Thursday, September 17, 2015

Blues set to open camp Friday

New faces arrive, former ones no longer around; Hitchcock to take different 
approach in hopes of fueling team not only in regular season, postseason as well

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues take the ice Friday at Scottrade Center for the start of training camp leading up to the 49th season in franchise history, it will be the fifth for coach Ken Hitchcock.

But in many ways, it will be like his first.

Sort of.

Looking at the statistical record, it will be Hitchcock's fifth with the Blues after signing a one-year extension May 26, but after a third consecutive ouster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the first round, Hitchcock will take a different approach as camp unfolds.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players Alexander Steen, David Backes (second from left), Alex
Pietrangelo (right) and Kevin Shattenkirk (bottom) all return with lofty
goals in mind. T.J. Oshie (second from right) is no longer on the team.

There will be more scrimmages. There will be more off-ice watching from above, and there will be more evaluation.

After countless hours of meetings with the coaching staff, there is a plan in place. Now it's time to execute it.

Game on. Or is it drop the puck?

"I don't think that you can, with what we're going to do, with as much as we're going to scrimmage, I don't think you can evaluate close to the ice," said Hitchcock, whose team has amassed the most points (389) in the NHL during his tenure in St. Louis. "It's hard. It's like coaching. By sitting in the stands, it's like looking at the game through video. I'm going to get a better read on players, on chemistry, on things that I need to get a read on moving forward. That's No. 1 for me. If we were just running practices, this would be different, but because we're scrimmaging, I need to be able to observe what we're doing. Every day gets themed, so whatever we worked on the first session, the scrimmage part of that will be put in place. We want to see some of that stuff in the scrimmage, the stuff that we work on the first 50 minutes when we're on the ice. I'd like to see it from a little higher up. 

"Second part is, I've got lots of time during the second phase. I just think the first week of camp is an evaluation phase. I need to get a good read on some of the players that we're just learning about and things like that. I can do that from further up. I'm looking forward to it."

The Blues, who were 51-24-7 (109 points) last season, lost to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round in six games, the third straight season they've been eliminated -- not only in the first round -- but in six games.

There was some question whether Hitchcock would return after his contract was set to expire on July 1. But after a long thought process, sorting through what went wrong last year and getting a boost in wanting to help the Blues finish the job, Hitchcock -- with help from returning assistant coaches Brad Shaw, Ray Bennett, Kirk Muller and Sean Farrell -- went back to work.

There will be one change that goes back in time when Hitchcock proclaimed that the Blues will go back to playing fast and reckless. And in order to do that, this is a step-by-step evolution. 

"I've never stepped back off the ice because quite frankly, it's always been two practices and play a game, so having four days is different for me," said Hitchcock, whose Blues will open preseason play Tuesday in a split squad game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. "I was looking back on it; it's been five years since I've had this many days in a row before playing a game. I haven't stepped off the ice, but I haven't scrimmaged as much either. Even when we were scrimmaging, I was still behind the bench standing there with my skates on watching the scrimmage but not getting a great evaluation. This way, I get four days of really good evaluation. I get to evaluate the things that the coaches have worked on and to me, it's good to have a different voice. These are experienced coaches and I think it's good for the players and good for them, to give them an opportunity to run their own practice. We're all going to have an input on the practice, we've all had input on the practice on what we want to see, but this gives them an opportunity to run their drills that are specific to the areas of improvement. You'll be able to see in the drills what areas we're focused on and that on a daily basis."

Blue fans expected a major overhaul of the roster after a third -- fourth of one counts the second-round sweep against the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. There were changes; just not the quantity that many expected.

Popular T.J. Oshie was traded to the Washington Capitals in a package that brought the Blues tough scoring winger Troy Brouwer, and center Kyle Brodziak was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Wild. Veteran defensemen Barret Jackman (Nashville) and Zbynek Michalek (Arizona) were not resigned when they became unrestricted free agents, nor were centers Marcel Goc (who signed to play in his native Germany), Olli Jokinen (unsigned) and left wing Chris Porter (Philadelphia).

The Blues have invited veteran center Scott Gomez, left wing Scottie Upshall and defenseman Stu Bickel to camp on professional tryouts. Veteran NHL defensemen Andre Benoit (previously with Buffalo) and Peter Harrold (New Jersey) were signed to one-year, two-way contracts to provide depth.

"I look at it, anybody that played in the National Hockey League last year, if they're coming into try out, whether they're a tryout player, professional tryout player or a player like Harrold or like Benoit who happened to sign a two-way deal, out of respect for those players, we want to give them every chance to make the hockey club," Hitchcock said. "That's what we're going to do. They're going to have to earn along the way, but we're going to give them every opportunity ... we're going to treat them like they're signed players. We're going to treat them like they come in, they make the team, we find a way to make room for them. ... We want to give them a fair shake every day, first by who we play them with, secondly by how many games we play them and if they continue to play well, then we continue to move them up the ladder."

And back among the regulars are captain David Backes and assistant captains Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo (there will be replacements named for Oshie and Jackman). Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny come back to play significant roles among the top six forwards; Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson come to camp after injury-plagued seasons, and then there's right wing right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, a budding star who was paid like one (eight-year, $60-million contract) this off-season. 

Jake Allen, who signed a two-year extension in the offseason, and Brian Elliott will man the pipes and compete for game minutes, and Dmitrij Jaskin, Steve Ott, Ryan Reaves and Magnus Paajarvi round out forwards expected to vie for time.

Young defensemen Robert Bortuzzo, acquired last season for Ian Cole, and Petteri Lindbohm will replace Jackman and Michalek in the top six, and St. Louis native Chris Butler was brought back to likely be the seventh defenseman. 

Center Robby Fabbri, the Blues' 2014 first-round pick, and defenseman Colton Parayko will get an extended look at camp, along with a number of others that played for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League last season. 

Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Jori Lehtera (ankle) both who have had offseason surgeries, respectively. Lehtera is expected to be available for the start of the regular season but Berglund is out until January.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (from left) Ryan Reaves, Brian Elliott, Jori Lehtera, Carl
Gunnarsson and Jake Allen look on after being eliminated from the 
playoffs last season in Minnesota. They want to avoid similar situation.

The onus is once again on those back to not only replicate past regular seasons but to find solutions to make this a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

The drive begins Friday, and after taking time to reflect on last spring's fallout, it's time to turn the page and move forward.

"If I was to tell you that we lose to Minnesota and I flipped a switch and was golfing all summer and didn't think another thought about it, that would be pretty disappointing and pretty shocking," Backes said. "You wouldn't want that. From me, it was long, individual reflection and then I was here for eight weeks after the season with meetings and conversations and a few beverages to try to talk out and try to solve problems. They've subsided a bit; they haven't completely gone away and we're focused on finding how we take a step forward in the playoffs and not status quo is definitely not acceptable around here. Reflecting on it, yes, and then after reflecting on what happened, you get to the next point and that's problem solutions. Bring me a problem; OK. Bring me a problem with a solution, that's what we're looking for and that's what we spent a ton of time on this summer."

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