College signees ready to learn on the fly the ropes
of being pros while Blues are in the thick of playoff chase
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- For forward Nolan Stevens, it's okay to be a sponge.
What does that mean, you ask? Well, Stevens, the Blues' fifth round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft who signed a two-year entry-level contract on Sunday night, joined the Blues along with free agent defenseman Mitch Reinke out of Michigan Tech. Both were on the practice ice in a highly limited optional skate on Wednesday at the Ice Zone.
|(Northeastern University photo)|
Nolan Stevens, who signed with the Blues on Sunday, just
completed his senior season at Northeastern.
Being a sponge will require a heavy amount of absorption of information and everything there is to being a professional hockey player. So Stevens, and likely Reinke -- although he is now the seventh defenseman and could get pressed into action at some point depending on injuries during the final six regular season games, will get a heavy dose of video sessions, listening and learning on the fly.
And where did Stevens, who finished his four-year college career last Saturday at Northeastern University, get the advice of being a sponge?
Of course, his hockey-coaching dad, Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens.
"Obviously he's really proud and his advice is this is a veteran team. Great staff and great organization so he just said, 'Take this time to learn as much as possible and just be a sponge,'" Stevens said of his dad. "That's all I've been trying to do is be a sponge and learn as much as you can.
"... It's been a great experience so far. All the guys and the staff are helping me learn as much as possible. It's been awesome."
The advice Stevens got from his dad probably is limited in a sense that Nolan and the Blues are in a fight with dad and the Kings for one of the remaining Western Conference playoff berths on the line.
"It's funny how small the hockey world is and just how ironic it is," Nolan Stevens said. "The Blues are fighting with the Kings, but that's just how hockey works. It's just a small world."
But don't worry Nolan, dad knows the Blues now sign your paychecks.
"Yeah," Nolan said laughing. "He for sure knows that. It's a fun little family rivalry now."
Stevens, 21, who's listed as 6-foot-3, 187 pounds, is coming off a 42-point season (24 goals, 18 assists) with the Huskies, who reached the Elite Eight at the NCAA Tournament, losing to Michigan 3-2 one step away from the Frozen Four.
But Stevens, along with linemates Dylan Sikura (Chicago Blackhawks) and Adam Gaudette (Vancouver Canucks) received notable attention this season for their play.
Stevens, who attended prospects' camp last summer, took considerable strides his senior season and instead of heading to the American Hockey League, the Blues have him up with the big club learning on the fly.
"I tried to take a step in my game every year and I thought we had goals at the beginning of the year, team goals we wanted to accomplish and we accomplished a few," Stevens said. "We got an NCAA Tournament bid and won a Beanpot. We finished in a good spot in our league. That's where I gauge my success, how our team does and I thought it was a good season.
"... (The Blues) did a really good job of letting me focus on my season. Once that was over, focus on the next step in my career, so I didn't really have a lot of time in my year to think about where I was going to be. I definitely didn't expect to be here right away. I'm just happy for the opportunity to be around these guys."
While Stevens was a Blues product, the road to St. Louis was a bit different for Reinke, 22, who left Michigan Tech after two seasons with the Huskies and was an undrafted free agent.
Reinke didn't want to talk about the other teams that showed interest in the 5-11, 181-pound d-man out of Stillwater, Minn., he said the Blues showed the most interest and that the decision to leave school wasn't easy.
"It's been really exciting," Reinke said. "Really busy, a lot of phone calls, but overall, it's just been a lot of excitement but really happy to be here and looking to get things going here. ... I knew there would be some things happening toward the end of the year. To be here, I don't know if I was expecting it, but I'm really happy to be here and looking to make the most of the opportunity.
"If I was going to leave school, I knew it had to be the right fit. They just had a lot of interest all year, a lot of opportunity with St. Louis, and I was really happy with the meetings I had with Mr. [Doug] Armstrong and some of the other management. That was the biggest thing."
Michigan Tech, also the Huskies, fell 4-3 to Notre Dame in the East Regional semifinals in Reinke's second season in which he finished with 24 points (three goals, 21 assists) in 35 games and made Reinke's decision tough.
"It was a stressful," said Reinke, who also spent two seasons with the United States Hockey League's Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. "I learned Friday night right when the game was over (against Notre Dame). I wouldn't say it was easy. It's always tough to leave. I was really close with my team. I know that they would want me back but in the end, you have to look after yourself and when I made the decision, they were all really happy for me. That support means the world to me so I'm thankful for that."
Stevens, who will wear No. 51, and Reinke, who will wear No. 39, skated with a handful of skaters today, and coach Mike Yeo even came out for a peek.
The Blues (43-28-5) are in the thick of the playoff chase, but Yeo and the coaching staff will do all they can to incorporate the team's new additions in as smoothly as possible.
"That's going to be a challenge on their part," Yeo said. "It's not going to affect the rest of the group but for them to get up to speed, it starts with some video work today, then we'll get a look at them in practice. From there, it's a maintenance thing on our part to make sure they're using the games as far as learning opportunities. Maybe you sit up top, maybe you pick one specific player, maybe they sit with the coaches and learn some things there. In general, it's not an easy thing to do for them, but I'd hate to say it, but the focus is on our group and that next game in Vegas."
The likelihood of either playing a game this season is remote, so being sponges it is, and that's OK.
"I just try to look at everyone's routines and everyone's such a good pro here and how they go about their business," Stevens said. "It's pretty cool to see how they handle themselves and how they work on the ice. A short little skate today, but those guys that were out there with me today have such great habits and I had such a good time on the ice. There's already a lot to take in."
|(Michigan Tech University photo)|
Mitch Reinke, who signed with the Blues on Sunday, left school after his
sophomore season to join St. Louis in time for the stretch run.
"I'm just looking to come in and learn a lot and make a good impression," Reinke said. "It's kind of out of my hands if I'm going to play or not. I'm just going to do the best I can and hopefully make the most of my opportunity.
"In my opinion, I've always been the underdog in my hockey career. I've always been really small, sometimes overlooked, but it's never really fazed me. I think I just try to go out there and prove the player I am. When you're undersized, you have to prove yourself, you don't get the opportunity right away. It's nothing new for me. That's kind of where I'm at. (Being the underdog) has its benefits. A lot of people like to hear their name called but it's no big deal for me, in the end I got to pick that I come to the Blues, and play for St. Louis hopefully. I'm here now and that's what's most important."