Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blues open camp, ready to make tough decisions

Sixty players fill 2014-15 camp roster, with 
many seasoned NHL players looking for jobs

ST. LOUIS -- When Ivan Barbashev stepped onto the Scottrade Center ice for the first time Friday, the signaling of training camp officially opening brought about a bit of an overwhelming feeling.

Being put on a line with seasoned veterans David Backes and T.J. Oshie, one being a captain and the other an assistant, respectively, can bring about all sorts of feelings for any 18-year-old.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Two of the newcomers at camp Friday were Paul Stastny (left) and Chris
Butler (right).

"It's pretty good for me," said Barbashev, who was drafted in the second round this past summer at the NHL Draft. "It's great to play with them. I was watching them for the last five, 10 years and they're (some) of the best players in the NHL. It's pretty awesome to be on a line with them.

"Probably the first 15 minutes, I was kind of nervous. You're playing with the top players in the NHL. I was just trying to keep going and try to do what they were doing. It was probably a hard practice for me with the new drills and all that stuff. I thought it was a little bit different, but it's a good start for everyone here.  ... I just need a couple practices and after that, I'll catch everything. I'll be OK."

Needless to say, Backes and Oshie have been there, done that when it comes to this training camp routine, but as the 30-year-old Backes said, "If you would have put me out here at 18, I probably would have been cowering in a corner. 

"Props to those young kids that step in and are playing with two regulars," Backes added. "They're holding their own, and that's pretty impressive. Day One, I'm sure there's nerves. Day Two, expecting them to be even better. I don't know if that's the lines for the games, but hopefully gets that sort of opportunity and put a few in the preseason to get some confidence.

"... I wish I had some great revelation for you, but truth is ... a few new faces out there, but getting our there, getting some work in, getting a sweat in. Day One's in the books. One more day of practice and we're into the preseason games already. Quick learning curve, but we've got a lot of returning faces, we've got a lot of guys that can play the game and we'll see starting Sunday how that works out."

Barbashev and Backes were part of the first group that opened camp Friday afternoon in front of a large contingency of season ticket holders at Scottrade Center. The Blues have 60 total players on their camp roster, if which 57 participated on Friday (defensemen Joel Edmundson and Jani Hakanpaa are nursing injuries and forward Jaden Schwartz was a no-show due to a contract impasse with the team). 

"With 60 guys, it's hard to evaluate anybody," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "The veterans stand out like crazy because they know the drills and they know the tempo and they set the tone. Then it's who can keep up and hang on. ... I think the guys that you're more focused on are the knocking-on-the-door guys, the guys that are in the American (Hockey) League.  Last year or new players like a (Joakim) Lindstrom or a (Peter) Mueller, these guys that are trying to make the hockey club, guys that you don't know ... that's the glances that I got. But man, it's hard to watch when you're doing two-a-days and you're running all those drills. I just though the tempo with the first group's higher than the second group  because the second group had to sit around all day. Their tempo wasn't as high, but it'll be more equal footing tomorrow with the starting two hours earlier and stuff.

"We did a real progression teaching day (Friday). We started with no resistance to full resistance in every series that we worked on. (Today) will be way harder because (today) will be a lot of checking and a lot of defending, one-on-one's and stuff like that. You're going to get a better read (today) on the compete level of guys. (Friday) was how-fast-can-you-think day. That's why for me the veterans and a couple guys that played, especially in Europe, they stood out because they can really think. It really showed itself (Friday). ... Some of those young guys, they just absolutely looked overwhelmed at times with the information coming at them and the tempo coming at them at the same time."

Besides Barbashev, Ty Rattie (second round pick in 2011) got a taste with seasoned pros in Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny, who came to the Blues as an unrestricted free agent from the Colorado Avalanche. Robby Fabbri, the Blues' first round pick this past summer, skated with Patrik Berglund and Steve Ott.

"First day of camp, everybody's kind of been itching to get back going,"  said Steen, who led the Blues with 33 goals and 62 points last season. "A couple weeks before camp, you're just waiting for it to start up. It's good to get going.

"It's a work in progress and we just try to get better every day. You look at our roster and you see the depth that we have. It's going to be a good, tough, competitive camp."

Included in that depth was a newly formed line of Mueller, Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko. Mueller is one of the veterans that is trying to state his case for making the roster out of camp (Mueller signed a one-year, two-way contract) and Lehtera, who joined the Blues after leaving Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

"It was good, two times ... 45 minutes," Lehtera said of his first official day. "It was good speed. I was a little bit bad, but I thought it became better.

"It was good to have good speed now, short drills. It was good. I think I'm ready."

The Blues, after adding tough guy Paul Bissonnette to the camp roster as a tryout invitee, did so again Friday with a familiar face in defenseman Ryan Whitney.

Whitney, who was also in camp last season, is back for a second stint as a non-roster invitee. He performed well, according to Hitchcock, last season before being let go. The Florida Panthers signed Whitney to a one-year contract, but he's looking for a job again.

"First of all, we like him, and with the question marks in Edmundson and Hakanpaa today, we just don't want to get caught short anywhere," Hitchcock said Friday. "We've got three defensemen (Carl Gunnarsson, Edmundson and Hakanpaa) who didn't practice full time today and we like 'Whit.' We liked the way he played last year. We certainly didn't anticipate him getting picked up going through waivers. He had a really good camp with us last year. He knows us, we know him and hopefully he can either help us depending on how this thing materializes or we can help him again."

Gunnarsson, acquired in a draft day trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs that cost the Blues Roman Polak, skated for 45 minutes of conditioning before taking part in 30 minutes of drills. Gunnarsson is on the mend from off-season hip surgery.

Hitchcock also said that Edmundson, a 2011 second-round pick, reinjured his back and he's not sure when Edmundson will be ready. Hakanpaa, who suffered a hand injury at the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., has a thumb injury and will miss at least the next 3-4 days.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Coach Ken Hitchcock, offering instructions Friday at training camp, begins
his third full season (fourth overall) guiding the Blues. 

The Blues will practice today with two sessions from 1-3 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. at Scottrade Center. Both sessions are free and open to the public. There will also be morning practice sessions Sunday before the first preseason game Sunday in Columbus.

"The first four games (are) evaluations; the next three, we're picking our team," Hitchcock said. "But I don't know how you can evaluate skill players ... all those guys are skill players, really good skill players. I don't know how you can evaluate them without playing them with a top player so they're all going to get a crack playing with top players."

The first day is in the books, and the Blues are off and running ... or skating, with a business-like attitude.

"Great spirited practice," Backes said. "Breaking the ice in, breaking the legs in, good day.

"I think we've learned to tune that (prediction) stuff out. The pundits are going to do their thing. We need to do our thing, and that's win games and get better every day. This was the first step in that process."

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