Tuesday, January 8, 2013

European experience helpful for Blues skaters

Players who skated overseas can jump
right into grind when NHL season begins

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- For those Blues players that got to experience firsthand the taste of what European hockey was all about, even though it was worthwhile, they're glad to be home.

Not because the experience in Finland, Sweden, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic or wherever any of the skaters were was bad, but ultimately, it was about getting back to North America and playing in the National Hockey League.

It meant the lockout was done.

"Feels good. Good to see the boys again," said defenseman Kris Russell, who spent an extended time in Finland playing for TPS Turku. "You can tell the anticipation, the excitement is already here. Guys are eager to get going.

"A lot of guys have been working hard. It's a fun time for us now. There's a lot of work that comes into it now. We've got to jam a lot of days into it before we get started."

For Russell and Kevin Shattenkirk (Finland), Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Polak (Czech Republic), Chris Stewart and Matt D'Agostini (Germany), Vladamir Tarasenko (Russia) and even the one game played by Jaroslav Halak in Germany, when camp finally does open up, these guys will have games under their belts unlike their teammates, who haven't played in a competitive game since May.

An advantage? Perhaps. But for those that stayed here, workouts were pretty competitive.

"I think it helps, but I think the guys here have been working just as hard on the ice," Russell said. "Maybe in a few game situations we might pick up a little faster, but this (the NHL) is getting to another level, it's a different speed. It's the best league in the world for a reason. I'm looking forward to putting the work in and having a good year."

Added Stewart: "I think going over and playing definitely helped us. ... I think they can lean on us. We all played 23-24 games over there this year and I'm ready go to. I think it's benefited me going over there and playing the two-and-a-half months that I did. That was the biggest focus. There's only one way to get into game shape and that's playing games. I got the opportunity to go over there and got to play with one of my best friends in Wayne Simmonds (Philadelphia Flyers) and it was a good experience."

D'Agostini, who began workouts here but ultimately went overseas, said it provided players a good way to stay in shape and be ready at any time the NHL resumed.

"I really did feel it was beneficial," he said. "It was a good schedule down there, practicing twice a day sometimes. I kept myself in good shape. ... it was a good experience. I've never had an extended stay in Europe before, so it was fun. It was good hockey down there.

"It was a different kind of a game with the bigger ice. Any time you change the ice surface like that, the game's going to change. It's not as much pressure forechecking, more of a possession-type of a game. It was different getting used to it, but I had a blast."

A cultural difference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience these players will never forget. But playing games is what some of them needed most, and those that didn't have any family ties could easily pick up and go.

"I wanted to play games. It's a different situation," Russell said. "I don't have a family or I don't have any kids, so it's a lot easier for me to just pick up and go and play hockey and not have much to worry about. I thought it was best for me personally. I chose to go and I was fortunate that I got to play in Finland for a great organization, a great group of guys and it was a lot of fun."

Said Stewart: "For me personally, I just think I needed to play. I worked so hard over the summer. After the way I ended last year, I wanted to be ready to go when we did get the call to come back. That's the reason I went over."

Stewart, Russell, D'Agostini and Chris Porter joined teammates in Tuesday's informal workouts. Porter, like many teammates including David Backes, Andy McDonald, T.J. Oshie, Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol who stayed back in St. Louis, also stayed back in Minnesota.

Porter was training in Minneapolis with what he said was "30-35 guys" on a consistent basis, including several Minnesota Wild players. Working out here was something that didn't provide the game action players craved but beneficial nonetheless.

"You train like there is going to be a season," Porter said. "Obviously disappointed when they came to meet and nothing would get done. Guys have ramped it up and are in good shape with the season right around the corner. I definitely tried to do some of that (play in Europe). I don't think the right opportunity ever arose, but in Minneapolis, we had 30-35 guys skating every day. We tried to make it as game-like as possible every day. I think it was beneficial with some time off to stay here. We'll see in the long run, but I know it was a good time off.

"Those guys will definitely have an advantage as far as the bumping and grinding of a 60-minute game. So you look to them, lean on them a little bit to get us in shape. But I think most guys dedicated themselves well enough to being in the best shape they could be in coming into camp. I don't think that'll be an issue."

With the Blues chomping at the bit to pick up the pieces from a second-round sweep at the hands of Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, whether guys played in Europe or guys worked out on their own, they all will have one common denominator.

"I don't think we need much," Russell said. "We've had quite a few days to think about what we're going to do this year. It's work time. We owe it to our fans. I think we owe it to ourselves and our teammates to get ready for this camp and be ready to go as soon as that puck drops.

"I thought we had a pretty good season last year. Guys were excited to get into the playoffs, but now we really want to make some noise. We want to be a team that competes every year. This is where it starts."

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