Thursday, September 18, 2014

Blues take the ice for camp with plenty of questions, motivation

Stastny among top additions that management hopes puts team over the top

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Doug Armstrong  had a goal in mind when the free agency period began July 1, to upgrade his team's center position.

With the addition of the biggest free agent on the market in Paul Stastny, it was the start of what would become a busy couple months.

And on the eve of his players taking the ice for the first time as training camp for the 2014-15 season is upon them (3 p.m. at Scottrade Center), the Blues' general manager's stance hasn't wavered when he was asked what area he'd like to see the most improvement in.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (20), Paul Stastny (middle) and Ian Cole (back, right) will
play prominent roles for the Blues in 2014-15.

"I'm hoping down the middle of the ice," Armstrong said Thursday at the Ice Zone. "I think adding a player like Stastny, obviously his resume speaks for itself, his playoff performance speaks for itself. Right in the prime of his career, we're getting him. Also bringing in (Jori) Lehtera, a big body. I think one of our greatest assets a few years ago is when we had the bodies of (Patrik) Berglund, (Jason) Arnott and (David) Backes, three big bodies coming out there that could play against anyone. I see the potential of having that now. We can move Backes to the wing, we can move Berglund to the wing, we can use all those guys in the middle, move Stastny over ... there's so many different options that (coach) Ken (Hitchcock) has. That's the exciting part, but I hope we're strong down the middle, I hope we have a different style of players down the middle than we've had in the past where we've done scoring from the middle and maybe not as much distributing. I think now we have the ability to do both."

Along with Stastny and Lehtera, Armstrong also brought in Joakim Lindstrom, who came into the NHL with Columbus and played for Phoenix and Colorado and is a close friend of Alexander Steen, was brought in on a one-year deal; former first round pick (eighth in 2006) Peter Mueller was also brought in on a one-year, two-way contract; also, Steve Ott was resigned in light of Vladimir Sobotka's surprising departure to the Kontinental Hockey League over money. 

On defense, Kirkwood native Chris Butler and Nate Prosser, formerly of the Minnesota Wild, were brought in on two-way contracts to compete on the blue line and Carl Gunnarsson was acquired via trade for longtime favorite Roman Polak.

The Blues, coming off a 52-23-7 season but another disappointing and exhausting first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, will give Hitchcock and his coaching staff plenty to look at. The first preseason game is Sunday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.

The Blues will begin on-ice workouts without 22-year-old Jaden Schwartz, who is without a contract after completing his three-year entry-level deal.

"More curious," Hitchcock said when asked if he's anxious to see what develops. "This is the deepest I've seen us by far. You want to see it play out during the season obviously, but this is necessary to compete in this conference. This is deep, and the conference is deep. The teams got better, we got better, so I'm really curious to see how these guys ... where they level off to, where they come in roster-wise. 

"I've watched Lehtera play a lot. I know he's a good player. I don't know where he's going to fit, but he's going to find his level here. The other thing we've been able to add is tremendous depth players, getting guys like Butler, Prosser, Mueller, Lindstrom ... these are guys that legitimately can play in the National Hockey League and are going to compete for spots here. There's going to be more internal competition for ice time, for roles that we've ever had here since the day I got here. It's good for the coach, it's tough on the players, but it's really good for evaluations."

Armstrong, who supplied Hitchcock and the coaches with the roster that features 58 players, echoed the coach's comments.

"I think the depth is maybe the strongest we've had since we've been here and I think the competition is going to be strong at training camp," Armstrong said Thursday. "That's why I'm looking forward to tomorrow. As much as you look forward to the exhibition games, I actually think the practices are going to be more defining than the games themselves. You're playing competition that are at different stages of their training camp, different guys are on the ice. When our guys look at our roster, I think they actually see maybe one spot open on defense that's really strong competition, maybe two and I think there's probably three forward spots open for competition. And then when you take it to the next layer, the players that are guaranteed jobs and we all know there are players guaranteed jobs here, are they going to be primary power play players like they were in the past, are they going to be on the ice in the last minute of a game when you need a goal, are they going to be on the ice the last minute when you're defending a goal? These guys are going to have to earn their ice time now. I know they're excited for the challenge. That's going to be the exciting part of training camp."

The players brought in on two-way contracts are not just here to fill space. They will be given every opportunity to make this team. Armstrong was not afraid to put one-way contracts in the American Hockey League (with the Chicago Wolves) last season.

"Doug's been straight with that," Hitchcock said. "If you're good enough to play, you're going to find a spot. I think the truthful aspect of this is that anybody that isn't a veteran player is going to have to be a little bit better but I think Doug showed last year with the one ways that played in the American Hockey League, that if you're a little bit better, he'll find a spot for you and he's not afraid to put one ways down there. This is full-on competition. 

"We had a meeting with the guys that are on two-way contracts (and told them) that they're going to have to be a little bit better than the guy they're playing across from. If they're the same, we're going to go with the guy that was here, but if they're a little bit better, then we're going to go with them. It's just the way it is in training camp. We're not going to have one of those speeches at the end of training camp where we say, 'You know, you had a great camp, but this guy's got a one-way contract and sorry about that.' That's not the speech Doug wants to have, and he's not prepared to make it. It's full-on competition, but they've got to be better because if it's the same, we're going to take the guy we know."

Also on the ice for the first time are new assistant coaches: Kirk Muller, former coach of the Carolina Hurricanes who played for Hitchcock in Dallas and longtime Buffalo goalie coach Jim Corsi, who spent 16 seasons with the Sabres.

"How are they settling in? They're running things now," Hitchcock said. "With Jim, his detail is unbelievable. He gets credit for the beginning of analytics and all that stuff, but he's a real pioneer of the teaching of the position of playing goal. This is a staff right now with great camaraderie and great chemistry, really dedicated to winning. The thing with Jim is that he's a teacher, he's got a teaching background, he's got a teaching mentality which I always like working with. And with Kirk, I love the fact that I can come up with ideas and turn the ideas over to Kirk and he can present them to the players. It's almost like you're working with another guy who can administer some of your thoughts if you don't have time in the day to do it. For me, Mulls' greatest attributes is that he was an elite player, really competitive and Kirk had this ability as a player to just want to go a little bit further than the guy he was playing next to and I think he can bring that to our players. And he really brought his focus onto the ice and didn't allow distractions to be part of it and he's going to be able to help the players in doing that stuff to make them better. 

"It's a helluva staff. We're really close and tight. We went through the get-to-know-you phase pretty strongly in June on purpose by design and we've been able to carry it forward from there, so it's a good staff."

One player the Blues are going to be cautious with is Gunnarsson, who is making strides towards a return to the lineup after having hip surgery. The left-handed Gunnarsson is expected to play in a top-four defensive role moving forward and he won't play in any of the early preseason games. The Blues will  play seven of them and the hope is to get Gunnarsson in towards the end.

"Gunnarsson is going to be kind of in between full participant and three-quarter participant," Hitchcock said. "Gunny's going to skate with the training staff and he's going to join us for the first phase of the session. We're doing 40-flood-40's. He'll take 45 minutes of conditioning and then the first 40 minutes part so we're not killing him. 

"The whole focus is to get him up to speed towards the end of camp, but he's really progressed nicely. So he's going to participate with the group. He'll always fall into the first group on the ice. He'll be out there early for the first two days with Group A following his conditioning skate."

Armstrong knows one area he's heavily counting on that's being questioned outside of the organization and outside of St. Louis: the goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen.

After allowing Ryan Miller to walk as a free agent, Armstrong signed Elliott to a three-year extension and brought up Allen, who was the AHL's goalie of the year, to vie for starter minutes.

"I'm hoping not to have to worry about it all year," Armstrong said of the goaltending. "I'm looking forward obviously to the competition between Jake and Brian. They've spent some time together over the summer, becoming acquainted with each other, but when they step on the ice, they're competitors in the sense that they both want the net. It's going to be really good. 

(Jordan) Binnington and (Niklas) Lundstrom are going to have a really good battle and we're going to have (Matt) Climie in here from Chicago. We have five goalies in camp, but the focus now is going to be on the top two guys to see how that plays itself out."

But the center position, which has been scrutinized for the better part of the past two postseasons after the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, who won the Stanley Cup this past season, eliminated the Blues with an advantage down the middle.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko is poised for a big season after coming into St. Louis in
the best shape of his career.

Now that the Blues have fortified the position, it allows them to be flexible with guys like Backes, Berglund and perhaps Ott.

"I think (Backes) and Berglund are going to be used in both aspects," Hitchcock said. "They're both going to play center and they're both going to play wing. It's going to be moved throughout training camp to see what works best. 

"David played 65 percent as a center iceman and 35 percent as a winger last year because when Steen took the faceoffs, he ended up being the right winger. That's a possibility to do it that way, but both guys are going to be experimented as centers and as wingers. We'll see what makes us the best. It does depend on Stastny-Lehtera. It does depend on how much they can absorb, how high up the ladder they play. And we'll know that after we have a bunch of competition. Not in the first four games, but in the last three games when teams pare down their rosters, we'll have a better evaluation of where we're at."

The first group is on the ice from 3-5 p.m. today, with the second group going from 5-7 p.m. Saturday marks the first day camp is open to the public, from 1-3 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. at Scottrade Center.


  1. Good stuff, Lou, thanks. One thing I am excited about this season is this statement from Coach Hitch:

    "It's good for the coach, it's tough on the players, but it's really good for evaluations."

    I think the time is long overdue for making it really, legitimately tough for the players to make the team, get playing time, and stay there. Complacency had killed this team over the last few years and I believe fixing that starts with the guys on the ice being a little uncomfortable about their places. I think it'll push guys to be better and that will mean success in the playoffs.


  2. Thanks a lot. I think that's why you see so many players, veteran NHL-experienced players, in camp this year. To make decisions tough on who makes this roster. It should be interesting how it all plays out.