Wednesday, October 3, 2018

All eyes will be on Blues' kids in opener Thursday

Thomas, Kyrou to make NHL debuts; Barbashev, Blais, 
Schmaltz also to play on season-opening roster for first time

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Robert Thomas was hopeful of getting some sleep Wednesday night but doubted he would. Jordan Kyrou's smile was noticeable from ear to ear. Sammy Blais was in a different place a year ago as was Ivan Barbashev, who is the elder statesman of the kid line that will line up Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets.

Ahh, kids.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues rookie Jordan Kyrou (33) will make his NHL debut and play on a line
with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn Thursday against Winnipeg.

Many eyes will be on the Blues, who open the 2018-19 season against the Jets (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), and their newly-added players, but there will be plenty of eyes firmly gazing at Thomas and Kyrou particularly, who will be making their respective NHL debuts.

Defenseman Jordan Schmaltz will play in his first season-opener.

When one combines the NHL experience among the five: 116 games, and Barbashev accounts for 83 of them.

"I know," Barbashev, 22, said with a grin when asked if he knew he was the elder statesman of the fourth line that will line up Thursday against the Jets with him, Thomas (19 years old) and Blais (22).

But that's who coach Mike Yeo will trust to line up when called upon against the talented and heavy Jets squad many are picking as not only favorites to win the Central Division but win the Western Conference and Stanley Cup.

"We're going to call them young guys, but what they showed me is they're hockey players, and I don't care, young guys, old guys, we want guys that are going to be here and guys that are going to help us win hockey games," Yeo said. "They've showed me that they're going to improve. Obviously they're young and they're still developing and and their game is not where it's going to be down the road. There's still parts to learn and they're still getting used to the league, opponents and all that kind of stuff. But bottom line is I saw improvement in their game, I saw guys that come in here and they're not just going to try to be young guys who fit in. They're going to be young guys who contribute to us winning hockey games and having an impact in the hockey game."

Thomas, a 2017 first-round pick, and Kyrou, a 2016 second-round pick, both earned their way onto the roster, and in fact, Kyrou, who was playing with house money knowing he could be assigned to San Antonio of the American Hockey League, was performing in camp as if he had nothing to lose.

Kyrou will line up in the top six and play alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn.

"I came into camp to make the team," said Kyrou, the reigning OHL player of the year. "I made opening night and that's good and I need to continue to play my game and keep my game up.

"That was my mindset coming in. I wanted to stay here. I want to make an impact up here. I just came in with the mindset of playing my game. ... Definitely my speed's a big factor. This game today, speed's a big factor. I think I can bring my speed to all ends of the ice, not only creating offense, but good defensively as well."

Schenn was once in Kyrou's shoes and will do everything he can, along with Schwartz, to incorporate him into the life of the NHL. But one thing is for certain: these guys earned their way onto the team. Nobody gave it to them.

"'Blaiser' was here last year, so obviously he knows what it's all about," Schenn said. "It's nerve-wracking no doubt about it as a young guy coming into an NHL locker room. But both of those kids are awesome. They work hard on and off the ice. They're respectful of everyone, they're humble kids and they're willing to get better. For us, it's nothing that we really do anything special. Just include them, they're a part of the team now, they're going to be a part of the Blues organization for a long time. They're going to be great players, both of them had great preseasons too and earned a spot."

The Blues will be going away from their traditional fourth line that's been known for a heavy forecheck and grinding opponents down. No more Ryan Reaves. No more Kyle Brodziak. No more Scottie Upshall. Chris Thorburn is in San Antonio.

It's all about the speed, skill, and if needed, sprinkle in some grinding.

"I've never seen it like this before," Barbashev said. "It was a really interesting training camp, to be honest. When you see like Sammy, 'Tommer', Kyrou ripping this training camp, it was really interesting decisions for the coaches. I'm pretty sure it's going to be a lot of fun to be honest.

"... It's something new, it's different from last year. For us, it's probably like use our speed and hold the puck offensively. I'm pretty sure that's going to help the team and bring some energy because that's usually what a fourth line does. You saw Sammy, he bangs too out there."

Blais, a 2014 sixth round pick, made a favorable impression in camp last year before he was sent down to the Rampage in a humbling move. He was recalled multiple times but injuries hampered his season and some stern learning curves. Now he's ready to help the transition of a fourth line to something with more offense and skill.

"It was a different feeling than last year," Blais said. "Last year, I was the last one sent down to San Antonio. When I got my meeting on Monday morning, it was a really good feeling. I was a little bit nervous, but I was thinking I would be on the opening night roster. I had a pretty good preseason and I think they were really happy with my play. I got to keep doing that and I think I'll do just fine.

"... I think we're three pretty skilled guys and I think we need to bring energy and when we're on the ice, we need to create some offensive chances. Just be good defensively, create some energy with some hits and I think we're three pretty good players. We're young, but I think we all proved in the preseason we can all play against the big lines and we've just got to be good defensively and and I think we'll be good."

Thomas, who is coming off an Ontario Hockey League championship with the Hamilton Bulldogs, isn't out of the woods yet. The Blues have the option of playing him in the NHL for nine games before deciding whether to assign him to juniors for the remainder of the season or keep him here. But the fact he's still here gives him the opportunity to gain more footing.

"The main thing for me is to continue getting better," Thomas said. "Throughout main camp, my goal was every day to get better. It's the same thing over the next nine games. It's completed one challenge of getting here. Now I've got to stay, so it's another challenge for me. Throughout camp, I've gotten better. Now it's just time to focus on the real games.

"... Obviously you're real nervous going up to this point, something you worked your whole life for and it all came down to that moment where they tell you whether you're staying or not. It was a big relief for sure."

"Yeah, we're hopeful," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I think the interesting part for Robby is we put him in a spot where we thought he was going to play this year, and that's a support player on the fourth line coming behind the offensive players. Probably since Robby's been 11 years old, he's played with the best players, in the prime ice, all the time. I think that he had to learn as a 19-year-old, you're going to have to make the most out of 11 minutes, 12 minutes, 13 minutes before you move up to 18,19, 20. He's grown in that area and I think having potentially Blais on his wing right now, you have some good offense there. I think our team has tried to evolve  to make a deeper scoring unit and I think if we have a fourth line that can consist of potentially of Barbashev, Thomas and Blais, I think that can score some goals too, which will hopefully make us difficult to defend."

And that drive down to the rink Thursday?

"The whole sort of thing will be really surreal," Thomas said. "It'll be like it's such a dream-come-true that you don't really know how to react during the whole thing. I think it'll be a great experience for me and something I'll look forward to."

Barbashev has his own story, and it's one that has paved a positive chapter thus far.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues rookie Robert Thomas (right) plays a puck last Friday in preseason
action against Dallas. Thomas will make his NHL debut Thursday.

Last season, Barbashev was sent to the minors after the Blues were disappointed in his conditioning entering camp, and it continued into the season. The numbers were reflective with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 53 games.

One subtle change, choosing to stay in St. Louis over the summer, made all the difference.

"I'm really happy that I made my decision to stay here in St. Louis and to work out here," Barbashev said. "I thought it was really good to be honest. I feel a lot better, the shape is a lot better. I just feel on the ice a lot better. It's a completely different season to me. I was really nervous last year, even like the practices and every single drill, panicking and nervous. This year is different. I'm like calm and things are so simple. I can't wait for tomorrow. It's been a long summer. We have really big expectations for this year."

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