Lockout cuts NHL season down to 48 games; teams
ready to sprint to finish chasing Cup champ Kings
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Ready or not, time to drop the puck.
After grinding a month's worth of training camp into six days, the Blues open the abbreviated 48-game season today at 7 p.m. against the Detroit Red Wings at Scottrade Center.
The Blues, 49-22-11 a season ago, which was good for 109 points and a second place finish in the Western Conference, advanced to the conference semifinals and were promptly humbled in a four-game sweep by the Los Angeles Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
So for the Blues, picked by many to represent the Western Conference this season and who begin anew as the hunted rather than the hunters, wiping the slate clean and beginning a new chapter is wise according to coach Ken Hitchcock. Wiping the slate clean might be a good idea for all 30 teams considering how agonizing the near four-month lockout did to the league itself.
The Blues, who will start the season with six games in nine days at the outset, will not be taken for granted like in years past. But they can't dwell on what they did last season and expect a carryover.
"Gone ... rebuild it right from start," Hitchcock said. "But one thing we've got going is we didn't make a lot of changes. So assuming we're going to be able to just come and where we finished we're going to be able to start up is unrealistic because of where guys are at physically and mentally.
"We've got one new player, (Vladimir) Tarasenko, who isn't used to this group. Schwartzie (Jaden Schwartz) was in when it was on the line. (Ian) Cole was in when it was on the line. They're very familiar, so that's our advantage. Everybody's familiar with each other. There's no breaking in new guys, learning new systems."
The Blues will return the backbone of their team in goalies Jaroslav Halak -- who makes the start tonight -- and Brian Elliott. The two won the Jennings Trophy a season ago as the best goalie tandem. The defensive corps is relatively the same, aside from losing Carlo Colaiacovo (will face his former mates tonight with Detroit) and veteran Kent Huskins. Ian Cole steps in, and the team signed veteran Jeff Woywitka for depth. They agreed to a one-year contract with Wade Redden Friday to solidify the back-end, and no changes were really made up front aside from bringing in Tarasenko up front. The Blues have depth up front and most importantly, there's the familiarity up and down the lineup.
"I think we're in a real good spot, but what we do with it is up to us," said Hitchcock, the reigning NHL coach of the year who replaced Davis Payne 13 games into last season. "We're not making a lot of changes in our system. I think we've got a good way to play and we're just going to keep building on it. Hopefully we'll get going right away.
"We're just going to have to adjust every day and figure it out. As I told the players, it's got to be quality over quantity. If you were a 20-minute player and all you've got is 15, they've got to be 15 of your best and let us decide who's going to go on the ice and mop up the rest of the minutes."
The Blues, who were the stingiest team in the league, allowing 165 goals -- or 2.01 goals per game -- had a consistent group of 10-12 skaters in St. Louis working out during the lockout and another 10 players in Europe playing in various leagues, including Tarasenko in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
But as they returned to North America to take part in this abbreviated camp, there's one big challenge Hitchcock said all teams must face.
"The teams that get out of that summer mode the quickest are going to be successful," Hitchcock said. "It's going to be that adjustment that's going to have to be made.
"There isn't going to be perfect execution for the first few weeks. It's going to be a little bit chaotic but if you're creating the tempo and making the other team react, you're going to win a lot more than you're going to lose."
The Blues, who hope to benefit from another year's worth of experience from a group that began camp with an average age of 26.7, feel like they're good to go.
"We're ready," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who could push for the Norris Trophy this season after putting up 51 points a season ago. "Watching (Thursday night's scrimmage), the pace was up pretty good. Today the pace was up pretty good. We've been going up every day. ... I'm pretty impressed with how everybody's looking right now."
The Blues enter the season with a big target on their backs, something they haven't seen since the days of the early 2000's when they were regulars atop the Western Conference standings. But after much work to build things back up, it's a welcomed feeling.
"We want it," said winger David Perron, taking part in his first training camp in two years after missing last season's camp with a concussion. "That's what we've been working for the last few years to get to that point. Now we won't surprise anyone. That's what we wanted, so we've just got to get up to that challenge and work as hard as we can to get points early on in the season and get going right away."
Added veteran Jamie Langenbrunner, who was brought back on a one-year deal: "We know we're not going to get any free nights, any free games and that's good. That makes you better as a team. That's what you play for, to be that top team."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jaroslav Halak (41) gets the start tonight against
Detroit in the season opener.
It will be a sprint to the finish and not the marathon teams are accustomed to battling through. The opener is a starting point for the Blues, who have designs on bigger and brighter things as the schedule progresses.
"I hope it's not the finished product because we've got some work to do as far as getting better," Langenbrunner said. "All the teams are in the same boat. ... We're going to continue to work and continue to get better and continue to push each from within this group. We hope the finished product will be there come June. That's what we're working towards."
Added Hitchcock: "My job is after five or six or seven days is to make things as automatic as you can. I've got to get the team in a position where there's zero thinking and just a bunch of read and reacting.
"Assuming that we've got momentum from last year's playoffs, it's too far gone. To think like that would be really unrealistic and not really smart."
* NOTES -- Defenseman Taylor Chorney cleared waivers Friday and was returned to the AHL's Peoria Rivermen. ... Winger Chris Porter was placed on waivers Friday and will likely be returned to the Rivermen should he clear by 11 a.m. Saturday. Rookie Jaden Schwartz will make the opening night 23-man roster but was optioned to Peoria while the team awaited Porter's fate. "He's available for our selection," Hitchcock said Friday morning without disclosing any more information regarding Schwartz's status. ... With the signing of Redden, the Blues released defenseman Colin White from his pro tryout contract.
... Rosters had to be trimmed down to 23 players by 4 p.m. Friday, and Hitchcock wasn't forthcoming after practice exactly who will be here and who won't. Woywitka could be the odd-man out once Redden readies himself for NHL action.
"It's always tough at this time of year, but it's just the factual stuff that goes on," Hitchcock said. "To be honest with you, this is one day of the roster. I think the players that you saw play (in Thursday's scrimmage), that whole crew, that's the crew that's going to play games this year.
"Now how many each guy plays is going to be up to him, but I think everybody in the league, the way they've loaded up with extra players, knows that this is a 30-man roster you're about to go through and you better be ready for it. With that group that played yesterday that went back to Peoria and the group that was in today, that's going to be the group that we're going to draw players from."