By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Being the focal acquisition on what was a busy summer for the Blues, center Ryan O'Reilly is eager to begin his Blues career.
And it all gets going tonight.
The Blues open the 2018-19 season against the talented Winnipeg Jets (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), and O'Reilly, acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres on July 1 for Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick, will open on a line with homegrown Pat Maroon and Vladimir Tarasenko.
"I think it's going to be great out there," O'Reilly said. "I think the atmosphere is going to be awesome. You can tell there's a buzz in the city about us. For myself, it's time to go to work and make an impact. It's going to be good. We've got a great test tonight, it's a great team we're playing and I'm just excited. It's been a long summer of waiting to get to this game and start something really special."
Playing against the Jets, who lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference Final, will be a challenge.
The Jets and Nashville Predators are the consensus picks to reign in the Central Division, but the Blues have the chance right from the outset to prove they belong in the conversation.
"We can be right there with them," O'Reilly said. "I can see us beating this team; I expect to. We have a really good group in here. There's no reason why we can't out-compete these guys and outplay these guys and have an expectation for us."
Blues coach Mike Yeo, 5-0-1 in season openers with the Blues and Minnesota Wild, has new additions Tyler Bozak, David Perron (in his third stint with the Blues) and Maroon along with O'Reilly to work with as a new crop of forwards.
Rookies Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou will make their NHL debuts and Sammy Blais and Jordan Schmaltz will make their first opening night appearances in the NHL.
"As ready as we can be," Yeo said regarding opening the season. "There's always nerves and excitement and lots of emotion, but it's always a really exciting time when you come to the rink. Training camp's been long, guys have put a lot of work in, and we're excited to get going for rule here.
"... I look at our division and it's hard to find a weak link right now and it's hard to say who's at the top just because the teams are so strong. You look at the team we're facing tonight with the Winnipeg Jets and rightfully so, many people are picking them to be there at the end of the season. They've got big, heavy defensemen who can move and get up the ice and then they've got as much skill as anybody right from the top of their lineup through to their bottom. It's a good test for us and it seems like night after night you get faced with another test like that."
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When Thomas and Blais step onto the ice, both will don new numbers.
Thomas wore No. 36 and Blais wore No. 64 but those have been traded in for No. 18 for Thomas and No. 9 for Blais.
"There wasn't really too many options there," said Thomas, who wore No. 27 in Hamilton last season. "I always wore (No.) 9 and 27 growing up, so I just kind of picked something in the middle of it.
"I thought 18 suited me a little better than 36, so I decided to switch."
Blais is the elder of the two and had first dibs on No. 9.
"I've always had when I was younger No. 9 as my number," Blais said. "I like 19 a lot, but 'Bouw' [Jay Bouwmeester] got it, so I always liked 9 or 19. Just decided to switch it up and finally have a good number.
"I think I had the first choice, so I took No. 9, but I think [Thomas] looks good with No. 18. I just decided to take No. 9 because it was open."
Said Thomas: "He had already asked for it before; he had wore 9 growing up, so it was all his."
Thomas said his parents will be in town for the game tonight and Saturday against Chicago; Blais said his parents, brother and a few friends will be here for both games but not his sister, who's in school, and Kyrou said his parents, brother and sister will all be here for the two games.
"It's pretty exciting," Thomas said. "It feels a lot different in the room from preseason games to where we're at now. Just being around, I know all the guys are really excited to get going. It's just an exciting time."
"I'm really excited," said Blais, who needed eight tickets. "It's my first opening game and looking forward to it. My family is going to be in town and it's going to be nice for us. I'm going to be nervous before the game, but I think it's going to go good."
Kyrou kept his No. 33 he's wore throughout camp: "No. 33 kind of grew on me over camp, so I thought I'd stick with that."
Kyrou will play with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn, and Blais and Thomas will account for two-thirds of the fourth line with Ivan Barbashev, giving it an all-kid line feel.
"I think coming in here, it probably helps to have somebody besides you who went through the same thing as you," Yeo said. "That said, when we drop the puck tonight, when they're standing out there at center ice and they're making the introductions, they're going to be nervous. You're nervous for your first NHL game, it doesn't matter who you are. But these guys are on our team because there's something special about players like this. When there's a big moment, when the nerves are there, the emotions are there, these guys find a way to perform at those moments and so I expect all three off them to come in and have good games tonight, be excited about the games and not just trying to get through it but making a difference as well."
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Schmaltz and Chris Butler will make up the Blues' third d-pairing tonight with Joel Edmundson (groin) and Robert Bortuzzo (serving the last of a three-game suspension) out of the lineup.
"Come in and play," Yeo said of the pair. "They earned the right to be in the lineup tonight, they both had good camps, we're dealing with two guys, both have decent amounts of experience and 'Schmaltzy', he doesn't have a ton, he's had enough, one he's played against this team, two he's played games in the league. And then 'Buttsie' has played a longtime in the league, you can see he doesn't get too rattled playing against any form of competition in the NHL. Come in and play aggressive and play confident."
Schmaltz was likely to make the opening night roster anyway because of his improved play and fear of losing him on waivers.
"The biggest thing for him, we know he moves the puck, it's an aggressiveness," Yeo said of Schmaltz. "When he has that aggressiveness on the ice, and I'm not referring necessarily to the offensive side of things, we saw that, he has those instincts, we saw that in Washington, when he got up ice and scored the short-handed goal. It's more so on the defensive side of things. When he has the aggressiveness to have a tight gap, to not just be in position and get beat one on one, to create a turnover by having a good gap and not giving up the blue line, or in D zone coverage, not just being in a safe position and being on the inside of your guy, but getting into the corner hard, separating him from the puck, and not forcing yourself to spend 30 seconds in your defensive zone, that's the area he's doing it more than he used to but we have to continue to push him to improve on that area."
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Edmundson and Robby Fabbri (groin) both skated before the team took the ice and Yeo said regarding Edmundson, "Always a fear, but he skated this morning and I know things went pretty well so hopefully we're advancing pretty quickly here.
"[Fabbri] skated this morning too. No updates there but we're not rushing him. We want him back as quick as possible but not to the point where it puts him in a bad position."
Nikita Soshnikov (concussion) skated for a second straight day.
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Defenseman Jakub Jerabek, acquired from the Edmonton Oilers on Monday for a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick, is still awaiting his visa paperwork.
"I don't have an update on that, no," Yeo said. "Just waiting on the visa stuff here."
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Yeo didn't have much to say on the league suspending Washington's Tom Wilson 20 games for his check to the head Sunday of Blues center Oskar Sundqvist.
"It's a pretty big statement from the league, that's for sure," Yeo said.
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Count Jets coach Paul Maurice among those that have noticed what the Blues have done to revamp their lineup.
"Depth and skill, right," he said. "They've added some important pieces there, some size and a little bit of everything. I'm an O'Reilly fan in terms of the style of game that he plays, so I think they've become a harder matchup through the middle of their ice. Defense ha always been really good, really strong. Now they've got a little bit of offense, more offense, to take some pressure off. I think you're going to see their defense very active and control the puck a little bit more in the offensive zone.
"They started making strides last year in terms of an offensive game, a more defined offensive game. They got away from the dump-and-chase a little bit. They stretch the game out a little bit more. If they're on, and their backends are involved, they're going to be hard to handle."
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The Blues' projected lines:
Pat Maroon-Ryan O'Reilly-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Jordan Kyrou
Alexander Steen-Tyler Bozak-David Perron
Ivan Barbashev-Robert Thomas-Sammy Blais
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Vince Dunn-Colton Parayko
Chris Butler-Jordan Schmaltz
Jake Allen will start in goal; Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Niko Mikkola and Robert Bortuzzo, who is serving the last of a three-game suspension. Joel Edmundson (groin), Carl Gunnarsson (knee, hip), Robby Fabbri (groin), Nikita Soshnikov (concussion), Erik Foley (concussion) and Luke Opilka (hip) are out with injuries. Jakub Jerabek is awaiting his working visa.
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The Jets' projected lineup:
Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Brandon Tanev
Kristian Vesalainen-Jack Roslovic-Nikolaj Ehlers
Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba
Ben Chiarot-Dustin Byfuglien
Joe Morrow-Tyler Myers
Connor Hellebuyck will start in goal; Laurent Brossoit will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Marko Dano, Dmitry Kulikov and Brendan Lemieux are the healthy scratches. Nic Petan (death of father) is not with the team currently.