Sunday, January 13, 2013

Blues open camp, race for season begins

Team draws Red Wings in opener after lockout officially ended Saturday night

ST. LOUIS -- Now that crunch time has begun and the race for the start of the abbreviated season is underway, although there's no panic from players and coaches, the Blues know the the clock is ticking faster than usual.

Ready or not, here comes the regular season.

Basically, the NHL's message was: the lockout of officially over, you have six days to prepare. Good luck.
(Getty Images)
David Backes (pictured) was one of 25 skaters to open Blues camp Sunday
at Scottrade Center.

When the four-month lockout officially ended Saturday night when both the NHL and NHLPA signed the Memorandum of Understanding, "Game On" became a popular trend around the league, and training camps opened Sunday. Teams were given a week to prepare to play 48 games in 99 days.

Let the sprint to the Cup begin.

"You wish it could have been in September, but that's life and you're going to have to deal with it now," Blues winger Chris Stewart said. "It's January here and we're excited to be back out here."

"The old six-day training camp, it was good," quipped center Alex Steen. "We had a good pace throughout the practice. First practice, I think there was a little more tempo to the actual structure of the practice. The second half was more strategical things. It automatically slowed it down a little bit. It was well-planned."

The Blues, who open Saturday at Scottrade Center against the Detroit Red Wings, will play six games in the first nine days of the season. They will truly get tested early in the abbreviated season.

The average age of the 25 players in camp is 26.7, and even with the compressed camp and schedule, players feel they're equipped to get the ship started.

"I think everybody's done a good job of maintaining their conditioning, strength and everything else. I think we look good," Steen said. "Conditioning and stuff ... it's already there. We've got a week to get our tempo up a little bit in practice and work on some structural things. Practices and games are completely different. It'll take some games to get the timing and all those things to 100 percent. We're not the only team that's going to be dealing with that. There's 29 other teams that are going to be dealing with the same problems."

So if conditioning is not a concern, what is?

"I think our timing," veteran winger Jamie Langenbrunner said. "You get to playing at a game pace, the passes, the crispness of everything is going to be a little bit tough. But I think the fact that for the most part, everybody's back from last year. Not a lot of turnover. We have that familiarity. It's going to help a lot."

According to coach Ken Hitchcock, it's about getting out of the "summer hockey" mode and back to organization and structure.

"You see it when they get tired," Hitchcock said. "They make the dusty plays and the casual plays. It’s a real wake-up call and I’ve said this before, the biggest challenge isn’t without the puck, it’s with the puck. Getting your hands back ... you could see as soon as they got tired, pucks were exploding off of sticks and everything. When they weren’t tired, we had great tempo. It’s just building that endurance level, that’s going to be the challenge for us as we get more and more out of them as the week goes on.

"If we’ve got to cut (practice) off because they can’t keep up, then we’ll shut it down like we did today and go to teaching."

Added captain David Backes: "It's just getting back into NHL mentality, NHL shape. It's no longer the summer skates where you're just out there wheeling around hoping to keep your lungs. It's leaning on guys, physical play, a lot more structure than the summer and what the guys who went and played in Europe had. It's a steep learning curve, but we've got a group of guys that was together for most of the year last year and we're going to continue to strive in this environment."

Familiarity is an area the Blues feel they have a distinct advantage. As Hitchcock said last week, the teams that have to go through the getting-to-know stage might have a harder hurdle to overcome.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk skates with the
puck in a game last season.

"It's nice that we basically have the same team as last year and (Hitchcock) hasn't tried to change it too much," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "The system's pretty much the same. It's just a refresher for us. He's going to have a theme each day in camp of different things that we need to focus on.

"There's been a lot of changes around the league. You've got big players going to different teams. You have a lot of moving parts on different teams that have changed, but for here, it's the same team and we have a lot of depth. That's going to help carry us, especially in the first part of the season where guys are getting back into it. The depth and the chemistry we had last year is going to help."

Added defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk: "I think (lack of roster change) is extremely important. If you look at some of the best teams in the Western Conference and in the league the past few years, they’ve kept most of their team together and that’s why they’re so successful because they know each other. With the few guys coming in and the few guys going out, it’s a huge, huge advantage if we can make it back."

But the Blues, who were 49-22-11 last season and finished second behind Vancouver in the Western Conference, know the slate's wiped clean. Last year is a memory. They will be perceived as a formidable foe and there will be no easy nights.

"It's a new year. That record's gone," Steen said. "Can't fall back on that record just because we've felt like we took the next step ... you've got to take the next step now.

"For us, it's a clean slate. Start another year. You've got to show up and prove yourself again, show the league that this is a team that's ready to contend, be a strong two-way hockey club. It starts on Saturday ... it starts today actually. We've got six days to get ready for a game. That's where all the focus and energy is going right now."

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