Lehtera, Bortuzzo to make preseason debuts against
Blackhawks; kids, PTO's making roster cuts tough; Thursday lineup
ST. LOUIS -- Center Jori Lehtera and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo will make their debuts when the Blues play their final preseason game Thursday.
When the Chicago Blackhawks visit Scottrade Center for a 7 p.m. drop of the puck (KMOX 1120-AM), Lehtera (ankle) and Bortuzzo (lower body) will get their first and only test, respectively, before the opening of the regular season Oct. 8.
Coach Ken Hitchcock was asked if one preseason game would be sufficient enough to convince him both would be ready and available against the Edmonton Oilers.
"We have no choice," Hitchcock said. "I'm not sure where Bortuzzo's at, but Lehtera, he's been skating for three weeks now. He's been skating for almost 10 days with us. He looks more than ready. There's going to be some rust and there's going to be some situations where you're going to have to get through, but he looks more than ready right now."
Lehtera had right ankle surgery Aug. 4 to remove a bone chip.
"It's going to take time. I don't know how long," Lehtera said. "... When I started 13 days ago skating after six months, it's been a good 13 days. Happy about that. I've felt better every day skating, stick-handling, everything.
"I'm pretty sure tomorrow's not going to be easy for me, but it's a start."
Bortuzzo, who missed the Western Conference First Round against the Minnesota Wild with a shoulder injury, has skated in the majority of the practices during training camp this season but the team has been cautious with the lower-body injury that's been hampering him.
"I'm looking forward to it," Bortuzzo said. "It's been a frustrating couple weeks not being able to be out there, but I feel good and it's an exciting time when you can join your team, especially after a long haul off here."
Hitchcock said Bortuzzo just needs to play a smart game.
"We'd like him to play with an edge but within himself," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "He's wanting to do a lot at practice, he's a dangerous guy because he's so physical and he can't help himself sometimes. We'd like to basically turn him loose tomorrow and just let him play and see how he's doing, see how he feels and see how he looks out there. Playing tomorrow is a little bit like trying to catch a moving bus. It's not exactly a team you want to walk into and have to play your first exhibition game against. It is what it is and he'll be excited, he'll be physical and he's going to catch a few people hopefully."
* Cuts looming -- The Blues have 32 healthy players in camp and three more that are sidelined with injuries.
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (groin pull) is the latest to join Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Dmitrii Sergeev (undisclosed).
But before those next set of roster cuts, which will likely occur before the Blues face the Blackhawks and then jet off immediately afterward to their annual team bonding trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., the Blues continue to agonize whether defensemen Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko, the biggest surprises of camp, can make the team out of training camp.
"Because of the push of the younger players, we've extended the evaluation process because you get that many young players pushing for work, it's a nice problem to have, but it creates a little bit of a problem," Hitchcock said. "I was looking at other teams, they're down to five lines and eight 'D' and two goalies and we're still sitting here at 33 people. We've got some further decisions, we've got some final decisions to make tomorrow before we decide what we're going to take to Ann Arbor, but we have some difficult decisions to make now.
"If you're keeping the players around, they are legit. That's what we're doing. We're continuing to look at the same people, so we've kept those younger players in the lineup because we want a further assessment of them. They're pushing for work, they've earned the right to compete for jobs and now we're trying to get an evaluation so every game they they against elite competition, which is what Dallas did and then what Chicago's going to do tomorrow, man, it gives us a real opportunity to look at whether they're ready or whether they're not ready."
Both Edmundson and Parayko have not fallen off, and it's become quite the quagmire on the blue line.
"The injuries to Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson ... it opened the door, and those three kids took advantage of it," said Hitchcock, also including Petteri Lindbohm in that equation. "That's the bottom line. They really did take advantage of it, it opened the door, they got extended play time and then they played very well and we continued to put them in and they didn't drop. We're looking for them to drop and they haven't; they've gone the other way. Eventually after a while, you're just going to have to make the decision that they're ready to play and decide how you're going to build your team from there. Man, they've made a good account of themselves."
* Fabbri making his case -- Forward Robby Fabbri can also be included in that mix with Edmundson, Parayko and Lindbohm. The 2014 first-round pick has made another favorable impression and is on the cusp of at least giving himself a nine-game trial, if not making the NHL roster permanently at 19.
"Once you start getting into a routine here, you start getting used to it," said Fabbri, who picked up his second assist in three games at Dallas Tuesday. "I think playing my fourth game tomorrow and four in Traverse, I think it's good to get into that season shape and be ready for anything that comes up after this. Just take tomorrow as any other game and try and earn another day.
"I'm going out there every day in practice and games just trying to work my hardest and show them that I'm not getting run down and I can handle this next level. ... Funny to say, but playing with such great players, they sort of make the game a little easier with guys talking to you, passes on the tape and the speed and all that. From that aspect, it's a little bit different. Obviously the strength and the structure of the game and the speed are a lot more advanced than the OHL."
Edmundson, who has two goals and an assist in the preseason and Parayko, who is tied with Kevin Shattenkirk with four assists, have experience playing professionally. Fabbri came onto the scene late last season at the American Hockey League level but has only his experience with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League.
"They're kids, but they're not 20 years old or whatever," Hitchcock said. "They're 22, 23 years old, so they've had some experience here. This is Edmundson's second year of pro, LIndbohm's played three years now against professional players, a guy like Parayko was 22 when he came out of college. These are older guys, so maturity-wise, they're not overwhelmed by what's going on.
"Fabbri, he's in a different state because he's 19 years old; he's three years younger than these guys. He's having to learn on the go here with a little bit steeper learning curve to be honest with you."
There was some talk that perhaps Fabbri would get a break from playing Thursday, since he played four games with the prospects in Traverse City, Mich. and another three preseason games, but that's not the case.
"Yesterday was the first drop for him a little bit. He was tired," Hitchcock said of Fabbri. "So we wanted to not keep him too long on the ice today, get him off the ice, get him some rest and see what the energy's like tomorrow. Yesterday for the first time, he looked a little bit tired. So hopefully, we'll give him a long day here, take a break and then get ready for tomorrow."
* Upshall, Gomez taking it to the limit -- Veterans Scottie Upshall and Scott Gomez will get at least one last look before the Blues decide what to do with the two, who are in camp on professional tryouts.
Upshall scored his first goal in a 4-1 victory at Dallas on Tuesday, and Gomez had an assist on Troy Brouwer's third-period goal.
"There's been a lot of PTO's let go. There's been a lot of guys released. These two guys are still here because they've earned the right to stay here," Hitchcock said. "And yes, they are on one-game evaluations every time, but they do something to keep themselves going, so they've earned the right to go right to the end here and then we'll have to make a call here in the next four, five days on both guys, but they've earned the right to keep going. You look at every day, there are transactions that have been littered with or released from their PTO's. We've got two guys that have hung in there; good for them. There was an opening, they took advantage of it, they've lasted this long. I think they'd like to keep going. We're putting them in the last game tomorrow to evaluate them even further and we'll have a look."
* Lineup vs. Blackhawks -- The Blues, who are 3-2 in preseason play, will roll out the following lineup Thursday:
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Troy Brouwer
Robby Fabbri-David Backes-Dmitrij Jaskin
Steve Ott-Scott Gomez-Ty Rattie
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Petteri Lindbohm-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start and play the entire game in goal. Pheonix Copley will be the backup.