Thursday, September 15, 2011

Halak enters new season refocused, re-energized

Blues netminder embracing future, ready to be stabilizing force in goal

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Jaroslav Halak begins his second training camp with the Blues on Friday, he'll do so with a fresh outlook and new agendas in mind.

In the spring of 2010, Halak was on top of the hockey world. Nothing could go wrong, and if it did, it was short-lived.

Halak was busy backstopping everything in sight, leading the game's most successful franchise (the Montreal Canadiens) on an unforgettable playoff run in which the Habs eliminated Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in successive series.

The Bratislava, Slovakia native was so revered in Montreal, one publication depicted a photo of him as Jesus Christ.

But then came the trade to St. Louis that same summer, a shocking conclusion to what was one of the most talked about runs by a playoff goalie after the Canadiens had to choose between Halak and Carey Price.

(Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak was 27-21-7 in his first season with the Blues.

"It was tough last season to go to a new team," Halak said. "... Now when I think of Montreal, I have a lot of good memories. But now I'm here and I'm real happy and probably more happier to be here."

Halak enters his second season with the Blues as the team's clear-cut No. 1 goalie, just as he was a season ago. And after a season that saw its fair share of ups and downs that many viewed as an inconsistent year, Halak's overall numbers were not as bad as some made them out to be.

Halak was 27-21-7 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, but for the Blues to make the necessary jump into the upper echelon of the league -- specifically in the Western Conference -- they need their goaltenders to be in the upper third in each pertinent category.

When all was said and done last season, Halak finished tied for 16th in GAA, tied for 17th in wins, 32nd in save percentage and tied for fourth in shutouts. Three of those categories will certainly need upgrades for the Blues to prosper. Ironically, it was Price that finished in the top 10 in all four of the aforementioned categories.

Jaro's a big part of our team, but Jaro's not our team," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "If our goaltending tandem is in the top 10 or near the top 10 in all the categories, we're going to have a good season. They don't have to be one, two or three for us to be successful.

"If Jaro comes in and does his job in the top third of the league, we're going to be in a really good spot. Now I think Jaro can go higher than that, but that has to be the minimum standard, I think, that we need from that position. If we get that, I think we're going to have a good season."

Added Halak, "Sometimes, the goalie needs to win a game for the team, but on some nights, I need the guys to help me out and score more goals. It's both ways. We need to be on the same page all season. If we can do that, our team's going to be great."

Halak, who signed a four-year, $15 million contract after his trade to the Blues, couldn't have gotten off to a better start. He was in the top three in GAA, save percentage, wins and shutouts out of the chute. The Blues were a franchise-best 9-1-2 to begin the season.

Blues fans were gushing that they got the Habs' best netminder. Montreal fans were ready at the time to crucify Habs GM Pierre Gauthier for not trading away Price instead.

But as injuries mounted for the Blues, Halak's stock and his play fluctuated. He even dealt with a hand injury that sidelined him for a period of time towards the ladder part of the season to compound matters in what turned out to be a trying year.

"It was tough but I was happy to be here and be part of the team," Halak said. "I'm getting used to it. It was new teammates, new management, new friends. It was great to be here and I'm really happy. I'm looking forward to next season and I'm pretty sure everybody in this locker room is ready to start the season.

"Even a bad experience is an experience. You look at our season, we had so many ups and downs. We did not have consistency and that's what we're looking for this season, to play with consistency during the whole season and try to maintain it."

Halak was always one of the quiet guys in the locker room. He was polite and cordial but wasn't anything as flamboyant as, say, the colorful Cam Janssen was. But as he was conducting this interview Wednesday, defenseman Barret Jackman and Halak traded a few colorful barbs at each other as Jackman was entering the locker room. It's quite clear the culture has changed and the attitude is much different both on and off the ice.

"It's big," Jackman said. "You know exactly what he's going to be doing, playing pucks, where the rebounds are going. You just get more familiar with the style of play. You can read him, his calmness and his confidence ... we know what to expect out of him and he knows what to expect out of us as well.

"... We always try to make everybody feel comfortable when they come in by giving them a hard time. Sometimes the language barrier makes it take a little bit longer for the jokes to get through, but we're a tight-nit family and I'm sure he's a lot more comfortable and we're expecting big things out of him."

"Yeah, it was different," Halak admitted. "Now I know the guys and I know their character and everything else. I've got one season under my belt and I'm looking forward to the next one. Knowing the guys and I'm getting to know the new guys, it's a great feeling."

As many of the Blues filtered in and out of St. Louis throughout the summer and many of them reported much earlier than Friday's camp start, Halak chose to train in his home country, where he represented Slovakia this past spring in the World Championships. Bike riding in the scenic hills of Bratislava, it gave the 26-year-old time to reflect and time to focus on what he needs to do to train better and prove to the Blues and their fans that making him their guy was validated.

"Obviously we didn't make the playoffs (last season) and obviously you have more time to prepare yourself for next season," Halak said. "That's what I did. I started a little bit earlier than last off-season, and I'm probably in better shape.

"One thing that was different was probably more biking outside than I'm used to. But pretty much, it was the same (training regimen). ... I was just trying to get a little bit stronger. I don't know if I did, but it's a long season, especially for a goalie. You have to be ready. A No. 1 has to be ready for at least 60 games. That's a lot. Just be mentally ready and physically."
(Getty Images)
The Blues would like their goaltenders, including Jaroslav Halak (right),
to be in the top third of statistical categories this season. 

Blues assistant coach/goaltenders Corey Hirsch, along with strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte made visits to Slovakia to spend time with Halak over the summer and came away feeling good about what was going on, with Armstrong saying Hirsch, "was very impressed with the work ethic and the style of work that (Halak) was doing to prepare. Our strength and conditioning coach went over to Europe to see some of our guys and was very impressed with (Halak's) conditioning.

"Jaro's at that age now where I have to think he knows what he needs to do to get ready. As a pro, I'm sleeping at night thinking he's getting himself ready to play hockey. ... Hirschy went over there to build a relationship. It wasn't so much to monitor what he was doing, but I think that coach-player relationship's very important."

The physical portion of preparation is something a player can control. But the mental aspect of absorbing the challenges is a bit more difficult, something Halak knows is equally as important. There's travel differences between the west and east, adjusting to a new lifestyle, eating and sleeping habits, etc.

"I don't think you can do anything (different) to prepare yourself mentally," Halak said. "The big thing is I went through it already. I went through one season. I'm going into this season so now I know what to expect. It's a big challenge, but I'm really looking forward to it."

Halak played in 57 games last season but could see his total rise up to anywhere from 60-65. That's part of the physical and mental mindset he's prepared himself for and a challenge he seems to be looking forward to with the expectations and new additions to the team.

"We've got to go one day at a time, one game at a time," said Halak, who's trimmed three pounds and roughly two percent body fat off of him. "You don't know what's going to happen three months from now. I'm just going to try to focus on one game at a time. We'll see what the number is at the end of the season.

"I think it's a great feeling to get experienced guys and you sign good players. I think it's going to help overall with our team."

"He has to have a good season, our D has to have a good season, our forwards have to have a good season," Blues coach Davis Payne added. "That's the expectation. If we expect to be a playoff team, we expect those parts to play well. One without the other is tough, but none of the parts need to be super-human. ... He's got to carry the load."

Halak, who finished strong going 6-2-1 down the stretch, would love nothing more than to finish high in all those goaltending categories, but one in particular that sticks out is the one that matters most.

"The W's," he said. "That's what I want. We are one team and we need the wins to make the playoffs.

"... I'm not saying I want to prove anything to anybody else. I want to prove to myself. I just want to have fun out there and be a part of the group that makes the playoffs and has success."

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