Hitch talks roster; Porter perseveres; Gunnarsson
changes 'D' complexion; Mueller's contract terminated
ST. LOUIS -- A day after Blues general manager Doug Armstrong gave his thoughts on the Blues' 23-man roster, coach Ken Hitchcock offered up his comments on final cuts and those that were in it to the end on the eve of the 2014-15 season opener.
The Blues have a speed- and puck-oriented team moving into the new season filled with more high hopes, and more than anything, a deeper playoff push.
"There were some tough choices," Hitchcock said. "There was some really good play by young players and so they pushed right to the end. But the organization's philosophy is if they're not going to play immediately, then they want them playing in the minors, which as a coaching staff we fully support. Especially with (Dmitrij) Jaskin and (Petteri) Lindbohm, they're right on the edge of playing on a regular basis, and this gives them a chance to keep moving and playing a lot of big minutes, so they're fresh and ready to help us whenever we need them. ... We're very comfortable with the two young guys doing the right stuff and getting ready to help us down the line."
Jaskin expressed his disappointment to Armstrong Tuesday about having to go back to the American Hockey League and playing for the Chicago Wolves. Lindbohm, a 2012 sixth-round pick who came out of nowhere to get the attention of the organization with his strong prospects tournament and subsequent camp, was more than willing to play in the AHL instead of going back to Finland after the Blues expressed to the 21-year-old Helsinki, Finland native he's closer to being NHL-ready than not.
As for 2014 first round pick Robby Fabbri, he also performed to higher standards than expected. But Fabbri, 18, was assigned back to the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League after pushing to the brink for a roster spot. He injured his shoulder in the second-to-last preseason game against the Minnesota Wild and may have burst his bubble to an extent.
"That was a hard blow, kind of a wake-up call, you know," Hitchcock said of Fabbri. "It's hard playing in the league as an 18-year-old, especially just out of junior. So I think from a career standpoint, that's probably best for him. Although he really did push for a spot."
As for veteran defenseman and Kirkwood native Chris Butler, a slow start couldn't push him over the edge after a stronger finish.
Butler, 27, played all 82 games for the Calgary Flames last season but was not offered a contract and became an unrestricted free agent. When offers didn't come his way, he signed a one-year, two-way contract with his hometown team hoping for a spot on the NHL roster.
"I don't think Chris Butler had the start to camp that he wanted, but he certainly pushed hard at the end," Hitchcock said. "I thought his finish was really good. The start got him in a little bit of disarray there, but at the end he was pushing hard, too.
"I think Butler's was more two teams (the Blues and Flames) with different styles and philosophies and I think he got caught in between over-thinking. Then the reps at practice, the reps in games and the scrimmages and competition, I thought he really picked up the pace. We're comfortable with him as a depth player."
* Gunnarsson factor -- With defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (hip) shut down for at least the first two games, there was some optimism that he could be cleared to play at some point next week.
The Blues, who open at home with the New York Rangers on Thursday and Calgary Flames on Saturday, won't play again until Oct. 15 when they begin a three-game trip to the West Coast that takes them through Los Angeles, Arizona and Anaheim.
Gunnarsson, who Hitchcock said participated in his third straight day of contact drills Wednesday, could return as early as the game against the Kings, but in the meantime, the Blues have decided to open the season with Ian Cole paired with Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester partnered with Kevin Shattenkirk, leaving the veteran pair of Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold as the third unit.
With Gunnarsson's uncertainty at the outset, Hitchcock has decided to split up the reliable and durable top pair of Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, who played all last season together. But not necessarily in all situations.
"I think you're going to see Bouwmeester and Petro kill penalties together," Hitchcock said. "I think you're going to see a lot of that stuff. The one thing you might see less of is the hard match from Bouwmeester and Petro. We might be able to share that match a little bit.
"We just needed to find a way to include more people in having success and not have such a big gap of scoring chances for and against in our pairs, so we needed to equalize it a little bit more from a depth standpoint."
* Porter's perseverance pays off -- At this time last season, left wing Chris Porter was left to pick up his morale after he was told he would be sent to the Wolves in the AHL to begin the season after signing a two-year, $1.35 million contract.
It was a punch in the gut to the 30-year-old veteran beginning his sixth season, but Porter eventually worked his way back to St. Louis and played a prominent role for the team down the stretch on their way to a 111-point season.
"It's never easy being told you're going back to the minors, but at the same time, you can't go down there and sulk," said Porter, who had one assist in 22 regular season games last season and one goal and two assists in six playoff games. "There's somebody else that obviously wants to take your spot just as badly as you want it. I've been in that situation before. I kind of know how to handle myself. I'm glad they saw something in me again this year and giving me an opportunity. Hopefully I can make the most of it."
Porter, whose contract is a one-way deal, stuck to his guns and worked harder over the summer to make his spot stick, and the coaches and management rewarded him with one of 23 spots this year.
"I haven't had anything come easy so I've learned to deal with what you've been dealt," Porter said. "There's always a role for a player like myself on any team. It's just a matter of getting an opportunity and getting in there. I think last year in the playoffs, I showed them I'm an every day player. Hopefully at some point this year I can do the same. ... They know my game inside and out. Nothing changed this year coming into camp, just play the same game. I thought I was effective in the games that I played. Speaking to Hitch, I think they were happy with that."
Porter is one of two extra forwards, along with Magnus Paajarvi, but knows he'll eventually called upon.
"We have such a deep team," Porter said. "Everybody's going to needed to be used throughout the year. You've just got to stay ready and that's what I've been able to do. Mags is in the same situation."
* What a difference a year makes -- When the Blues drop the puck on their 48th season in franchise history, it'll be a team that comes with a different makeup that will try to push for greater goals.
The 2013-14 team was able to win 52 games and collect 111 points, but another first-round ouster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs brought forth changes.
Gone are defenseman Roman Polak (traded to Toronto for Gunnarsson), center Vladimir Sobotka (Kontinental Hockey League), goalie Ryan Miller (Vancouver), center Derek Roy (Nashville), left wing Brenden Morrow (Tampa Bay), right wing Adam Cracknell (Columbus) and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (free agent).
In are centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera, Gunnarsson and right wing Joakim Lindstrom, who give the Blues a speed element and puck movement capability they felt like was missing.
"We've got a real veteran team," said Hitchcock, whose opening night roster averages 27.5 years old. "This is a team that knows how to prepare itself, this is a team that's not going to cheat the game. Even the new players we've got, they're not young guys. They know how to play the game. We're not going to be overwhelmed by the stage.
"First of all, we couldn't get a better opponent (than the Rangers), other than it being Los Angeles. We couldn't get a better opponent to measure (against). We're going to have a list of things we need to get better with after Game 1 and a list of things probably that we're happy with. But I just think we're a veteran team that has a lot of depth and I think our depth is something that we're going to have to use every day to win games. I don't know that the 'Wow' factor is going to be there against us, but I think we have a lot of substance in our lineup. We've got a lot of credible players who know how to play the game the right way and I think that's going to help us hopefully win a lot of close games this year."
* Blues terminate Mueller's contract -- After clearing unconditional waivers Wednesday, the Blues terminated forward Peter Mueller's contract.
Mueller, who signed a one-year, two-way contract ($700,000 NHL/$250,000 AHL) over the summer, chose not to report to the Wolves after he cleared waivers and was assigned there on Sunday.
Armstrong said he was going to talk to Mueller once more on Wednesday but the 26-year-old first round pick in 2006 decided to pursue other options in Europe.
Mueller played in Switzerland last season.