Friday, October 2, 2015

Bonding trip more than just about team unity

Blues using time in Ann Arbor, Mich. to make tough roster decisions

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' team bonding trip to Ann Arbor, Mich. is going to give the team plenty of opportunity to do just what it's intended to do, have players form that team bond.

But it's not going to be all fun and games.

With some roster decisions that are apparently becoming excruciating for management and coaches to make, the next four days training at the University of Michigan will give the team a good read on where it is and where it needs to be within the next few days before finalizing the 23-man roster, which needs to be set by 4 p.m. (CT) Tuesday.

The Blues whittled that roster down to 27 players after assigning forward Jordan Caron and goalie Pheonix Copley to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Have Blues prospects Colton Parayko (55) and Robby Fabbri (15) done
enough to earn spots on the opening night roster? 

"They're going to have some tough calls," said goalie Jake Allen after the Blues' 5-2 victory in the final preseason game Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks. "I'm glad I'm not the one making the calls because it's going to be tough to do.

"Guys played well, guys earned the opportunity to play in this camp and hopefully keep going with us in the next few days. Whenever those roster cuts may be, we'll figure that out and go from there. I'm really impressed by a lot of the guys that came in here that I have never really been familiar with. It's been great to see as an organization for me personally."

When camp began, it would have been hard-pressed to imagine the ascensions of defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson (2011 second-round pick), but here they are, fighting for roster spots. 

Forward Robby Fabbri has made a second favorable impression in camp, and the one of the biggest reasons he wasn't looked at with a nine-game trial last season was he was injured towards the end of preseason. But here is the 2014 first-round pick again giving the Blues something to think about.

"I think they've all done what they do. We've given them that opportunity, we shut out some guys early in camp to take a long look at these guys, and they've given us that opportunity based on their play," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "When you practice with the group that we're going to practice with (starting Friday), that's going to be quite a tempo; five lines, eight or nine 'D's at that tempo is going to be a real challenge for some of these younger guys, and the next step is when they get into games, they've got to continue to improve. In the last couple games, some of them dipped a little bit, some of them came on a little bit, but we're down to (27) guys. They've warranted to stay right to the bitter end here, so we'll see how they look in practice; that's the next step, and then we'll see if they get a chance to play in all the games."

Parayko, a 2012 third-round pick who finished with the most assists (six) for the Blues and was tied for the NHL lead after Thursday, has grown rapidly -- literally -- with his size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) and his play throughout camp. Every situation the Blues have put him in, he's thrived.

"I'm a little nervous. It's completely out of my control," Parayko said. "I'm just going to look forward to this trip and keep working hard throughout the trip and come back and do whatever role I get placed in.

"Everyone I've played with has been great. Everyone's been helping me a lot. They've brought me in really well and I can't thank them enough for doing that. ... It's obviously a good feeling. It's something that shows they're able to trust me, which is good. It makes you just want to keep pushing harder to keep moving forward."

Veteran forwards Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall, brought in on professional tryouts, have hung in until the very end. The difference is they are fighting for a contract.

"I want to see these guys for the next four or five days to see what it's like when the temperature of the practice goes up," Hitchcock said. "... The players that have come in to us have made a positive impression. Young guys, guys we traded for, they've made a positive impression. They're here to play, they're here to contribute. 

"I think the next step is on the existing players and the coaches. I look at the guys we traded (for), they've had good preseasons. I look at the young kids that are either here from junior or from the Wolves, they've made good impressions, they've hung right in there. Now it's up to the veteran players who were here in the last three or four years to really move this train forward. It's on us, and I think the attitude toward the next four practices, I think our attention to detail ... I get the fact that exhibition games are exhibition games and you could see in some of the last two games where guys were playing not to get hurt. I get that. Now it's for business. Now it's for real. I think we're going to get a really good read on our veteran players starting in practice (Friday). We have a real good opportunity here. We've been augmented with some real additions here, some guys that can really enhance our program. Now it's up to us and grab it."

There's also the plights of forward Magnus Paajarvi, who cleared waivers along with defenseman Chris Butler on Thursday; there's also right wing Ty Rattie to consider. These are all things that must be taken into consideration, along with the statuses of defensemen Carl Gunnarsson (groin pull) and Robert Bortuzzo (lower body), who Hitchcock was impressed with in his first preseason game along with that of center Jori Lehtera.

Defenseman Petteri Lindbohm, thought for much of the off-season to have a spot locked up in the third defensive pairing, must continue to prove himself after being the surprise -- along with Fabbri -- of training camp last season. 

But what ultimately these decisions will boil down to may have to come from a salary cap issue (the Blues are up close to the salary cap ceiling) and according to Hitchcock, "Style of play," he said. 

"We're in the middle of adapting to a different style of play," Hitchcock said. "I've said that to you for three months now, and those that can play the style, probably will get in the lineup and we'll run with that. But we feel like we've got to change our style a little bit and see if we can make ourselves better. The guys that can adapt and play are going to get into the lineup and continue to play."

And then there's the play of the goalies, Allen and Brian Elliott. Both played well in the preseason games they saw, and both will at the outset, according to Hitchcock, get to play.

If there's a final choice to be made as to who "the guy" will be, it won't come until at least the end of the month.

"It doesn't matter because somebody's got to play Game 1, and whoever doesn't play Game 1, somebody's going to play two or three," Hitchcock said. "I'm not going to really dig in on this thing until the end of October. I'm going to have a real good read. If you see our schedule with the road games and the significant opponents at the end of the month, we're going to have a real good read by the end of October, and then that's the first time I'll start making some comments, but until then, both guys are going to play."