The St. Louis Blues have been hit by the injury bug early and often this year, dating back into the offseason when players like Jori Lehtera and Patrik Berglund required surgery. Lehtera returned for the start of the 2015-16 season, but Berglund’s recovery is long-term and since opening night the Blues have seen a number of other regulars hurt. To combat this trend, St. Louis brought veterans into training camp on professional tryouts (PTO) and again invited unsigned free agents to work out for the team as recently as last month. While primarily meant to be insurance and roster fill-ins, the PTO players are contributing to the Blues’ early success.
Scottie Upshall was perhaps the biggest surprise to make the St. Louis roster out of training camp this year. The 32-year-old winger is a former first round pick, but even after over a decade in the league, has never quite lived up to the hype that saw him go sixth overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Only five times over the course of his career has Upshall played anything close to a full NHL season, but his experience, speed and grit have kept him on the ice and he has fit in well with the Blues.
He looks faster than a lot of his opponents, getting to loose pucks quickly and has the strength to stay on them, even in the corners and through the crease. Upshall already has three goals this season for the Blues and continues to impress every night, whether paired with younger guys like Robby Fabbri or fellow vets such as David Backes. Upshall wasn’t the only PTO to start the season in St. Louis, however.
Scott Gomez was another camp invitee, brought in to potentially shore up the middle of the ice vacated by Berglund’s injury. Having played the majority of his 16 year NHL career with the New Jersey Devils, the journeyman Gomez has now seen action with five other teams, including the Blues. A crafty, play-making centerman, Gomez is showing St. Louis that he still has plenty of gas in the tank and has a goal to go along with six assists in 10 games so far this season.
He’s displayed deft puck-handling skill and the vision that saw him post 30-or-more helpers in 11 straight seasons earlier in his career. As a bonus, Gomez assisted on the Blues’ first goal last night in their victory over his former team. The beneficiary of that assist? Another Blues PTO player.
Martin Havlat is yet another former Devil who joined the Blues and made an immediate impact, scoring his first goal with the team against the one he played for last year, New Jersey, on a feed from Gomez. It was perhaps the only instance (you’ll ever hear me mention) of serendipity in Blues hockey.
Havlat signed a one-year deal for $600K after his PTO began in the final week of October. The Blues had already lost Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny to long-term injuries and winger/center Steve Ott suffered an upper-body injury, further thinning the forward corps. Ty Rattie and Magnus Paajarvi have both been recalled from AHL Chicago to help balance out the lines but have been largely ineffective, prompting the invitation sent to Havlat and yet another ex-Devil in Dainius Zubrus.
Zubrus didn’t stick, perhaps due to the increased intensity and comfort level Paajarvi is showing (he scored his first goal of the season last night), but Havlat impressed enough to earn a contract and was immediately thrown into the mix. Hitchcock obviously liked what he’d seen from the Czech in practices over the last week.
“He’s got patience with the puck and that’s what we need. It’s a good add for us right now,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday.
I can’t recall the last time the Blues had so many PTO players contributing so much to the team so early in the season. If they can continue (logic and appearances indicate team chemistry is only getting better) to provide these sparks, St. Louis will have very interesting choices to make later this season when guys begin to return from IR.