Sunday, October 6, 2019

Blais taking prominent role and running with it

One of five RFA forwards to sign contracts over summer, get a 
raise, making most of chance to play in top-six role, thriving in it

ST. LOUIS -- When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong signed five restricted free agent forwards this summer after winning a Stanley Cup, with all of them getting raises, he did so to lay out a plan of how to help younger players increase their responsibilities.

It was predictable considering that the Blues had just won their first-ever Cup and young players were important pieces of it, but in getting those raises, there was one simple message in mind:
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Sammy Blais (left) is making the most of chance to play with David Perron
(right) and Ryan O'Reilly, thriving early in the season in a top six role. 

You got paid, now go earn more ice time, go earn more responsibilities.

If anyone has taken those words to heart more, it's been Sammy Blais.

It's early, yes, but if anyone has grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns, Blais has done so and then some.

But this is no fluke. Go look at the playoffs last season. Go look at Blais in San Antonio of the American Hockey League two years ago when he had 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 42 games. Go look at Blais in Chicago of the AHL three years ago when he scored 26 goals. It's gradually been building up, and it's built up all the way where a spot in the top six was open, and Blais said, 'I'll take that.'

He's not only taken a spot on left wing with David Perron and Ryan O'Reilly, but it's hard to envision anyone taking it from Blais any time soon, if at all.

"He's played real well," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Blais, who is tied with O'Reilly with three points (two goals, one assist). "He's come into camp and he's done exactly what we've asked him to do in the summer time. He looks in great shape, he's strong and he's playing his game.

"He's a confident player even going back to the days in Chicago when I had him, he was a real confident player then too. He's got great puck skills and he plays a hard game. He's physical. He's an effective player for us."

Blais came from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where offense is, well, offense. Blais was good at it (71 goals, 107 assists in 149 games), but progressing up the ladder, the 23-year-old Montmagny, Quebec native would have to learn a few different tricks to the trade. Hitting, physicality, forechecking, the little things that will make one successful.

Blais embraced it, and it's balanced his game quite nicely.

"He's a player," said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, a teammate with Blais on the Wolves. "It's nice that he's getting his opportunity and continues to work hard. He realizes you've got to be good all the time and consistent all the time and he's doing a great job."

What is helping Blais with confidence is that he had Berube coach him in Chicago, and Berube could see the tenacity and physical play of Blais coming. No nudging was needed but the coach certainly encouraged it. 

"He actually had that, but for sure, you encourage it, because if you can use your body with physical play, it's really going to help your game, especially when you want to go get pucks and you're physical on them," Berube said. "He does a good job of finishing his check with the puck there and getting the puck. That's the key. Talking about physical play, you want to get the puck back, right? He does a good job of that."

Blais was inserted into Game 6 of the second round of the playoffs against Dallas last season, and he stepped into that role with Perron and O'Reilly and scored a goal scorer's goal. It was his forecheck that helped set up O'Reilly's goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Boston, and not being complacent as a young player winning it all, it was a summer of searching for ways to get better and solidify a spot on the team for the first time in his young career, Blais got back to work, came into camp and has made his name known.

Blais wanted to focus more on his offense, and he's balancing it quite nicely with a physical role.

"After playoff last year, they told me they were really happy with my game," Blais, who has 12 hits in two games, said of the Blues' coaching staff. "They wanted me to bring that again this year. I wanted to bring more offense in my game. I have the chance to play with two real good players, 'Perry' and 'O'Ry', and I'm just trying to make the most of it. It's been working good."

Blais has been used to people working hard getting him pucks in the past. Now he's working hard on retrieving pucks for not only his linemates but himself as well.

"He's obviously made huge strides in the past three or four years," Blues center Brayden Schenn said. "I think you're going to get his best hockey this year. He's kind of St. Louis Blues are all about too. He's physical, he's got skill to him. He plays hard, so obviously he's getting an opportunity right now to play with some good players and he's taking advantage of it.

"I think that's a credit to Chief. Chief had him in the minors there in Chicago and encouraged him to play physical and play hard. Obviously you see when he has the puck how skilled he is. When he's playing hard and playing physical, it just adds another element to his game. Maybe it's not the easiest thing to come out of juniors to go to the hard areas or to be physical, but he's certainly doing a good job of it and it's a huge piece to our team moving forward."

Blais, O'Reilly and Perron have combined for eight points (three goals, five assists) in the first two games of the season before the Blues take their game on the road for a four-game Eastern Conference swing beginning in Toronto on Monday. As veterans, Perron and O'Reilly are taking notice just what their vibrant linemate is providing.

"What's awesome is I think he built that game in the AHL a little bit," Perron said of Blais. "He build that last year coming into the playoffs and making an impact that way. I was talking to a lot of people this summer about him. They see him as a skill guy, and that's one thing that he's going to keep getting better at the NHL level and making those plays like he made on my goal. The way he played in the playoffs opened a lot of eyes to those people that knew him from junior, to people like that.

"I think 'O'Ry' and I, we know what our game looks like and we know what we need to do to be successful. To have a guy like that that's confident, carries the puck, it's always important. Sometimes as a young guy, you play with older guys, I try not to talk to him too much for that reason. I want him to keep playing good. He's confident and it's awesome for us. We're going to need him to keep making those plays."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Sammy Blais (9) has embraced a physical role with Blues, making most of
chance to play in the NHL.

Blais is making $850,000 on a one-year, one-way contract. It's his first one-way contract, and one where the Blues are basically laying the platform for Blais to prove himself and the pay raises will continue to climb. Shouldn't be an issue at this rate, and at this level of dedication.

"When I'm hard on the forecheck, we get the puck back and these two guys are great playmakers," Blais said. "They know how to make plays and I just try to go to the net and help them make plays, and I think that's been working really good."

Blais' play has all but eliminated the St. Louis-San Antonio Extress. Those persistent call-ups from the AHL, getting sent back down appear to be a thing of the past.

Challenge proves beneficial to Blues, who rally past Stars 3-2

Overturned Dallas goal in third period enabled Schenn, Blais to score and 
give St. Louis first win of season; Blais has first multi-point game in NHL

ST. LOUIS -- When the puck went in the net, there was a hushed moan from the Enterprise Center crowd, one filled with guarded animosity.

Dallas Stars defenseman Esa Lindell had just scored what he thought was a third-period power-play goal just 2 minutes 16 seconds in. It would have given the Stars a two-goal lead over the Blues, and for all intents and purposes, put the final nail in the coffin of a game in which was hotly-contested but with two goalies (Jordan Binnington and Ben Bishop) playing the way they were, goals were at a premium.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Sammy Blais (9) moves the puck past the checking of Stars
forward Rhett Gardner during Saturday's game at Enterprise Center.  

Paging Sean Ferrell.

The Blues' assistant coach and video guru was on the details before the goal was scored. Was it offsides or not? That was the question he would have to quickly answer to himself and get the message relayed quickly down to coach Craig Berube and the Blues' bench.

The Blues challenged it, they won it and turned the momentum of a reprieve into their own benefit when they rallied for two third-period goals and a 3-2 win over the Stars on Saturday.

Lindell's would-be goal from the slot would have made it 3-1, but instead, Ferrell's wizardry saw that the Stars' entry into the zone was offside and relayed that message down to the bench. Dallas' Justin Dowling was in just before the puck crossed the Blue line, and when referee Wes McCauley made his paused, dramatic call that the goal was being waved off, off went the Blues.

They would get goals from Brayden Schenn to tie it and Sammy Blais to win it.

"It's a turning point; that's a game-changer," Schenn said. "Obviously it gives you some confidence, momentum that you need just one to get yourself back into it. Great job by Sean Ferrell. 

"I didn't see it live, but [David] Perron seen it live and he said he thought it was offside right away, so he kind of made the call on that one too."

Perron, who scored 1:21 into the game to make it 1-0, was making the call on the bench.

"I was yelling on the bench right away," Perron said. "... The guy just came back from the o-zone and I was kind of talking about that one that they end up reversing. We saw the replay and definitely a huge momentum swing. It's a tight one and it's one that Chief was talking on the bench, he has to take a chance there. Otherwise it's a 3-1 game and it's a lot harder to come back."

The Blues (1-0-1) were in a position of no choice really. Even early in the third period, had they not challenged, recovering from a two-goal deficit would have been pretty daunting. Dallas would have locked things down defensively pretty tightly, so risking a two-minute penalty again wasn't even in question really.

"It's 3-1, I was pretty ... not confident, but I think it's worth a challenge," Berube said. "They did a good job, Sean and Otter and them, looking at it. They were pretty confident it was offside.

"We looked at it. The referee, Wes McCauley, gave us some time, which was good, so we got a good look at it.

"It shows we're aggressive. I like their input. They were looking at it too. I think we're all in it together."

Everyone had to be on the same page here, and not one person was hesitant. Everyone was in unison: go for it.

"We felt we were pretty sure on that one tonight," Schenn said. "It is close, no doubt about it, but I guess when you can zoom in and kind of see exactly if it's offside or not, Chief ended up making the call, but obviously great job by Ferrell making that call tonight."

And great job by the Blues pouncing on the opportunity. Schenn would score at 4:27 to tie the game 2-2 on a shot off Bishop's arm, up, over and off his back and arm and in.

"I'll take 'em any way you can get 'em," Schenn said. "Great play by Vladi [Tarasenko] taking them wide. When he's skating and driving the D wide and he's able to turn up and make a play, I just called for the puck, put it on net and you never know. I was trying to get the shot off as quick as I can and maybe surprise Bishop a little bit and got a lucky bounce there."

Blais, who had his first multi-point game in the NHL Saturday after he set up Perron's first goal of the season, would benefit from a bounce for the game-winner at 10:25.

Ryan O'Reilly won the offensive zone face-off, and Carl Gunnarsson's shot from the point caromed off Blais' behind, off the glove of Stars defenseman Taylor Fedun and through the wickets of goalie Ben Bishop.

"It was a good bounce," Blais said. "When you work hard, you get some good bounce. I'm just happy to be in the position I'm at right now and just got to keep going."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jordan Binnington makes one of his 28 saves in front of Ryan
O'Reilly (90) and Miro Heiskanen (4) Saturday in St. Louis' 3-2 win.

When it comes to confidence for Blais, Perron quipped, "He scores with his rear end, so I guess it's pretty high. Sometimes the puck finds you."

It was a good bounce back game for the Blues after they blew a 2-0 lead in the season opener against Washington before falling 3-2 in overtime.

"It's not going to be easy," said Binnington, who made 28 saves. "People are going to be playing hard every game. That's the NHL. Every night is a tough game. There's skill on every team. You've got to be prepared, do your best and play hard for each other."

Saturday, October 5, 2019

(10-5-19) Stars-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Robert Thomas will not play and it gives Zach Sanford another chance to seize the opportunity when the Blues face the Dallas Stars on Saturday (7 p.m.; FS-MW, ESPN 101.1-FM) for the first time since their epic seven-game series in the Western Conference second round last season.

The Blues (0-1-1), who opened their season with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, eliminated the Stars in seven games when Oakville's Pat Maroon scored in double overtime of a 2-1 win.

Thomas sustained an upper-body injury in the loss to the Capitals and did not take part in the team's portion of practice on Friday; he was put through conditioning drills with head athletic trainer Ray Barile.

Thomas, who is coming off surgery to the left tendon in his wrist, is listed as day-to-day, and it gives Sanford, who will make his season debut, another chance to impress after a not-so-impressive camp; he was terrific for the Blues when they put him in the lineup in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.

"I'm pumped," Sanford said. "Obviously I didn't really have the camp that I wanted to. It's just an opportunity for me to get back in and get back to my game, find my spot.

"I think when I came in then, I was playing fast, I was playing hard, finishing hits. I think that's going to be my job tonight, just play hard and play physical, don't think too much out there. Just go out and play."

That's the Sanford, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract this past off-season, the Blues are hoping to see.

"Zach didn't have the camp that he wanted and us too, we wanted him to be better than he was, but in saying that, he's ready to go and I think it's a good opportunity for him here tonight to just show us the old Zach Sanford that we saw here in the playoffs," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "He's a a young guy still. It takes time sometimes. Every individual is different. I expect he's going to have a good game."

Sanford will play on a line with Tyler Bozak and Robby Fabbri.

- - -

Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson will also make his season debut tonight after sitting out the opener against the Capitals.

Gunnarsson will replace Robert Bortuzzo, who had a strong game against Washington, and play alongside Alex Pietrangelo against a Stars team that brings more speed and finesse to the lineup.

"I would have wanted to be in last game, but that's just the way it is," Gunnarsson said. "I'll get my chance here tonight and it'll be fun.

"You can always look at it two ways, right? Just try to see it the way that we're going to need all seven guys for the whole season. If you play well, you're going to be in. If you don't, then they want to get someone else in there, and that's it. That's the competition of our group and at the end of the day, that makes us better. I just try to look at it that way because it sucks being on the outside. You've just got to be ready for your chance."

- - -

Forward Sammy Blais is OK after being removed midway through the third period of the loss to Washington to be evaluated for a concussion.

Blais, who scored the opening goal, was involved in a strange sequence when he was checked by two former Blues (Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie) with the hit by Oshie catching him to the head area underneath the chin.

Concussion spotters buzzed down to have Blais get looked at but he was able to return to the bench and practice on Friday; he will be in the lineup tonight.

"I had to go through the concussion protocol, but I got back on the bench and there was like 30 seconds left in the third and I didn't go back (in) after," Blais said. "I really had no choice but to go in (and get checked out). It takes like 15 minutes. ... Normally I don't get hit like that. I just try to play physical. That's my job now and I'm not going to change it. When you look at the replay, the hit was on my head, so they called in and said I had to go do the protocol. Everything is good now."

Blais led the Blues with six hits in the game.

- - -

Ben Bishop normally looks forward to coming home.

This past summer wasn't normal. It was anything but.

Bishop, who will start in goal for the Stars tonight, had to live through a gut-wrenching loss to his hometown Blues, the team that drafted him in 2005 in the third round, when he was on the wrong end of a 2-1 double overtime loss in Game 7 of the second round.

Bishop, who grew up in Des Peres and has his family, including his parents Ben and Cindy, allowed a goal to Oakville's Pat Maroon that clinched the series for the Blues and end the season for Bishop and the Stars.

"It was a little different absolutely," Bishop admitted about coming home this summer. "Obviously the Blues were still playing. It was a little tougher to watch, but at the end of the day, it was great for the city. Obviously a lot of deserving fans and people around this town that have been waiting a long time for that. Happy for those people and the city was more than deserving.

"It was a little different. It would have maybe been a little easier to root for them if they didn't go through us. I would have been a little bit more on their bandwagon, but obviously when they go through you, you're not really cheering for anybody after that. Good for them and it's obviously a new year now and obviously they're still a very good team and it'll be a good test for us tonight and there should still be some blood kind of flowing over from the end of last season, so it should be a fun game, Saturday night, this place will be hopping and it'll be a fun game."

Bishop, who trains in the summer and skates during informal workouts with many of the Blues players prior to heading down to Dallas, said his message, as tough as it was at the time, for the Blues was to go win the Stanley Cup.

"That's pretty much the message I had for a lot of those guys in the handshake line," Bishop said. "I've known a lot of those guys over there, played with some of them coming up and spent some summers with all those guys. Happy for them on a personal level. As far as the competition, still a little, I guess more jealous now, but a lot of good guys over there, very deserving. You can see why they had success, a lot of good team chemistry over there, a good group of guys, obviously led by 'Steener' and some good leaders over there. 

"You can park it. Unfortunately I've had to do it before. I've been in the finals, two wins away from winning it all and lost, so that was maybe a little bit harder, but you kind of have to. It's part of the job. There's only one team that can go home happy every season. You've got to do your best to put it behind you and get ready for next season and try to come back even better. You watch it and try to gain some fuel, think kind of that what-if and it helps you through the summer and work a little bit harder. At the same time, you've got to turn the page and get ready."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko

Sammy Blais-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Zach Sanford-Tyler Bozak-Robby Fabbri

Ivan Barbashev-Oskar Sundqvist-Alexander Steen

Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo

Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko 

Vince Dunn-Justin Faulk

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Robert Bortuzzo and Mackenzie MacEachern. Robert Thomas (upper body) is day-to-day.

- - -

The Stars' projected lineup:

Jamie Benn-Radek Faksa-Tyler Seguin 

Alexander Radulov-Roope Hintz-Joe Pavelski

Denis Gurianov-Justin Dowling-Mattias Janmark

Andrew Cogliano-Rhett Gardner-Nick Caamano

Esa Lindell-John Klingberg

Miro Heiskanen-Andrej Sekera

Jamie Oleksiak-Taylor Fedun

Ben Bishop will start in goal; Anton Khudobin will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Joel Hanley and Joel L'Esperance. Jason Dickinson (upper body), Corey Perry (foot), Blake Comeau (lower body), Roman Polak (upper body), Stephen Johns (post-traumatic headaches) and Martin Hanzal (back) are all out.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Schenn chooses long term stability than testing free agency with eight-year, $52 million extension

Forward will average $6.5 million on new deal that runs through 2026-27; 
Armstrong says new contracts don't affect team's desire to resign Pietrangelo

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Brayden Schenn has been in a position of testing the free agency market before only to choose to remain where he was at that time.

This time around, 2020 posed as Schenn's biggest opportunity to cash in for big dollars again.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brayden Schenn won a Stanley Cup with the Blues last season, and he
decided to make St. Louis his hockey home for the long term after he
signed an eight-year, $52 million extension on Friday.

Winning a Stanley Cup and developing a close bond and friendship with players he loves playing with once again steered Schenn in the direction of security and perhaps leaving more money on the table when he agreed to an eight-year, $52 million contract extension that carries a $6.5 million average annual value on Friday morning.

Schenn, 28, is in the final year of a four-year, $20.5 million contract he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers on July 25, 2016; he was traded to the Blues for Jori Lehtera and No. 1 picks in 2017 and 2018.

"Obviously really nice," Schenn said. "The organization, management, coaches have shown faith in me moving forward here, so obviously when they're going to go that, you want to buy in and when you see how good the team is here, how good we were last year, how good we can be, I think it only makes you want to stay. Obviously over the period of the contract, the term, the team is going to change, but the one thing that doesn't is the city and it's a great city to live in, great organization to play for. I'm looking forward to it.

"I'll be 28 when I'm done with this contract, so heading to the next one, I think the way the game is going and stuff like that, you never know how free agency's going to be. The cap's not supposed to go up a whole lot next year, so I think just having security, I think the main thing is just getting it off your mind, go out and play. It's really all there is. There's nothing more to it. I'm excited to be a part of this organization for years to come.

"We've got a lot of good pieces, a lot of good players here for upwards of three, four years and guys that are still in their prime. I think when you win a Cup with this organization and see how much it means to the city and now much they're a hockey town, it wants to make you just do it again. I'm happy to be here for years to come."

Schenn, who will earn $8 million in salary in three of the first four years (1-2 and 3-4) of the contract, $5.2 million in the third year, $6.5 million in the sixth year, $4.3 million in the seventh year and $4 million in the eighth year, is coming off a season in which he had 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists) in 72 regular-season games and 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 26 playoff games. In two seasons with the Blues, he has 124 points (45 goals, 79 assists) in 154 games.

"Certainly getting 'Schenner' signed was a priority for us over the summer and working with (agent) Ben Hankinson and Brayden to get this behind us is very comforting knowing we're only one game into the season and we don't have to have this on our radar moving forward," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "These things take a life of their own at different times. It really only takes one phone call to get things moving and we we had had some conversations over the last seven or eight days and then they picked up yesterday to a point where everyone was comfortably uncomfortable last night about 10 o'clock."

Armstrong in the past two weeks has locked two players now into long-term contracts, including Schenn through the 2027-28 season and defenseman Justin Faulk, who the Blues acquired via trade from Carolina on Sept. 24 for Joel Edmundson, for seven years ($6.5 million AAV) through the 2026-27 season.

It leaves the Blue with two players with the potential to be unrestricted free agents after this season, defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and in the case of the 29-year-old Pietrangelo, who is in the final year of a seven-year, $45.5 million contract, Armstrong said it doesn't affect the Blues wanting to get him signed long term as well.

"I don't think so," Armstrong said. "I go back to a saying that someone told me, 'How do you get the horses back in the barn? You get them in one at a time.' We got one just in and now we've got to go corral another one and get him into the barn."

The Schenn contract is a win-win for both sides in the present that could at the end of it be a concern for the Blues, one in which they aren't worried about now.

Schenn was a core piece that helped the Blues win their first Stanley Cup last season and is being rewarded for it. The team is giving him security for the long term but in return, are getting a rather reasonable AAV when the player likely could have commanded 7-8 million on the open market.

"When you look at the contract signed by all the players, they're anywhere from 28 to even 31 or 32, you want to get that extened number to try and get that cap number down," Armstrong said. "Where we're at in our organization right now, we have a lot of players from 25 to 30 that are in the real guts of their career. I really felt it's in our responsibility as an organization and this is to Schenn and [Vladimir] Tarasenko and [Ryan] O'Reilly and Pietrangelo and [Colton] Parayko and that list is to support that group. They've done everything we've asked over the last five to six years to be a very competitive team. The last eight years, we've been very competitive. I know the term is something that we're going to have to deal with in all reality probably in six or seven years, but with that being said, we'd rather put a 12-, 13-, 14-year run together in a salary cap system and worry about that then, and we're going to need young players coming in at that time. The CBA could look different. You never know what it's going to look like, but I felt it was our responsibility and with the blessing of ownership to support that group that supported us for the last three or four years. They can see a reason to be here and wanting to be here for the next five or six years where we can be competitive."

In other words, Armstrong said the Blues are equipped to win more now and in the near future and is banking on it to do so.

It's rather uncommon of the Blues' GM to hand out the longer-type contracts, anything beyond five years, since he's only done that twice (Pietrangelo and Tarasenko's eight-year, $60 million contract in 2015) in his tenure here. But in order to build and keep what they have together now in a salary cap era, the Blues are going to have to sacrifice tenure for reasonable cap hits. But in doing so, they hope that the winning culture along with upgrades to the home facility at Enterprise Center and new training facility at the Centene Community Ice Center helps breed a winning culture and offers an alluring feel.

"That's what we're trying to build and I think obviously having playoff success, it's an easier sell right now," Armstrong said. "But quite honestly if you look at the Enterprise Center and the Centene Center, these things are going to start helping us sell ourselves. No program sells itself if you're not winning, and that's what talking to our ownership group, led by Mr. [Tom] Stillman and all of his partners, we've had eight good years and there isn't a reason why we shouldn't have another five or six with this group if we can keep them together. 

"You look at what Boston did with [Patrice] Bergeron, [David] Krejci, players like that, [Brad] Marchand did a eight-year deal a couple years ago because he wanted to stay there. We're just not trying to do what other teams do, but you look at teams that have success and players that want to be part of a successful group, everybody makes sacrifices. We're doing it with strong ownership commitment to stay at the cap. We've been a cap teams for eight years and we will be a cap team moving forward."

So including Schenn (nine years) and Faulk (eight years), the Blues will also have Tarasenko and O'Reilly each locked up for the next four years, David Perron for three years, Jaden Schwartz for two more years, and he'll likely be next on the pecking order as far as forwards are concerned; Parayko is locked in for three more years, the core is established enough to keep the tank at full or near full.

"When you're dealing with veteran players that are 27, 28, 29, the whole league knows who they are and we know who they are," Armstrong said. "There's a sprinkling of signings that tell you some of the posts that you want to use, but for us to stay competitive, we need to work with the players, they need to understand what we're trying to accomplish as far as an AAV and to do that, you give them the term that makes them comfortable. It's really a partnership at this time with that group of players."

Pietrangelo, who carries a $6.5 million cap hit, could conceivably get bumped into the 8-10 million category in his next contract, give or take. But he is 29 and has a lot of miles in his legs already being this is his 10th full season. Should the Blues go on the higher number with Pietrangelo, there will be contracts that will be off the books within the next two years (Alexander Steen's $5.75 million cap hit in two years, Jake Allen at $4.35 million in two years, Bouwmeester's $3.25 million after this season and Tyler Bozak's $5 million in two seasons). That's roughly $18 million to distribute elsewhere (Schwartz, Parayko, Vince Dunn) and with the potential of the cap rising (it's at $81.5 million now), this core could conceivably remain in tact for a number of years.   

"These players are 26, 27, 28, 29. They have a number of years left," Armstrong said. "When you look at expansion, expansion usually adds a year or two to good players. We just had one expansion, we're having another one in a couple years. I know the players are hoping and I know the league is hoping the salary cap continues to rise. There's a big television deal coming up. I'm hoping that in four, five, six years, your salary cap has gone up significantly so the AAV of these contracts seem to come down. 

"We're not abandoning the future of this franchise with these deals. We're just thinking it gives us a really good opportunity to be good for a long time and we will have to address some of these things moving forward. You're just never going to know what it's going to look like in six or seven years. Ultimately I'd like to be good for six or seven years. If we have to deal with it then, we'll deal with it then."

But in the meantime, the Blues will keep this ship afloat, and as far as Schenn is concerned, all parties are pleased.

"Obviously really happy for him," Schwartz said. "He's a big part of our team and a big reason why we won the Cup last year. I know he's excited to be around here for a long time. He's very well-liked in our locker room and an important piece on the ice. He's a guy that plays hard, he's a guy that plays on both ends of the ice, he digs in on draws, he can play a physical game, he can make plays offensively. Obviously everyone's really excited to see that he's locked up here for eight years.

"That's obviously real good to see and we're all excited for (keeping the core together). We've got a close locker room, guys are really good friends. We want to be around each other for as long as we can. To see the commitment from both sides is huge. He's a big piece of our team and we're pumped to have him moving forward."

Coach Craig Berube agreed: "He played well for us and was a big part of us winning. It's a good signing, good for everybody. ... He was part of the winning team here. These guys, they want to be here. It's a big thing and means a lot, which is important for the organization and it's great that players want to be here."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brayden Schenn (10) and Vladimir Tarasenko 
celebrate the Blues' Stanley Cup win at Boston in 
Game 7 last season.

And give another feather in the cap to the Blues alumni, who were able to sell another player on the greatness of St. Louis.

"It's a friendly town, really good people, it's a great city," Schenn said. "I think that's one thing when you come in as a road team, you don't find out a whole lot about the city but obviously alumni speak for it here. There's a lot of alumni that live here. It's a great city to be a part of. Organization, new practice rink, our renovations to the game rink, get treated well here and as far as talking culture, it's an organization and culture that was built for us in the recent times with guys like 'Steener' and 'Petro' and what they've built around here. To have those years and to keep that going, I think it's important and it's fun to be a part of."

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Blues raise banner, fall 3-2 in OT to Capitals

Emotions were high early with Stanley Cup banner-raising 
pre-game ceremony; Blues blow 2-0 lead, gain point

ST. LOUIS -- There was no avoiding the emotions.

When the videos started replaying moments that led to the Blues' first-ever Stanley Cup, it only revved the sellout crowd of 18,096 and sent it into delirium. And then when the team was introduced and first, Alexander Steen skated onto the ice with the Clarence Campbell Bowl, then Ryan O'Reilly skated out with the Conn Smythe Trophy, and captain Alex Pietrangelo came out with the Stanley Cup, the decibel meter really was racing.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Goalie Jordan Binnington (50) makes a save on Tom Wilson (43) during
Wednesday night's game between the Blues and Capitals.

And then the capper: the banner, one that went to the rafters of Enterprise Center never to be touched again. It will be a stern reminder that the Blues were Stanley Cup champions of 2019, and up with it, went their team song of a year ago 'Gloria' and it signified a new beginning, the 2019-20 season.

Unfortunately for the Blues, they couldn't sustain what they started when they blew a two-goal lead and lost to the 2018 Cup champion Washington Capitals, 3-2 in overtime, when Jakub Vrana scored 2 minutes 51 seconds into the extra frame to spoil the fun on Wednesday.

The matchup of the past two Cup champions lived up to the billing, although the Blues may not feel the same way after taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Sammy Blais and Pietrangelo 7:55 into the game.

From there, things tailed off for the defending champs, and there were a few subtle reminders of what went awry at times before they went on their incredible run.

"We weren't quite as aggressive," Pietrangelo said. "They were trying to stretch us out and we just kind of got on our heels. We've got to find a way to continue to stay on our toes and stay aggressive.

"I thought we started well, we got a point, right? It would have been nice to get the extra one, but I thought we started well, got to our game. We've just got to keep pushing the whole time."

The Blues pushed in the first period, got the lead just 53 seconds in when Blais finished off a beautiful feed from David Perron for a 1-0 lead. That line really did some good things in this game and bodes well moving forward. 

The Blues dodged a bullet when Blais left with roughly nine minutes remaining after he took a double-hit, first from Lars Eller, then getting a shot under the chin from T.J. Oshie. 

"He came back, so that's a good sign," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I thought he had a good game. I thought he was aggressive. That line did some good things, I thought, but he was physical, he played the way he played in the preseason for me."

Another good sign was a more deliberate power play, one in which scored on its first attempt when Pietrangelo beat Braden Holtby on a one-timer from the left circle after a feed from Justin Faulk, who was making his Blues debut to make it 2-0.

All was well, right?

Well ... 

Alex Ovechkin got one for Washington at 15:37 of the first to cut the lead to 2-1, and the second period seemed to be the Blues' undoing. They spent a lot of time in their end mismanaging pucks, and eventually, Dmitry Orlov's power-play goal would tie the game at 12:28.

At one point, the Capitals outshot the Blues 14-0 and the Blues went nearly 14 minutes without one.

"We turned the puck over a lot," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "They played quick, got it in on us, got to work, and they just had a bunch of zone time on us. When we got it back, we turned it over at the blue line, they countered on us again, here they come again. We were on our heels for quite some time until probably five minutes to go in that period. We were OK then.

"You've got to manage the puck better. That's the biggest thing I take from the game tonight, our puck play wasn't very good."

Perhaps it's from a lack of time together, but as Berube pointed out, "We've got the same team (as last year) pretty much."

So the coach wasn't using that as an excuse as much as the players were.

"We couldn't get our feet back going and change the momentum like we needed to," said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, who had two assists to give him 501 NHL points. "Getting a point out of that with all the emotions going on, I think it's a good point, but it's not good enough. It's a good realization that we have to go back to work."

On the overtime goal, the Blues were giving the Capitals way too much real estate, and not just on the sequence on the overtime goal but even before that. However on the Vrana goal, he took a cross-ice pass from John Carlson, and from the right circle, hit it into another gear and raced past O'Reilly and whipped a wrister through Binnington.

"Just too slow and too much time. More aggressive. Soft. Just backing off too much," Berube said. "To me, our whole game tonight, we weren't aggressive. We didn't play our game. The first period was fine, but after that, I thought we got away from our game and just didn't have that aggressive mindset, didn't manage the puck very well."

Despite some of their deficiencies, the Blues had some terrific scoring chances.

Robert Thomas took one in the second period on a great hand-to-stick play and went in alone on Holtby but was stopped; Vladimir Tarasenko had one off to the left of Holtby off a Brayden Schenn pass but couldn't squeeze the shot through in the third, and early in the second, Holtby made a point blank stop on O'Reilly.

But the greatest one of all was when Faulk sent in O'Reilly alone on the backhand with 1:35 remaining, but he couldn't beat Holtby on the backhand.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Sammy Blais celebrates after scoring in the first minute of Wednesday's 
season opener against the Washington Capitals.

"I wish I could take that play back and redo it," O'Reilly said. "I'm better than that."

All in all, the Blues can take a lot from this season opener. Last year, they were blitzed in the third period en route to a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

But as Berube said, "We've got work to do."

There are 81 more games remaining, enough time to get some things right, and unlike last season, the doom and gloom gap is not nearly as noticeable. These Blues should be just fine.

(10-2-19) Capitals-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The time has come for the banner to go up, celebrating the Stanley Cup championship for the Blues, then it's time to get the 2019-20 season underway when they host the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals (7 p.m.; NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM).

The banner ceremony will begin at 6:45 p.m. prior to puck drop, then it's time to be the defending Cup champs and look to repeat and be the first since the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins to do so and just the third since 1998 (Detroit Red Wings).

"Obviously it's going to be a little emotional at the beginning," said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. "We did something very special and should be proud of it, but come puck drop, we've got to kind of turn that switch on and get back to work. We know how hard it's going to be every night and we're prepared for that."

Blues coach Craig Berube, who had his interim tag removed in the summer, said the team is ready, focused and ready for the challenge the Capitals bring.

"We've had enough practice," Berube said. "Throughout camp, we had good practices. I really feel like guys were focused and working hard and doing all the right things.

"They've got some real good players over there, we know that. They've been a good team for a long time. I don't expect them to be any different. Even with [Evgeny] Kuznetsov out, they've still got a lot of dangerous players, offensive players, good power play. They're a big heavy team, it's going to be a battle."

- - -

Binnington will make his first season-opening start tonight. He was 24-5-1 with an NHL-leading 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage after bursting onto the scene when he made his first NHL start Jan. 7, a 25-save, 3-0 win at the Philadelphia Flyers.

Binnington began last season as the backup to Ville Husso with San Antonio of the American Hockey League, so the difference between last year and this year is rather large.

"I think I was on the bench, in San Antonio probably," Binnington said. "We were in training camp or something."

Binnington will be playing in front of a packed house tonight, but last year?

"I don't know, I'm not very good with this, but like a couple thousand maybe," Binnington said. "... I'm aware of (how far Binnington's come). Things have changed. I like new things and being able to adapt, accept new challenges. It's part of life and something to enjoy. I'm looking forward to this upcoming season here."

- - -

Robby Fabbri gets the nod in the lineup tonight over Zach Sanford and will play on a line with Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas.

Fabbri, as has been mentioned a time or a thousand, is coming off his first full season following two knee surgeries to repair a torn left ACL. He's found his quickness and speed again and hopes to keep building off what he was able to accomplish in the summer after a very up and down first season back.

"I feel like I'm back to where I was when I was last in the opening night lineup and it's just something to build off," Fabbri said. "... Hearing that from the doctors, I always thought I was going to be stronger than that, better and quicker, but I found out pretty fast that they're right. Coming back from both knee surgeries was tough to get back into a groove, but I feel great. It's not even on my mind anymore. That's a confidence-builder right there and I've just got to go out and do my thing.

"I think I found (another gear) in the playoffs last year and that was nice going into the summer knowing that I felt like I was getting faster. I still want to get faster. There's always things you can improve with the way I play my game, and that's a part of it. Feeling fast right now gives me confidence. Just working on it's going to help me even more."

- - -

Robert Bortuzzo gets the nod in the opening night lineup over Carl Gunnarsson, and barring injury expect the two of them to rotate in and out of the lineup as the sixth and seventh defensemen.

Berube wants Bortuzzo in there against the Capitals to defend against Washington's power play and to add some physicality in a lineup that features Tom Wilson and Garnet Hathaway.

"It depends on how that looks too," Berube said. "With 'Petro' [Alex Pietrangelo] on the left, it's going to be a game to game process for a while and see how it all plays out.

"I think probably the biggest reason for me, and all our D are going to play, and they're all important guys, but 'Borts' is a good penalty killer, they've got a good power play, he eats that shot over on the weak side with [Alex] Ovechkin, [Patrik] Laine and different teams we play. He's done a real good job off that. We need some heaviness in there tonight. They're a hard team to play against a big team, a physical team. He adds that element."

- - -

Defenseman Justin Faulk will make his Blues debut tonight and be paired with Pietrangelo, playing the right side. Faulk will also quarterback one power-play unit with Pietrangelo.

"Guys get traded and move around," Berube said, "and sign with new teams. They fit in pretty easily. Most guys do. He's no exception. He's fine."

- - -

Former Blue and Capitals forward T.J. Oshie was all smiles in the locker room Wednesday, and for more reasons than one.

Oshie will be the proud father of a third child, a boy (his first), but he spoke of his genuine happiness for his former teammates, guys he played with here, including Jake Allen, Vladimir Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Carl Gunnarsson, Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, Jay Bouwmeester, Alexander Steen, Colton Parayko and David Perron.

"I don't know if they remember, but I talked to quite a bit the night they won," Oshie said. "It was morning where I was. I was on my way to the golf course actually, but there were basically all the guys that played here when I played. It was a really cool moment and glad they were able to take a couple moments to say hi to me and for me to congratulate them when they were probably at the peak of their celebration."

"It's always special being back, maybe a little more special that they get to raise the banner tonight. Really proud of the guys over there and happy for them, excited to get the new season along the way. Tonight's a big night for both sides."

Oshie, who was drafted by the Blues in the first round 24th) of the 2005 NHL Draft, spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career here with the Blues before getting traded to Washington after the 2014-15 season for Troy Brouwer.

Oshie was always passionate and wanting to be a part of a Stanley Cup-winning team here but is really happy for the city that embraced him and his family when he first got here.

"I spent a large part of my life here," Oshie said. "I was treated very, very well by the organization, by my teammates, trainers and especially the fans. When they were able to get the job done and knowing how that feels to finally do it and another place that had never won the Cup before, I was very, very happy for everyone that stuck it out. I know a lot of times they do the season-ticket holders thing where you stand up and you go all the way back to '67. Pretty cool for all those fans who have shown support and finally got the Cup, especially the players that have been grinding it out for a while who were always searching for a way to get the job done and they finally did." 

- - -

* Ovechkin has 17 points (10 goals, seven assists) 14 season-opening games. Ovechkin, who has one season-opening hat trick (Oct. 5, 2017 at Ottawa), has 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists) in 19 games against St. Louis.

* Tarasenko has 10 points (eight goals, two assists) in his past eight games against the Capitals.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko

Sammy Blais-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Robby Fabbri-Tyler Bozak-Robert Thomas

Ivan Barbashev-Oskar Sundqvist-Alexander Steen

Alex Pietrangelo-Justin Faulk

Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko

Vince Dunn-Robert Bortuzzo

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.

Zach Sanford, Carl Gunnarsson and Mackenzie MacEachern are healthy scratches. The Blues report no injuries although Jordan Kyrou (knee) is skating with the team and is on injured/non-roster.

- - -

The Capitals' projected lineup:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana-Lar Eller-T.J. Oshie

Carl Hagelin-Chandler Stephenson-Richard Panik 

Brendan Leipsic-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway 

Jonas Siegenthaler-John Carlson 

Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen

Martin Fehervary-Radko Gudas

Braden Holtby will start in goal; Ilya Samsonov will be the backup.

Healthy scratches include Tyler Lewington and Travis Boyd. Michal Kempny (hamstring) is out and Evgeny Kuznetzov is serving the first of a three-game suspension.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Blues ready for banner raising, look forward to try and repeat as Cup champions

Season gets underway against Capitals on Wednesday; 
chance to repeat only thing on players' minds

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Since that historic June 12 night, one in which the Blues won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, there have been celebrations, really festive celebrations, there have been days with the Cup, there has been a ring ceremony, and finally on Wednesday night, there will be a banner ceremony.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo and the Blues will begin their title
defense when they host Washington on Wednesday.

One of the last acts of celebrating that Stanley Cup win over the Boston Bruins will come to fruition when the Blues open defense of their title against the 2018 Cup champion Washington Capitals in the 2019-20 season opener.

There will be emotions, especially when the players are on the ice, in front of a packed Enterprise Center house that, along with their Blues hockey-fan brethren, will celebrate the franchise's first Cup title to eternity, and seeing the banner go to the rafters will be the finality of what was accomplished last season.

But as players have been saying since training camp opened Sept. 13, it's time to flip the switch and go for it again. The Blues will attempt to be just the second team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings (2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins) to repeat as Cup champions. And the grind will not be easy.

"It's not going to be easy for us this year," said center Brayden Schenn, who is going into the final year of his contract and can be an unrestricted free agent July 1. "I think we're really going to have to dig in and be tough. Everyone's going to be gunning for us. We've got to expect that.

"I think that's a challenge any hockey player or any athlete would welcome. You know you're gunning for the champs and I think to have that target on your back the whole year, or at least the first half of the year, we're going to see a team for the first time, I think people are going to be up and excited and bring their best game against you."

The Blues bring back virtually an entire roster that competed for the Cup last season, which is a benefit in today's salary cap era. The only omissions are forward Pat Maroon, who signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and defenseman Joel Edmundson, who was traded last week to the Carolina Hurricanes in a package that brought the Blues three-time all-star defenseman Justin Faulk.

"I guess when you don't bring in many new faces, it's obviously easier," said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, also going into the last year of his contract. "You're not trying to rebuild some chemistry. I think for the most part, all the lines are the same and pretty much everything's similar. When you walk back into the room and you see almost every single guy is the same, it makes it easy and comfortable and you get excited to get back at it."

Coach Craig Berube, who removed the interim tag from his title after he signed a three-year contract shortly after the Blues won the Cup, feels that the mental grind will be the Blues' greatest challenge.

"Yes, it's mental for me," Berube said. "We did have a long season and a short summer, but it's a mental thing that you have to get over. You've got to get through the physical tiredness and that's mental for me.

"Instead of talking to our team about, 'Wow' we've got to get off to a good start,' I'm more focused on, 'Listen, you're the Stanley Cup champs of last year. Now you've got to go out and prove it again, now you've got to start over again, people are going to be gunning for you.' You've got to be mentally prepared and mentally tough for a grind and not be surprised by it. We're going to have to be dialed in every night."

But getting off to a good start will be helpful for the Blues, who were dead-last with 34 points last season on Jan. 3 before making their improbable run to a third-place finish in the Central Division (45-28-9, 99 points) and then get series wins over Winnipeg (six games), Dallas (seven games), San Jose (six games) before finally finishing off the Bruins in seven.

Pietrangelo called last season's start "not ideal." The Blues were trying to incorporate new players (Tyler Bozak, David Perron, Ryan O'Reilly and Maroon) into a group that needed to find its identity. There's really not much worry to that now.

"It's an uphill climb, right? It's obviously tough when you bring in a lot of new faces and we were trying to find our identity, but once we did, obviously things took off," Pietrangelo said. "I think we all feel comfortable where we are right now and this is a group that has a lot of chemistry. Everyone talks about the way we played for each other down the stretch, and nothing's changed. You have the same group of guys, so we kind of expect that same thing, same character to carry over."

Jordan Binnington, coming off his improbable run of going 24-5-1 with a league-leading 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, will get the cage as the starter for the first time in his career to begin a season, and that's a challenge in itself, although he has the veteran savvy of Jake Allen (19-17-8, 2.83 GAA, .905 save percentage last season; 250-136-88, 2.54 GAA and .911 save percentage for his career) to back him up.

The Blues are healthy, unlike last season when they had to deal with injuries on the back end to Carl Gunnarsson (knee, wrist) and Jay Bouwmeester (hip), Robby Fabbri was coming off his two ACL surgeries in his left knee, Oskar Sundqvist was coming back from a concussion sustained in the preseason from Washington's Tom Wilson and Robert Bortuzzo was suspended the first game.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues won their first Stanley Cup in June against Boston, and with all
but two players returning, are focused on trying to repeat as champs.

"All these things that's coming up, ring ceremony, White House, banner, that's just a little bonus," Gunnarsson said. "It's kind of fun in the moment, but then you've got to just focus on what's ahead of us. When I had my Cup day, I let (last season) go and I let it sink in for a few days and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it.' That was my turn with it and now I can turn the page and look forward."

After seven preseason games, the Blues are geared up and revved up to get their team going again.

"We haven't played a full game together really as a team, so we're going to have to use these practice days and Game 1 to really start building our team again," Schenn said. "I don't think we're a team that can just flip a switch and can start winning hockey games that easy. I think we have to really buy in and really build our game and that's how we're going to be successful."