Friday, February 28, 2014

Blues, Sabres swap goalies in multi-player trade

Blockbuster trade nets St. Louis Ryan Miller, Steve 
Ott for Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, prospect, picks

ST. LOUIS -- General manager Doug Armstrong felt like the opportunity was there to improve the overall makeup of the Blues.

It was a large price to pay, but it was one worth it for Armstrong, who made the blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres for goalie Ryan Miller and power forward Steve Ott. Going to the Sabres will be goalie Jaroslav Halak, power forward Chris Stewart as well as prospect William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick as well as a 2016 third-round pick.

"We're looking to improve our team any way we can," Armstrong said via conference call prior to the Blues facing the Anaheim Ducks Friday night. "The thought of getting the grit and determination of a Steve Ott and Ryan Miller is a name that speaks for itself. 
(Buffalo Sabres photo)
The Blues acquired goalie Ryan Miller (30) on Friday night.

"We just think this gives us a better opportunity to have success this year and it also allows us to keep our prime assets. There's a few players that were discussed we wouldn't part with, some of our signed players that are currently with our team. We wanted to keep the guys like Jake Allen, Dmitrij Jaskin and maybe one or two other players. When we were able to keep those players, it seemed like a deal that made sense for us."

Among those prime assets Armstrong said teams haven't inquired about are 2010 first-round picks Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko because "quite honestly, no one asked for them because they know the answer going into it," Armstrong said. "The goal going into this was we weren't going to move any of the younger players, like a Tarasenko, like a Schwartz."

Miller, who represented the United States for the second time at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, comes to the Blues with a 15-22-3 record with a 2.72 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. His name had been linked to the Blues since Sabres general manager Tim Murray publicly said that Miller likely would be dealt at some point prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.

In 540 NHL games, all with Buffalo, Miller is 284-186-56 with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .916 save-percentage. The Sabres will pick up the difference between Miller and Halak's salary differences, which amounts to be $1.75 million. 

"I am very excited for an opportunity to have a new adventure, to have a new opportunity," an emotional Miller told reporters in Buffalo. "I have a strong sense that they have a very special team. They work hard. I got to know some of the guys on that team with the USA program and competing against some of those guys. You get to know them and they have a very strong, competitive spirit. I look forward to joining that group there."

Halak, who was acquired in 2010 from the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller and prospect Ian Schultz, is in the final year of a four-year, $15 million contract and was 24-9-4 with a 2.23 GAA and .917 save percentage. He never got the opportunity to backstop the Blues in the playoffs. Halak was injured in 2012 in Game 2 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the San Jose Sharks. He leaves the Blues with a mark of 83-47-19 in four seasons.

"It was more of what I've seen of Miller in the past than what we didn't see here in St. Louis," Armstrong said. "I look at our team and I look at all what Jaro has accomplished in his time here. I think he's leaving as the franchise leader in shutouts (20), won a Jennings Trophy [in 2011-12], we were third in goals against in the League. 

"This wasn't an area that was a concern or an area we were looking to improve on except for one player. I think Ryan Miller's career stats and his season this year made me feel it might only be a five- or a six-percent upgrade, but it's an upgrade and I believe that's how you get better is getting better in small increments. We believe that this makes us a little better. If it wasn't Ryan Miller, I was very content with the goaltending tandem that we had going into the playoffs."

Halak, 28, declined to speak at the team's hotel lobby Friday night -- he was scheduled to start against the Ducks -- but did leave a final thought, "You're getting a good goalie. Good luck in the playoffs."

Talks between Armstrong and Murray really picked up once the Sochi Olympics were finished.

"There have been talks at different times and not just about these two players but about trades in general," Armstrong said. "Lots of different things were discussed prior to the Olympics. ... Tim had done an outstanding job in what direction he wanted to go. When he called me and we discussed the potential, it didn't take very long because he had done his homework and we had done ours. It happened very quickly post-Olympics."

Miller is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and had a no-trade clause with a $6.25 million salary-cap charge. An extension at this time with Miller or Ott, also a pending unrestricted free agent, have been discussed.

"It's something that we'll certainly discuss at the appropriate time, but we really believe that Jake Allen is the goalie of the future for the Blues," Armstrong said. "We think he's done everything he can. When you look at his numbers this year in the American (Hockey) League, they're second to none. If we can talk to Ryan and Steve at some point about extensions, we can do that. But this deal was made on the here and now. We'll worry about the future after the season."

The Blues have been eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in each of the previous two Stanley Cup Playoffs, and goalie Jonathan Quick, who coincidentally teamed up with Quick for USA at the Sochi Olympics, has been a big culprit in eliminating the Blues.

"We ran into the best goaltender in the game in the last two years in Quick," Armstrong said. "I saw that firsthand again at the Olympics for Team USA. I thought he was outstanding in the game against Canada. He's an elite player, but we need to try to move past him, we need to try to move past the competition to get to him quite honestly. I just think this gives us a better opportunity to have better success in the playoffs and that's why I made the trade."

Ott has nine goals and 20 points in 59 games for the Sabres this season and in essence, replaces Stewart, who has 15 goals and 26 points in 58 games.

"I think Steve gives Ken (Hitchcock) some versatility," Armstrong said. "He can play center, he can play on the left side, he's a player that's obviously playing over 19 minutes in Buffalo. I don't think he'll command that much ice time with our group right now because of the depth we have here, but he's an antagonistic player. He's a player that has that playoff pedigree in the sense that his style of play transfers quite nicely into the playoffs. He'll certainly be in our group of nine."

Ott, 29, was Buffalo's captain but has an abundance of connections with the Blues from his days with the Dallas Stars, including Hitchcock, Armstrong, Brett Hull and Brenden Morrow.
(Buffalo Sabres photo)
Steve Ott (9) was also part of the trade Friday night that brought the
former Buffalo Sabres captain to the Blues.

"We've kind of been prepared for this," Ott told reporters in Buffalo. "... I'm really excited to have this opportunity with St. Louis. My dream and my biggest goal to be a hockey player is to have an opportunity to have the chance at the Stanley Cup. I feel they have a great team.

"... Now I'm off to a new adventure."

The NHL Trade Deadline is on March 5th, but the Blues likely are done unless something jumps off the charts.

"You never say never, but I like the way our group is," Armstrong said. "We made a couple acquisitions over the summer and into the fall adding Brenden Morrow and Carlo Colaiacovo to our group. That gives us the necessary depth that we need. We have two players currently playing in the American Hockey League that were good players for us last year against L.A. in (Chris) Porter and (Adam) Cracknell. Having eight defensemen and the depth and Jake Allen as our third goalie, I don't see us needing to add any depth to our group right now. 

"Will there be another roster player trade? I don't see one. I'm not discussing one right now, but you never say never because I might get a call from one of the other 29 (general) managers with an idea I haven't thought of."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Blues ready to hit the ground running

Team had success season ago when schedule 
was compacted, winning 19 of 29 games in 55 days

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Being given a break and a moment to step back to allow the mind and body to heal was good medicine for the Blues.

Now as they embark on a stretch of games that will see them play 25 games over 47 days, the Blues must tackle head-on the challenges of what a stretch run will bring.

"It's always good to have a little break, especially with March coming and it's a very busy schedule," defenseman Roman Polak said, citing the 15 games in 27 days in March. "The rest of the season is pretty busy. I think the little break is going to help but it depends on how you play in the games. ... Physically you're ready for it, but mentally you have to get in the game."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak was one who benefited
from getting a break during the Olympics.

A division title, conference title and Presidents' Trophy are all within reach for the Blues (39-12-6), who have 84 points and tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead and three points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the overall points lead in the NHL. The Blues have three games in hand on both teams.

But the Blues have been down this road before. It was a different set of circumstances with the lockout-shortened season last year, but the Blues are used to packing multiple games into a short period of time late in the season.

The Blues typically spend more time than not on the road, particularly when Scottrade Center is used for the Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament the first weekend in March, and that was the case last season.

The Blues played 14 games in 28 days in March and another 15 games in 27 days in April. They were 7-7 in March but were 12-3 in April to win 19 of 29 games in 55 days.

Associate coach Brad Shaw cites the Blues' ability to utilize all 20 guys that play as a key to success.

"The one thing that benefits us is we get our success through the team game," Shaw said. "We don't rely on one or two key guys. We have some fantastic pieces, but I really think it's our discipline to stick to the team game that gives us a chance to win night in and night out. The sooner that can show up and be a big part of how we play, then the sooner we get back to having the success that we want."

That also includes relying on both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott in goal.

"We're going to be on the road a lot (in March)," Elliott said. "They're going to be valuable points. Getting two or one, it's going to be important down to every point. 

"Whoever's in (goal) has to do the job. We'll take things as they come. It's important for the rest of the team to build off of us."

It'll be especially important for the Blues to find that balance between playing and getting the proper rest with so few days off between games.

"Coaches did a great job last time managing what we do," Polak said. "I think they know what to do. I think they're prepared for that.

"I don't think we care about the standings right now. We just want to win the games. The first goal is to win against Vancouver and if we win, the other goal is to win the next game against Anaheim. We're just going to focus on that."

The Blues will open with a three-game trip to Vancouver, Anaheim and Phoenix before coming home to face Tampa Bay, then hitting the road again for three more in Nashville, Colorado and Minnesota.

"We expect to hit the ground running," Shaw said. "We expect to be a great team in Vancouver and then really challenge Anaheim on Friday night as well and going forward."

* NOTES -- The remaining Blues Olympians (David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Jat Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo as well as general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock) arrived in St. Louis Monday morning from Newark, N.J. None were at the rink to practice Monday and Shaw doesn't expect any of them to practice Tuesday in Vancouver. They won't hit the ice with their teammates until the morning skate Wednesday.

. . . Vladimir Sobotka (knee) did not participate in the practice Monday, but Shaw thinks he will begin some sort on-ice work this week. Sobotka, as well as defenseman Jordan Leopold (ankle) are traveling.

"Sobe, I think, is starting to get active again," Shaw said. "I believe he is going to try skating at some point this week but that'll be fairly light. Quite a ways away. Still down the road."

With Sobotka still ailing, the team recalled forward Dmitrij Jaskin from the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves Monday morning.

. . . Center Maxim Lapierre did not practice for a second consecutive day. Lapierre and his wife are the proud parents of a baby girl, Amelia, who was born Sunday morning. Lapierre will accompany the team to Vancouver.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Halak ready to put Olympics in past

Blues netminder, along with rest of Slovakia, 
did not perform up to expectations in Sochi

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jaroslav Halak went to Vancouver in 2010 firmly entrenched as Slovakia's goalie, then came back to the NHL after a successful run to help the Montreal Canadiens blossom in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The thought was perhaps a repeat with the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

There is still the opportunity to help the Blues make an extended postseason run, but Halak will have to do so on the heels of a forgetful run by the Slovaks.

Halak's numbers reflect just how poorly things went for Slovakia, which finished fourth four years ago but was one of the major disappointments at this year's Olympics, going 0-3-1.
(Getty Images)
Slovakia's Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save at the Sochi Olympics vs.
the United States' Ryan Kesler (middle).

Halak was 0-2 with a whopping 5.13 goals-against average and a .857 save percentage before giving up the reigns to Jan Laco, who started the final two games.

Halak, who was on the ice Sunday with the Blues for the first time along with Vladimir Tarasenko since the two returned from Olympic competition, reflected on the Slovaks' poor performance, including a 7-1 beatdown in the opener against the United States. 

"It didn't happen. That's hockey. We didn't play great," Halak said. "At the Olympics, when you play against the best, you need to play the best. We need to do our best every night. We didn't do that. That's as simple as that."

Halak allowed five goals on 25 shots before being pulled against the U.S. He then stopped 28 shots in a 3-1 loss to Slovenia, a game in which was 0-0 heading into the third period.

It was before the final preliminary round game that Slovakia coach Vladimir Vujtek made the change and decided to start Laco against Russia, a game in which the host country won 1-0 in a shootout. 

Reports circulated that Halak was told he was done for the tournament prior to facing rival Czech Republic in a playoff round matchup and that Laco would be the goalie the rest of the way. Halak refuted those reports.

"I was never told I was done for the tournament," Halak said. "I just figured maybe I was after we played well in Russia game. I was still hoping to get back in there, but it didn't happen for me.

"Obviously I didn't expect it, but we needed to win, we needed to make a few changes. Coach changed the goalie and that was it. I'm glad to be back here and get the first one."

"We didn't play great, I didn't play great," Halak added. "Now I'm glad to be back and hopefully I can help the guys get some points."

Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said the team puts no stock in what happened with Halak and the Sochi Olympics. 

"He won't let it affect him at all because he knows," Hirsch said of Halak. "Jaro's smart enough to know that sometimes this game isn't fair. 

"He knew the situation in Russia with that team. You can't control a coach's decision. You look at what happened, the coach even bypassed Budaj. There's obviously something wrong with that. We're not concerned in that sense. ... The coach kind of made him and Budaj scapegoats."

With the Olympics behind him, Halak now can focus on the task at hand: helping the Blues succeed in their remaining 25 regular season games as well as a deep, extended run in the playoffs.

Halak is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage. He had rattled off a stretch of games prior to the break in which he was 8-2-2.

"There's still a lot of hockey left," Halak said. "I'm still looking forward to the rest of the season. I'm going to try to do all I can.

"I need to get back to it. I need to get back to a few really good practices and then play the game. We'll see how it's going to go, but I'm really glad to be back here practicing. The first one is behind me. We've got a few more before the games."

Halak was under siege in both games playing for Slovakia. His Blues teammates know it, and they have no issues with who he is or what he brings.

"Absolutely, no issues," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "He's an elite goalie. He's one of the best in the league right now. A short tournament with all the travel and a different team too. It's not a defensive team like we have. It's a different style of hockey that he saw there. It's two games. It really means nothing to what he means to our team. We've got all the faith in the world in him.

"Really I didn't even think about (Halak losing confidence). Glad to see him back. Hopefully he got a few days' rest and hopefully he's ready to go Wednesday night. ... He's always bounced back. I don't know the numbers, but I'm sure you can look at it and see how he's responded to maybe getting pulled or letting in more than one goal, which zero to one goal for him is pretty routine. Whatever he's going to do mentally, he's been in the league long enough to know how to turn things around."

Hirsch said he watched Halak both games in Sochi. He obviously looked at tendencies and technique but puts no stock in what Hirsch calls a completely different set of circumstances when it comes to play in the NHL. 

"That Slovakia team, let's be honest, they weren't very good," Hirsch said. "They didn't have a very good tournament. They put the other guy in and still didn't win, so it didn't matter." 

Halak, along with Tarasenko, was given a couple days to rest and catch back up with the 10-hour time difference with Russia. He's back to familiar ground and locked in with the rest of his teammates here.

"I know we've got a really good team," Halak said. "We just need to keep playing the same way we were before the break. I know the guys will be tired getting back, but we just need to make sure everybody plays their best game in Vancouver.

"... I'm still trying to catch up to the time changes. Hopefully within the next few days, I'll be back."

With 25 games in 47 days, the Blues will be relying on both Halak and Brian Elliott to share the load.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save earlier this season with
the help of teammate Roman Polak (middle).

"We need both of them. We've got 25 games in forty-something days," Jackman said. "It's going to be a shared position going down the road here. 

"We're not worried about their confidence. Jaro knows that tournament is different from the NHL. Those were two games for him. Goalies have a bad game or two and elite goalies can come through it."

And the Blues know when Halak's at his best. He's the franchise leader in shutouts (20). 

"He's confident, he's big, he's aggressive and he's got a good energy level," Hirsch said. "That's the thing we see the most. He has more of a presence in the net. He plays at the top of the paint, attacking pucks. It's an overall presence you can feel on the ice. 

"We've talked quite a bit and it's status quo. Our goal here is the Stanley Cup and that's his. We just pick up where we left off." 

* NOTES -- Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who injured his right ankle in the Blues last game prior to the Olympic break, was on the ice for the second time but first in full gear Sunday. The 33-year-old got tangled up with Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian and limped off the ice in the second period and did not return. 

It's the second injury for Leopold this season. He suffered ligament damage on the right index finger that forced him to miss 26 games.

"The Winnipeg game was frustrating for me. To have another setback ... I don't know how to put it ... it's been a long year to this point," Leopold said. "To have something that's going to nag here for a little bit isn't going to be fun. It is part of the game. You hate to say that, but it is. I'll deal with it and I'll go with the ebbs and flows as we go here."

Leopold said the injury will likely not go away the rest of the season and it's something he'll have to play through but it could have been much worse.

"I think I'm pretty fortunate with what ended up happening," Leopold said. "It's just one of those things that takes time now. It's probably the rest of the year I'm going to be dealing with it. We'll see if I can get to the points where it's good to go and I'll deal with it from there. ... It's something that's going to be there."

Forward Vladimir Sobotka (knee) did not skate despite early indications he could take the ice this weekend. Sobotka was at the practice facility and walking without much/any restriction. Sobotka, who was injured on Jan. 31 at Carolina, was originally expected to be re-evaluated after four weeks.

. . . With Canada's 3-0 win over Sweden in the gold-medal game to conclude the Sochi Olympics, four members of the Blues took home coveted gold medals.

Defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo were key components to Canada's stifling d-unit, which allowed only three goals in six games. Also, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was part of the front office staff and coach Ken Hitchcock was an assistant under Canada coach Mike Babcock.

"I'm super excited for them," Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, a Wilcox, Saskatchewan native, said. "The Olympics doesn't happen very often. To bring home a gold medal is pretty special. I know they were nervous and excited to get over there. It's a huge honor. Being a Canadian, I was really happy for them."

The Blues' Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund, who both played for Sweden, received silver medals. David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie were left on the outside looking in when the U.S. lost 5-0 to Finland in the bronze-medal game Saturday.

. . . Center Maxim Lapierre missed practice Sunday to be with his wife, who was expected to deliver the couple's first child, a daughter.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Plenty of goals in short, remaining schedule for Blues

Besides ultimate goal of winning Cup, division, 
conference, Presidents' Trophy all up for grabs 

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The games will be so compressed for the Blues when they begin playing following the Olympic break that there will be no time to think of nothing else than the task at hand.

But with 25 games remaining in their NHL schedule, the Blues (39-12-6) can achieve quite a few goals before going after the grand daddy of them all -- the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are even with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division lead with 84 points and three games in hand, and they're only three points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the conference lead and best record in the NHL.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Ian Cole (left) and his teammates have plenty to play
for when the NHL schedule resumes Wednesday in Vancouver.

All are achievable goals at this point, and they're goals the team has definitely set their sights on.

"It is every game at a time, every period at a time," defenseman Ian Cole said. "I think for us, we want to get back on that roll and consistent mindset we had before we were on the break. We want to get back on that and get rolling again, but I think for us, we want to be the best team. That means you want to win the Presidents' Trophy, you want to win the conference, you want to win the division. Those are all things that we want to do. 

"Obviously we want to win games and those (goals) are farther down the road, but if we win games, that'll take care of itself. We want to win as many games as we can. If that happens, even better."

Catching the Blackhawks by the break was something the team wanted accomplished.


Next up is passing them.

"We definitely set our goal before the break there that we want to be first in the division going into the break," right wing Chris Stewart said. "We achieved that. Expectations are high. Teams are going to pick up right where they left off. It's been a dogfight all year and it's exactly what we expect."

Achieving all those goals comes one important aspect in mind: home ice advantage.

The Blues are 22-5-3 on home ice but they're also 17-7-3 away from home. Only three teams (Anaheim, Colorado and the New York Rangers) have more wins on the road.

"Home ice would obviously be great, but we haven't really struggled to win on the road, too," Stewart said. "We'll be comfortable with any situation we're put in. Any added incentive you can get put in to get those little benefits down the road is obviously going to be a positive. I think we're playing for first place. We believe we're a first-place team and we definitely want to finish on top."

With home ice advantage comes the added benefits within the game.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Chris Stewart (right) and the Blues hope to control their own destiny
when it comes to where the team finishes at the end of the season.

"Home ice is very important, for sure, especially with the last change, get the matchups that we want on the ice," Cole said. "That's definitely huge. Regardless how well we've been on the road, we'd rather play in front of our fans at Scottrade Center. That's definitely something we're shooting for."

But in order to achieve what they want, the Blues can't worry about having three games in hand on the Hawks or Ducks or what they're doing.

"We just worry about ourselves," Stewart said. "Every different team goes through different peaks and valleys over the year. I think we went through our rust spell before the break. We'll just keep chugging along here. We've got one thing in mind and that's the Stanley Cup. We're going to do whatever it takes."

* NOTES -- After taking Saturday off, the Blues will resume practice on Sunday at St. Louis Outlet Mall's Ice Zone. Including goalie Brian Elliott, the Blues have had 12 regular skaters on the ice since Wednesday. ... After arriving Thursday night back in St. Louis, goalie Jaroslav Halak and right wing Vladimir Tarasenko are expected to join the practice group on Sunday. There's also the possibility Vladimir Sobotka (knee) will resume skating as early as Sunday. Sobotka cracked his left kneecap Jan. 31 at Carolina. ... The remaining Blues' Olympians are expected to travel to St. Louis following the Gold Medal Game between Sweden and Canada and arrive in time before departing for Vancouver Monday.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Schedule gets hectic for Blues after break

Team will play final 25 games in 47 days; Sobotka expected to begin skating

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues finally get their players back from the Sochi Olympics and the team returns to action to play out the final stretch of the regular season, it'll do so in a compressed number of days.

The Blues, whose non-Olympic players skated for a second consecutive day at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall, open Wednesday in Vancouver. It begins a stretch of six games away from home in the first seven. But more importantly, it begins the final 25-game push that the Blues will jam into 47 days.

There won't be much down time between games. They'll feel like games are being played in consecutive days. So to prepare for this grueling stretch, the Blues (39-12-6), who are tied for the Central Division lead with the Chicago Blackhawks with 84 points, will do what  they can to help prepare for what should be a frenetic finish to the season.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Derek Roy (left) said the Blues want to get their competitive edge back as
they prepare for the final 25 games of the season.

"Get back the competitive edge again," center Derek Roy said. "You try to get that back in practice. It's tough with only 10 guys here, but we're just trying to battle and goalies are trying to make saves when we're trying to score goals. It's just a matter of competing in all areas.

"We have a lot of games in a short amount of days. We want to take care of our bodies and make sure we focus on hockey. The other thing we have to think about is finish off the season strong and not look towards the playoffs."

It'll be a little tougher with the Blues, who will not see seven of their teammates (David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund) since they are still competing for their respective countries. 

So for the 12 skaters, which includes goalie Brian Elliott, who are here now, they have to move on for the rest of the team. The Blues will get back forward Vladimir Tarasenko and goalie Jaroslav Halak for practice Sunday. The two returned from their Olympic experiences Thursday evening.

"We've got to stay sharp," center Maxim Lapierre said. "Whatever guys, 12 or whatever we have on the ice, we've got to work on being focused on the ice. We have to work hard. 

"It's not like a training camp. Yesterday's practice was really hard for every guy, but today you can see a big difference right away. I think we're expecting the guys to get back at it tomorrow and the next day and feel like we were feeling 10 days ago."

Some of the rust and residue left over from being off for 10 days was evident at practice Wednesday. It had a more crisp feel to it Thursday, with some good, hard skating mixed in as well.

"We saw a little more rust (Wednesday) than we saw today," associate coach Brad Shaw said. "Hopefully tomorrow it looks a little better again. ... We're just trying to get our guys focused again on all the stuff that makes us good as a hockey team.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Maxim Lapierre (40) feels like the Blues can get back to where they were
pre-Olympics. They resume the season Wednesday at Vancouver.

"We've tried not to get too crazy with how hard we push them, but we also like to sort of keep raising the bar every day."

And by raising the bar now, the Blues feel like they can reach it when games begin to pile on top of each other.

"I don't think so," Roy said. "We've got a bunch of leaders, we've got a bunch of guys that can lead in all areas of the game. We've got to get back to it right away. 

"Every team has to do it. It's not like we're the only team that's played a lot of games in a short amount of days or have to come back from a break. Every team's got to do it. Every team's going to be rusty. We want to be the least rustiest team coming out of the gates."

* NOTES -- Shaw did not want to address any of the injured players, but a source said that Vladimir Sobotka, who is recovering from knee cap injury, is expected to begin skating by the weekend. However, there is no timetable for his return. Sobotka was injured late in the third period on Jan. 31 at Carolina. Also, defenseman Jordan Leopold, who suffered a lower-body injury against the Winnipeg Jets, was at the practice facility Thursday and walking without any restraints. His status has not been updated either.

. . . With a USA-Canada rematch Friday at 11 a.m., the Blues will have a heavy interest in the goings on in the men's hockey semifinal matchup. 

Canada won the gold medal game in 2010 in overtime, and the winner of Friday's game will be playing for a berth in the gold medal game on Sunday.

"It's going to be a good one," said forward Ryan Reaves, a Winnipeg native. "I'm sure there's going to be some chirping, maybe some dinners put on the line, a couple pennies here and there. It'll be a fun game. Bragging rights are on the line."

Shaw, a Cambridge, Ontario native, said the U.S. has had the best results thus far.

"Team USA to me has been the best team over there so far," Shaw said. "They've looked the best. It looks like they're playing closest to their potential. It's going to be a real good game Friday. Tough challenge for Canada."

In the other semifinal is another grudge match between Sweden and Finland. Both are Scandinavian countries and have a dislike for one another.

"Sweden-Finland is like US-Canada," said Sweden native Magnus Paajarvi. "We really don't like each other the way we play each other. It's a lot of hitting and a lot of battling. They're really more of a North American team than us for sure. We're more on the skilled side, but we have to match their battle level to get the win. It should be fun."

Teammates applaud Oshie's performance at Olympics

Blues get back on ice after Olympic break; 
happy but not surprised at shootout heroics USA player

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As a nation joined in unison to watch the amazing feat of T.J. Oshie virtually put an entire country on his shoulders with the outcome in balance, his fellow Blues teammates were part of a collective group not surprised.

Oshie's 4 for 6 performance that captivated not only the United States but perhaps the entire hockey world lifted Team USA to that 3-2 shootout victory against host Russia, didn't surprise his NHL teammates here in St. Louis after the non-Olympic Blues reconvened Wednesday to begin preparation for the final stretch of the season.
(St. Louis Blues)
T.J. Oshie points towards USA teammate Jonathan Quick after scoring 
the deciding shootout goal to beat Russia this past Saturday.

"There's no surprise for us, but it's nice that he's getting the worldwide recognition now," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said of Oshie. "He became a top celebrity overnight. He's probably going to have the paparazzi follow him around. You turn on any news, you turn on the Today Show, he's plastered all over, but it's a feel-good story that everybody loves to rally around. That's what the Olympics is all about.

"Osh was amazing. He made us all proud and he's such a great kid, a great competitor and a huge part of our team. For him to bring that enthusiasm to the U.S. team and have that success is fun to watch."

Added veteran Brenden Morrow: "We get to see him all the time, so we know how successful he is at that aspect of the game. It's just good to see good guys like that get some reward and some limelight, recognition and at a big stage like that. Being a friend and a teammate, it's good to see good things happen to good people.

"To be shocked? No, I wasn't. But to go four out of six is pretty special."

Some of Oshie's teammates were able to watch live, but the 6:30 a.m. start time this past Saturday was an early rise for most.

"I was actually sleeping," said winger Magnus Paajarvi. "I woke up and I saw the tweets and I went back and I watched the whole game. It was a sick game. I really enjoyed it. 

"I didn't think Osh was going to go that many times because they've got (Patrick) Kane and they've got all these guys that can score, especially when he missed the second. But it was a great coaching move to put him back. I thought Oshie had him all six times even though he missed two of them. We've seen all the moves. He's sick ... he's sick."

Oshie's teammates marveled at his feat, and then there's Ryan Reaves, who joked: "I would have been 6 for 6. Come on, you know that. Have you seen my stats? I've had two goals in the last three years."

"I couldn't even fathom having to do that six times and scoring four out of the six," Reaves added. "It's unreal. Every move was just unbelievable. To be put on the spot like that in the Olympics and coming through for your country was something to watch.

"The best part that I liked about it was every time he was on the ice, he was smiling. It didn't look like he was nervous or there was any pressure on him. It looked like he was going out and having fun. That's Timmy when he goes out and plays hockey every time."

Combined with Oshie's 7 for 10 success rate in NHL games this season, he's 11 for 16 in shootout attempts on the year, including the Olympic games. In the NHL for his career, Oshie is a sparking 25 for 46 (54.3 percent). Only Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders (54.5 percent) has a better percentage among active players.
(St. Louis Blues)
USA's T.J. Oshie (74) waits for the final shootout attempt with
Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.

I was so excited. I was actually working out in the morning. I got done with my workout and I checked my phone and I've got all these texts," defenseman Ian Cole said. "... I didn't see the third (period) and the shootout, but I just got done and my phone was just blowing up. I had to get back to a DVR quick. 

"It was so cool because there isn't a more deserving guy. We're not surprised because we see it every single day. That's what I was trying to get at, what I was tweeting about. Everyone in this locker room knows how good he is. He's an absolute world-class player and now I think everyone else kind of knows that, which is really cool to see because he's so deserving of it."

Could Cole duplicate Oshie's feat?

"Yeah I could ... in my dreams," Cole joked.

* NOTES -- Minus their nine Olympians, who are still in Sochi, Russia or in the case of Jaroslav Halak and Vladimir Tarasenko, they are en route back to St. Louis, the Blues were back in action. They resume the season six days from today (Feb. 26) in Vancouver, which begins a stretch of six of seven games away from home.

"What we saw today was sort of the focus and attention to detail and the good habits that have been a good part of our success weren't quite fully on display there today," said associate coach Brad Shaw, who along with assistant coaches Gary Agnew and Ray Bennett are running practices until Ken Hitchcock completes his duties with the Canadian Olympic squad. "It'll be a bit of a push. It's a little bit of a substitute teacher sort of setup here as well. We're going to have to ask for it a little bit more often than you would if Hitch was around, but that's fine. We know what we're getting into. It's our job to get these guys ready to go so that when we start playing again for real, we're at the same level or a little bit better.

"Everything has to get sort of truncated a little bit, but it feels a little bit like camp. It was a pretty loose day in the locker room. We come back earlier again (Thursday), so a pretty short turnaround. I think guys will be a little more sore tomorrow. The Saturday day off I think will really come in handy and then Sunday, hopefully our pace and our execution is a little closer to where we'd like it."

As for the availability of both Halak and Tarasenko, whose countries respectively (Slovakia and Russia) were eliminated from the tournament, they'll be back with their Blues teammates soon.

"Hopefully they'll be back for Sunday's skate," Shaw said. "They're supposed to be back I think on tomorrow's flight, which gives them Friday and Saturday as sort of rest days and recuperate and refocus. We'll probably see the same sort of thing the first day back. The sooner the better so we can get back to the little bit higher execution level."

Both Vladimir Sobotka (knee) and Jordan Leopold (lower body) were not on the ice as expected. Both are still recovering from injuries. There was no new update on their conditions as of Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

USA GM David Poile talks about Blues Olympians Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk

ST. LOUIS -- In a recent trip into St. Louis, Nashville Predators and United States general manager David Poile answered questions about the three Blues players representing Team USA in David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, who will drop the puck Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m. (St. Louis time) to open the 2014 Sochi Olympics against Slovakia:

On David Backes?
-- I got to know him real well in 2010 at the Olympics. What was there not to like? His play and his personality ... as you know, we made him a part of the leadership group in July. Brian Burke, Ray Shero and I knew him real well. I have the fortune -- good or bad, however you want to look at it -- playing the Blues all the time for a couple years so I've certainly seen how his career has established itself and what he's meant to the Blues and the affect that he has in every game that we play. He's going to be a real important player for us in this tournament and we're certainly looking for him both on the ice and off the ice as part of our leadership group.

Does Backes embody as close to a perfect Olympian as anyone can?
-- If you're asking would I like to have him on my team (Poile laughs)? Absolutely. We are talking about the best players in the game. ... The day before we picked a captain, any of the five guys (Backes, Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Suter and Dustin Brown) could have been the captain and it was just the choice of how we came about doing it. That doesn't diminish what David's role or any of these other guys' roles. We certainly expect that they're going to be participating in both on-ice contributions and off-ice contributions.

What makes you fear David Backes?
-- It's not a day in the park when you're playing against David Backes. ... That's nothing new to me. In an NHL game, you might be talking about the matchups on one or two lines that might be important. In the Olympics, it's lines one through four, so pick your poison. You need guys in every line that can match up against No. 1 lines in the National Hockey League.

On Oshie?
-- Same thing, I've got to watch him a ton being in the Central Division and watching him grow. He got some strong consideration in 2010 ... I think that's taken him to that level that everybody, including the coaches, see a fit. We're big on chemistry things; you have Backes and Oshie on the same line. Not that's what's going to happen, but you have power play, penalty killing, those type of things ... shootouts. He's played himself on the team, no question about that.

On Shattenkirk?
-- That's probably the biggest change on the team. We're coming back with nine forwards out of 14 that played in 2010, and we're only coming back with two defensemen in Suter and (Brooks) Orpik. Paul Martin got hurt before the Olympics in 2010, but there's five or six new guys and in this case, that's five younger players. In 2010, we talked about the North American game, the physicality of the North American game and we chose a certain type of defense which I think was right at the time. In Europe, we're looking for that high hockey IQ, a skating ability for the defenseman to take the puck from defense to offense as quickly as possible. This is where Shattenkirk got in the picture, just like (Cam) Fowler and (Justin) Faulk and these younger guys. I'm not trying to say they're exactly the same, but they have that high hockey IQ and they have that ability to make that first pass to get us out of playing defense and get us transitioning to playing offense as quickly as possible. I've had the benefit and fortunate to watch Shattenkirk, and his game's developed in the last three or four years, too. He's really taken it up a lot.

Trust in younger 'D' like Shattenkirk, taking him over someone like Keith Yandle, etc?
-- We've made the decision so we are where we are. You know how that goes. If you win, you're brilliant. If you lose, you should have taken this guy or that guy. The good news is and I'm trying to say this the right way: it's the first time in my recollection that there was any substantial criticism of the selection process, which I'm saying is a good thing because the quality of players that are available in the United States. Every chance I get, I try to say the same thing. Here in the National Hockey League, I'm the benefactor as a general manager. But the people at the grass roots level, these people that have put in all the time of USA hockey and the developmental program, everybody's doing a fantastic job and we're getting players from everywhere. From St. Louis, from Nashville, California, from Texas. It's fantastic right now. 

Slovakia turns to experienced Halak in goal

After leading Slovaks to fourth in 2010, Blues' netminder turned in 
strong performance for Montreal in playoffs; would take similar results in 2014

ST. LOUIS -- When Jaroslav Halak came off an Olympic experience with Slovakia in 2010, he came back and carried the Montreal Canadiens on a ride for the ages in the postseason.

Halak helped backstop Slovakia, which takes on the United States Thursday at 6:30 a.m. (St. Louis time), to a bronze medal game then before losing to Finland. But when he came back to the NHL, he supplanted Carey Price in the Canadiens' goal and went 9-9 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in the postseason, including nearly single-handedly eliminating both Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals as well as Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins from that playoff season.
Jaroslav Halak at 2010 Olympics in Vancouver

Halak, who will get the start against USA and fellow Blues teammates David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk, wouldn't mind rewriting a similar script. He'd only like to help the Blues advance deeper than the conference final, where the Canadiens were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers then.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's an exciting time for all the players," said Halak, who is 24-8-4 with a 2.26 GAA and .915 save percentage with the Blues. "You know you're going to play against the best in the world. It's really a big honor and challenge for everybody. We'll see how everything plays out. 

"When I get back, hopefully, we can all play well. March is going to be a big month for us. I just want to play my best any time I'm called to play."

Halak is no stranger to international competition. This will mark his second Olympics. He was with Slovakia as well at the World Championships in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

"It's been a long time," Halak said. "It's been three years already (since the 2011 World Championships). I always look forward to it. It's a great honor to represent your country, whether it's at the Olympics or the World Championships. It's more special that it's the Olympics.

"It's going to be good to get to know some young guys and see the older guys and get everybody together."

Halak, who also played for Slovakia at the 2004 and 2005 World Junior Championships, is 7-10 with a 2.60 GAA and .903 save percentage in international competition, including 3-3 with a 2.41 GAA and .911 save percentage for the underdog Slovaks in 2010.

"The first Olympics, I enjoyed it, but I wasn't really paying attention completely to it," said Halak, who will not have any family with him in Sochi. "Now I know what it's all about. I know you have to be really good in every game in order to make a really good impression on everybody. We have to play one game at a time and do our best in every game.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Slovakia will rely on Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak to 
help carry the load for the country's Olympic hopes.
"It's the biggest sport back home, but at the same time, I think our development system for young players is not the best. We do not have that (much) young talent coming up. For such a small country, we are fortunate to have the players like we have."

Slovakia will rely on the likes of Chicago's Marian Hossa and Boston's Zdeno Chara to help them persevere against more heavily-favored teams like USA, Canada, Sweden and Finland.

And in the Slovaks' first game, Halak will look across at some familiar faces in Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk.

"We've faced him enough times in practice to have an understanding where to shoot against him," Shattenkirk quipped. "We know what Jaro's meant to us with the Blues and it'll be a great challenge to face him at the Olympics."

To which Halak joked back, "I know where they like to shoot, so I should be more than ready. But they (the Americans) have a great team and we'll have to play our best to beat them."

Steen's Olympic dream fulfulled

Blues left wing, leading scorer to represent Sweden for first time

ST. LOUIS -- When Alexander Steen steps onto the ice today for Sweden at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, like many of his counterparts who will be participating for the first time, it'll be a dream that comes to fruition.

But for Steen, who leads the Blues with 28 goals and is tied for the team lead in points (46) with T.J. Oshie, there was a hint of confidence that he would don the Swedish jersey in international competition for the first time since representing them at the 2007 World Championships.

"It's a fun time. I don't think I was nervous at all," Steen said. "It's more anticipation for that day to come. It's something you can't control. But I felt good. I'm very happy. I'm very proud and honored to represent my country in the Olympics. I'm looking forward to it.

"I think it's something that I'll look back on later. ... Obviously I was ecstatic to get picked for something like that. That time will come."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
For Blues LW Alexander Steen (20), representing Sweden at the 
Winter Olympics is "something you grow up dreaming about."

Steen, 29, began visualizing what being an Olympian would be like this past summer. His father Thomas, who played 950 games for the Winnipeg Jets, never represented Sweden as an Olympian. He did play for Sweden twice at the World Championships (1981 and 1986).

"We spoke a lot about it. I had a pretty close relationship and contact with (Sweden) coach (Par Marts)," Alexander Steen said. "We discussed stuff from the summer and on. 

"It's something you grow up dreaming about doing. For it to become a reality is very special. It's going to be a great time to share with friends and family. They've supported me throughout my career and getting to this point."

Sweden is one of the favorites to win the gold medal, and Steen and Blues teammate Patrik Berglund hope to play a role in fulfilling the country's third gold medal and first since 2006 in Turin, Italy. They'll do so playing alongside the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Lundqvist and slew of other talented group of NHL players.

"It's a different feel to it," Steen said of international competition. "You hang out with 25 Swedish players, everybody around the team is Swedish. All that stuff is going to be very enjoyable.

"Bergie and I will go over and compete at a high level and we'll do the best we can."

Sweden opens group play at 11 a.m. (St. Louis time), 9 p.m. (local time) against the Czech Republic (USA Network).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blues' short-term goals achieved

When team reconvenes following Olympic break, 
25 games remain, including rugged March schedule

ST. LOUIS -- For the next two-plus weeks as the 2014 Sochi Olympics are about to get underway for the men's ice hockey competition, Blues players will be split up -- literally.

Half the team, including general manager Doug Armstrong as well as head coach Ken Hitchcock have departed for Russia to represent their respective countries in search of gold. The other half? Well, there will be plenty of rest and relaxation at the outset; some will head south for warmer climates, some will head north for similar weather that's been hovering in St. Louis for much of the winter with ski's and slopes on their minds.

But the Blues (39-12-6), who are tied in points (84) with the Chicago Blackhawks atop the Central Division standings, had hopes of catching the Hawks when they finished the pre-Olympic schedule.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Alexander Steen (20) leads the Blues in goals with 28 and is tied
with T.J. Oshie for most points with 46. Steen will participate in the
Olympics for Sweden.

Not only do the Blues have a realistic shot at winning the division, they're right in the middle of the Western Conference's top mark as well as the NHL's top record, which would see a Presidents' Trophy come along with it.

"We're sitting in a pretty good position," said veteran winger Brenden Morrow, who scored his 10th goal Saturday in a 4-3 shootout victory against the Winnipeg Jets.

"There's parts of our game we're going to have to clean up down the stretch, but this is the point in the season where there's some sloppy things that are happening and you've just got to grind it out and find ways to collect points," Morrow said. "They're going to be huge. They keep adding up."

The Blues are third in the league in wins behind Anaheim (41) and Pittsburgh; they have the second-fewest regulation losses behind the Blackhawks (11); they have the highest point percentage (.737) with games in hand on other teams; they're second in the league in goals per game (3.32) behind Chicago (3.37); they're tied for third in the league in goals against per game with San Jose (2.32), which only trails Los Angeles (2.10) and Boston (2.14); their 1.40 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio only trails Boston (1.48) and Anaheim (1.43); they're tied for fourth in the league in power play efficiency (21.7 percent); they're fourth in the league in penalty kill at 85.1 percent; they're second only to New Jersey (25.4) in shots against per game at 26.6. 

Individually, players are having career years, and the Blues are the only team in the NHL with nine players with 30 or more points. There have been many accomplishments but there's plenty more left to do.

"It's been a very difficult challenge for the players to maintain a hard focus," Hitchcock said. "They deserve a lot of credit. Every time we got pushed and shoved we answered the bell.

"Everybody knows that we've got a whole other gear we're going to have to play at and we've got another gear we can play at. To get points every night is pretty important right now."

Along with the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, the Blues had 10 players selected to participate in the Olympics, more than any other team. The Blues are only sending nine with Vladimir Sobotka (fractured kneecap) on the mend and having to miss the Olympics for the Czech Republic. But David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk (USA), Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo (Canada), Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia) and Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia) all will be competing and training at high levels. Those that are staying here will have to keep pace when the team can reconvene on Feb. 16.

"The bumps and bruises add up, but the toll it takes mentally on you, too," Morrow said. "To get to here, it's good to get a little break and re-energize, refocus, but you can't completely shut it down. It's tough to get back when games are this intense. You don't want to fall back in summer hockey mode. We'll take a couple days and refresh, but then get focused again."

Goalie Brian Elliott agreed.

"Sometimes you want it, sometimes you don't," Elliott said after Saturday's 4-3 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets. "I think we're going to try and take advantage of it, keep on top of our fitness level a little bit and come back really hungry. 

"We have a tough March. We play a lot of games, I think the most in the NHL. It's going to be a battle. We've got to be ready for it and have all guys going hard. The guys coming back from the Olympics are going to be a little tired. Everybody's going to have to pick it up for them until they get their legs underneath them again."

The Blues will come back and begin a stretch of six games in seven away from home. They'll play 15 games in 28 days in March, which is the most in the NHL. The grind and race to the final 25 games will only be tougher.

"Everyone that's heading overseas is in pretty good shape, and the guys that are going on break are going to get some good skates when they get back," Oshie said. "I think everyone will be just fine. Maybe more so for those guys like 'Bouw' and 'Petro' who will be playing more minutes, but I think for the most part everyone's going to be ready to go when we get back.

"I think just everyone (needs) to come back refreshed. There's some frustrations on the bench, there's kind of this repetition of the same thing over and over again as far as practices and meetings. I think it's going to be fresh for everyone to get a little break from that and come back and have that fire, to get where we want to learn and get better."

Now that the Blues have caught up to Chicago, they'll need to take advantage of the three games in hand they have on the Hawks.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jay Bouwmeester (19) will play in the Olympics for Canada
before returning to help the Blues in the chase the the Stanley Cup.

"For us to be up there with that, it's a big feather in our cap, but we've got a lot of work to do here over the break, stay in shape and recover, get some rest and come back the same team and even better in the last 25 games," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "It's going to be like coming out of the lockout (after the Olympics) where everybody's full tilt and every point means something down the stretch. It's really going to be about the mental focus coming back and being the team that doesn't crack in those one-goal games."

Hitchcock will take where the team is at, but there's huge obstacles looming when the Blues start up again Feb. 26 at Vancouver.

"I'm more concerned about the process," Hitchcock said. "I told the players (Saturday) when we come back, March and April is for them. They have to really grab it coming back. My concern now is the process to get the team playing its best hockey at the right time. We've played awfully well, we've been really resilient all year, we've responded to challenges all year. but it's going to really get dialed up when we get back and our players recognize that. Some guys are really looking forward to it. We're a team that needs everybody. We've got a lot of really career years from people going on right now. We've got to continue to have that, but I'm more concerned about the process. There's a whole other level of engagement that we'd like to see from our team. I think come March, we're going to get it."