Wednesday, July 22, 2020

From scoring threat to NHL wrecking ball, Blais continues to ascend up ladder for Blues

Forward having quite the noticeable training camp, focusing on being 
well-rounded in hopes of helping St. Louis win back-to-back Stanley Cups

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- The Blues had just gone over 16 minutes without a shot on goal in the opposition's building in the most important game in their history in need of a jolt.

Whether it be a hit, a shot on goal, a goal actually, anything to provide a spark, it was needed badly.

Sammy Blais provided it with a thunderous check on Boston Bruins forward Noel Acciari along the boards that created a turnover and loose puck with 3 minutes 25 seconds left in the first period of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Sammy Blais (9) skates with the puck with Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau
in pursuit during a Blues game March 10 at Enterprise Center.

Twelve seconds later, the puck was in the net, courtesy of a Ryan O'Reilly redirection to make it 1-0, and you know the rest, as the Blues celebrated their first Stanley Cup with a 4-1 win.

The goal was nice. It was needed, but what about the play that set it all up? The Blues' human wrecking ball has laid his hits wisely and made them timely.

Make no mistake, the hit laid by Blais on Acciari was, in fact, not a mistake. This is who the Montmagny, Quebec native has become in the NHL. This is what was needed from Blais to make his name in the league. But it wasn't always like that.

Coming from the junior ranks, specifically, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where offense rules and defense and playing a physical nature more or less takes a back seat, Blais was indeed a scoring wizard in Victoriaville but had to adjust to make a consistent living in the NHL.

It wasn't easy.

A sixth round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Blais changed his game to be more of a physical, forechecking forward that creates time and space for his teammates. The learning curve was challenging in the beginning, and the pipeline between St. Louis and San Antonio, Blais was the expert at it.

Fast forward to 2020, and judging by training camp 2.0 here at Centene Community Ice Center, Blais is forming into a well-rounded player again, focusing as much of his time on offense as he does on the physical part of his game.

He's been one of the more noticeable players in the first week and a half playing alongside Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas and scored three times in a team scrimmage on Wednesday.

"I feel really good," Blais said. "I missed a lot of time last year. I kind of feel like I was last year at training camp. I feel confident out there and just playing with 'Tommer' and 'Bozie' in camp it's been really good. I think we have some good chemistry. I feel really good and I'm just trying to get ready for playoffs right now. It's going to be a tough ride there in Edmonton and I think the boys are ready there."

Blais was sprung out of a chute at training camp at the start of this 2019-20 season but had his season a bit derailed by a right wrist injury Nov. 19 that required surgery and forced the 23-year-old to miss 10 weeks; he started off with eight points (five goals, three assists) in 20 games before getting hurt and finished with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 40 games.

"I thought that at the beginning of camp this year too, I thought he was tremendous, one of our better players at camp this year," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Blais. "Had a great camp and he started off the season really well and he got hurt, so it was unfortunate, but he's back to that level again. He looks really good out there for me, competing. His hands look really good. He's a competitive guy."

Blais, who has 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 83 NHL games over three seasons, isn't necessarily mistaking teammates for opponents in drills and scrimmages thus far but isn't holding back either; he had 155 hits this season, or 18.48 hits per 60 minutes, which ranked third in the league this season for players who played at least 40 games behind Vegas' Ryan Reaves (26.32) and New York Islanders' Matt Martin (25.32).

In fact, scouts from around the league have taken notice in Blais' ability to check to force turnovers and hits that lead to goals. He's been touted as the best on the Blues in both categories.

"A ton of skill as we see every day in practice and in the games," Bozak said. "A big body who's hard to move off the the puck and a guy who's a lot of fun to play with, creates a lot of plays from 1-on-1's, which is not an easy thing to do. He can beat a lot of defenders 1-on-1 and then make good plays after that. 

"We're still learning, us three, how to play as a line. I think that takes time. We haven't played a ton together in the past. We'll just keep trying to improve and get better and then when the games start meaning stuff, hopefully we'll be able to chip in and be a big part of this success."

Blais has 263 regular-season hits in the NHL spanning 83 games, and in at least 33 of those games, he had four or more hits, including six or more 11 times and a career-high nine Feb. 13 at Vegas.

"It's my teammates out there. I'm not going to run anybody over, a little bump here and there, trying to play my game and get ready for the playoffs," Blais said of his preparation. "I'm pretty sure when playoffs are going to start, I'm going to be playing my game and I'm going to try to be playing my physical game like I've been playing here."

But imagine Blais getting some of that scoring touch back he displayed in Victoriaville, and even Chicago and San Antonio of the American Hockey League? How well would that bode for an already deep lineup?

Blais isn't a stranger to potting goals; he had 34 in 61 games in 2014-15 with the Tigres and 33 in 63 games in 2014-15 with the Tigres and Charlottetown. Blais also scored 26 goals under Craig Berube in 2016-17 with the Wolves and 17 in with the Rampage in 2017-18.

"Blaiser's actually really good at getting pucks off the walls," Berube said. "He's got really good hands in tight. He's got a good shot. He's got the ability to beat a goalie with his shot. That line's looked good for me. I think they have pretty good chemistry. You've got Bozak out there. He does all the little things right for that line, protecting them, doing the right things, making sure he's in the right position and Tommer and Blaiser, they have the puck a lot and make a lot of plays."

It's seemed like everything Blais has touched in training camp has turned into good things. It was like that last season too when Blais made his playoff debut with the Blues facing elimination in the second round against Dallas. He stepped into Game 6, trailing the series 3-2, and scored the dagger goal in a 4-1 win in Dallas.

That offense has been put on the back burner a bit until Blais was able to get comfortable and familiarize himself with a more physical style in his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame.

"Before I got hurt last year, I think I was playing my game offensively and with being physical, I had a really good start to the season and I got hurt," Blais said. "Right now, I'm feeling really good, I feel like I can help the team win and I'm just going to try and work hard every day and get ready for another long run."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Sammy Blais (left) chases Florida's Frank Vatrano during a game
March 11 at Enterprise Center.

Vladimir Tarasenko may have benefited most with the four-month layoff and healing from a dislocated left shoulder, but the hiatus may have helped Blais heal that wrist completely and add him to a mix of underrated potential scorers.

"It was not bothering me too much, but I was playing with something on my wrist and it was not that comfy," Blais said. "Now everything's fine. I'm 100 percent and just going to try and help team win another Stanley Cup.

"I feel pretty good. I was here two weeks before camp, so I had the chance to get some skating in and we're all just trying to get ready for playoffs right now. Every day is important and I think guys are looking good. I think we're going to be ready when the playoffs are going to start."

That two-year, $3 million contract Blais signed April 15 could prove to be a bargain for the Blues.

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