2014 sixth-round pick more confident this year after small sample size
in NHL last season; feels stronger, leaner, quicker in bid to make team
ST. LOUIS -- Like most players learning the ropes of life in the NHL, Sammy Blais sort of had that deer-in-headlights thing going last season.
It's only natural. There are only so many Sidney Crosbys and Connor McDavids that grace the presence of the NHL, those generational players that come in and sweep the league off its feet.
Blais was like many players trying to ingratiate himself into the Blues and the NHL; he got his first taste of life in the league last season when he dressed in 11 games and had three points (one goal, two assists), a player that showed a tremendous amount of skill during training camp but to the surprise of many, was sent to the American Hockey League.
It was a humbling experience but one in which he took in stride and told himself he'd work harder to get back.
And the sixth round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft kept working at it, on and off the ice. Off the ice, he trimmed body fat off his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame and coming in this season, raised the bar and level of his expectations despite the glutton of forwards fighting for bottom three to five roster spots that are available.
"I sure feel more comfortable," Blais said. "I played a couple games last year and I know what to expect now. I know what it takes to play at the next level. I had a good summer of training and I came ready to get to this training camp.
"... Like every player, you want to play in the NHL. I think I've done a good job in the American Hockey League and when I came up last year, I think I did a pretty good job too. I just got to keep grinding and working hard every day and we'll see what happens."
There's no denying that Blais, a Montmagny, Quebec native, has the size and skill to play in the NHL; those qualities were firmly exhibited last year at camp, then when called up and given the chance to play in an NHL game and certainly with the San Antonio Rampage with 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 42 games. But what the Blues and coach Mike Yeo have hammered on is that Blais had to get better with his awareness on the ice, more so without the puck, in order to support his linemates better. Play without the puck had to improve.
"I think that the big test for him is going to be the exhibition games," Yeo said. "His first scrimmage was so-so. The second scrimmage I thought he played very, very well. There hasn't been a lot of secret on our part with Sammy or with anyone that his play without the puck is probably what's keeping him out of the NHL right now. What we're looking for is a little bit of improvement there. With the puck, he makes plays. Coming out of his own zone, his entries into the offensive zone, in the offensive zone, but his teammates need to be able to read off of him. I thought the scrimmage [Sunday] was very good. Now I'm very anxious to see what he can do in a (preseason game) because he's got a boatload of ability with the puck, he's very dangerous.
"We're not asking him to be a Selke Trophy winner here, but you have to play a game here where your teammates can read off of you and you have to play a game that allows you to get to your game. By saying that, you're always on the ice against good players in the NHL and if you're not doing good things, then you're not going to get the puck back and you can't play an offensive game."
Blais understands that and the only way to get a level of consistency is through repetition.
"I just got to keep working on those things and I think I've done a good job so far," Blais said. "As the camp goes, I just got to keep playing like I can play and I think if I do that, I I'm giving (myself) lots of chances to start the year here."
The challenge doesn't just fall on the shoulders of Blais. Coaching him up in those areas is a must and Yeo and his staff understand that.
"It's all coaching," Yeo said. "That's up to us right now, it's up to us to coach him out of some habits and work with him and show him some things, teach him things and then it's up to the player in terms of how quickly they grasp it, but we have tons of belief that he's going to get there. He's already shown improvement. It's just a matter of how fast now. Is he ready right now? That's what we're looking to see."
Blais spent a good portion of the summer in St. Louis working with Blues strength and conditioning coach Eric Renaghan on his skating and explosion on the ice to see where those were following a summer of eliminating body fat but remaining at his playing weight of 205.
"I was in St. Louis for most part of the summer and I worked with Eric and he's done a good job with me," Blais said. "My skating is a lot better this year.
"... I dropped a lot of body fat. I had some good scores on my off-ice training. They were really happy with that and that's some of the big parts of what they wanted me to do. I think my conditioning, I did a good job with that."
And by coming in with favorable numbers off ice, Blais was given an early opportunity to skate with veterans Alexander Steen and Tyler Bozak. Blais wanted the challenge and Yeo gave it to him.
"They're two good veterans," Blais said. "They're working hard every time they're on the ice and I'm just trying to follow them. They've been helping me a lot, they're talking to me a lot. They're really good guys for me."
Playing with experienced veterans is a good way for not only Blais to get comfortable playing at this level but also have guys on the ice that can help nurture him along.
"Obviously these (preseason) games are gonna be big for him and the rest of our group," Steen said. "He's got a lot of skill. He's a little bigger than I think people give him credit for. He's a pretty big boy and it looks like he's strong and he's definitely someone who can make plays in tight spaces and in today's game, that's a huge plus.
"Going through a couple training camps, you see (tentativeness) a little bit more. You can tell new and younger guys, it's a little nerves in the beginning and trying to find their way around and things like that. Usually around this time, it starts settling in, especially when we start playing games. You go back to your roots of just throwing the gear on and once that gear's on, you feel pretty comfortable and get into games and that. We'll see here over the next week."
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Sammy Blais (64) battles for position in a game against the Chicago
Blackhawks last season, one of 11 NHL games Blais has played in.
Blais admitted that at times when he played with the Blues last season, he was scared to be himself and make plays, perhaps deferring to the veterans and more experienced NHL players instead of just being himself.
That mindset seems to have changed, and by getting stronger, leaner and quicker comes more confidence, and Blais has it.
"I've just got to be confident in myself," Blais said. "In the American Hockey League, I was just playing my game and doing what I can. Maybe last year when I got called up here, I was scared of making plays, but I just got to play my game. That's when I'm at my best. Just play the game and have fun on the ice."