was recently in St. Louis, making the trek down from his native Sherbrooke, Quebec hometown. But according to Armstrong, it's nothing for Blues' fans to read too much into.
"We asked him to come in to see our training staff," Armstrong said. "Nothing more than to see our strength and conditioning coach (Nelson Ayotte) and to find out where his body makeup was at from not doing anything in a while. And to just reconnect with the coaches, the trainers, the players.
"There were no tests or anything like that. We made some decisions on what he'll do over the next month or so, which is all subject to change based on his ability to feel better and get to a point where he feels comfortable increasing his activities. ... I don't want to say it was a social visit, but it was a visit that we haven't seen him in a while."
* Goaltending battle will be key focus -- There's no question that Jaroslav Halak is unconditionally the Blues' No. 1 goalie. But when camp opens in 17 days, one of the many battles that will play out will be who will win the job as Halak's backup.
Will it be native Ben Bishop, resigned to a one-year, two way contract after becoming a restricted free agent, or will it be veteran Brian Elliott, signed to a one-year, two-way contract after splitting last season in Ottawa and Colorado? What will the Blues base their criteria on?
"If it's even, it will be hard to say," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "It's going to be practices, it's going to be exhibition games. We have to do our part to give these guys the opportunity to be on equal footing for us to evaluate and say, 'Hey, you've both had the same. Now we've got to make a decision.'
"It's both of their jobs to make our decision tough. We're going to go with performance, we're going to go with the guy who gives us the best chance -- when called upon a backup role -- to win."
* Petro's partner -- With expectations high on 21-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, the question shifts to who will become Pietrangelo's defensive partner on a regular basis this season.
Pietrangelo, who led the team in ice time at 22 minutes per game, will likely see his ice time increase as he becomes a better overall player and is used in all aspects.
Carlo Colaiacovo, one of Pietrangelo's close friends who's working harder this summer than he has in previous years, could be the candidate after the two finished last season playing regularly together and playing well.
"That's a legitimate question," Payne said. "(Pietrangelo) finished the year playing with Carlo. I thought they had some effective minutes. You've got (Kent) Huskins coming in who adds some experience to the mix, he's played some time with (Barret) Jackman. We've even tossed around the question: can he play on the left side? Does that involve Roman Polak? Does that involve a guy like (Kevin) Shattenkirk in certain situations?
"Petro had a heck of a year, and he's had a heck of a summer. He's got every intention to continue to push forward. Who that is with, I don't think we're going to be able to lock that in and say it's this guy and it's this guy the whole way. I think we'll be looking at that through camp."
Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo (middle) could be a familiar pairing
on defense for the Blues in 2011-12. They're good friends off the ice.
Armstrong said the team isn't necessarily looking to find someone to match Pietrangelo's minutes, which could hit the mid- to upper-20's, but someone to maybe hit that 20-21 minute range.
"If you look at Petro, and if he earns and gets that extra ice time in the mid-20's to high 20's, he's going to play with an array of players because that means he's going to be playing on both ends of the special teams," Armstrong said. "His partner 5-on-5 won't be his partner on special teams, won't be his partner on the penalty kill. The extra minutes he gets will be spread throughout extra guys.
"Like most upper echelon defensemen, their minutes come with an array of partners because they're touching every aspect of the game."
Colaiacovo, who averaged just over 18 minutes a game last season, would be a guy Pietrangelo certainly embraces.
"We have really good chemistry. We get along really well," Pietrangelo said. "Those things are what trends on the ice. We have great communication with each other, play the same style and know where each other is going to be at.
"We know how each other play. It's not like we just got here and it's our first year. We have some familiarity with each other. We've become really close. That certainly helps. It really helps to play with a guy that's got the experience like he does."