The St. Louis Blues are hoping that more of the same will not be the trend in the Gateway City.
A franchise that has not seen the Western Conference Final since 2001 and the Stanley Cup Final since 1970, the Blues management team did everything they could over the summer to ensure a change in culture. With players such as Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow and Ryan Miller departing, the franchise welcomed a fresh batch of new faces at training camp. Some of these skaters included Jori Lehtera, Peter Mueller, Nate Prosser and, of course, Paul Stastny.
With the Scottrade Center doors open to the public, the Blues took the ice this weekend for drills, grueling skates and, for the goalies, work with new goalie coach Jim Corsi. Sunday evening, the team traveled to Columbus for the first preseason matchup of the 2014-15 season. The Blues lost, 4-3, in overtime.
While on the ice at Scottrade Center, fans and media witnessed head coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff running drills with players, while instilling his system into the new players’ mindset. When watching training camp, it’s important to remember that the coaches aren’t exactly looking for the hardest slap shot or the slickest move on the goaltender; they are looking for the players who have trained vigorously over the summer and display the desire to compete at a high level when the season begins.
I considered this when I attended. Here is what I saw from the Blues over the weekend.
When Ott was re-signed this summer, Blues fans became divided on the move. Some saw the gritty, key faceoff man that fits Blues hockey and the others saw a stick of dynamite in the offensive zone that could blow up into a penalty at any given time.
Ott’s relationship with the Blues was lukewarm at best, scoring just five assists and posting a minus-15 in 29 regular season and playoff games. However, any doubters who came to camp saw a different Ott than before.
The forward, who inked a two-year, $5.2 million contract extension in July, skated a large portion of time with Patrik Berglund and 2014 No. 21 overall draft pick, Robby Fabbri. The checker, who took Jaden Schwartz’s former No. 9 when he switched to Vladimir Sobotka’s No. 17, showcased a keen eye for the net with speed along the wing (yes, speed). He looks like a rejuvenated skater that could fill in on one of the top-three lines if needed.
Ever since general manager Doug Armstrong’s end-of-season press conference in April, it seems a large focus for the team has been on 23-year-old left winger.
“Magnus is going to get the opportunity to come and create space for himself,” Armstrong said after the Blues’ six-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. “Now Magnus has a lot to do this summer. He’s got to get stronger, he’s got to get bigger. He has to commit to becoming the player that we want. If he does that, the ice time will be here.”
Paajarvi’s response mirrored his GM’s wishes. The Swede packed on eight pounds over the summer, bulking up to become a player that can fit in the Blues’ style of play. Before, he relied on soft hands and quick strides to beat NHL defenders. Now, Paajarvi can still use those tactics but can handle his own along the boards and in front of the net.
His reviews from his coach have people believing that Paajarvi is going to get a solid look as a top-nine forward.
“He really got our attention with what he did in the summer,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a big, strong guy now. He started last year as a light, fast player. We changed his fitness routine halfway through and focused on upper-body strength.
“He bought into that and took that program and continued it during the summer. He is one fit, strong guy right now. He’s exactly what we need.”
Paired with Ryan Reaves and Philip McRae for much of camp, Paajarvi was able to battle defenders for loose pucks and send his linemates crisp passes during every offensive drill. He’ll likely start out as a fourth-line winger, but the former first-round draft pick could easily slide into a scoring line as early as November.
Barbashev was drafted with the Blues’ second pick, No. 33 overall, in this past draft (the pick that was acquired from Edmonton in the David Perron deal). His skillset, which features two-way play to go along with top-end offensive abilities, placed him in an elite class of the draft pool. It was evident in the first days of camp.
The Russian winger received high praise from his new coach right off the bat, skating on a line with T.J. Oshie and David Backes through much of practice. His offensive know-how was on full display, weaving in and out of defenders while allowing his linemates to get set in the offensive zone. His energy was a motivating factor as his youth and hunger to make the big club were shining brighter than the lights at Scottrade Center.
The only reason that Barbashev will not be on the St. Louis opening roster is because of the tremendous depth at the forward position. It’s my belief that the highly touted forward would at least receive a nine-game tryout to start the year if not for contributing circumstances. Because of the team’s depth, management can feel comfortable in not rushing the young star, allowing him to develop for at least one more season before making the jump to the NHL.
Although the Stastny signing has been the talk of the town this summer, the Blues’ other signing, Lehtera, is one that will turn heads. Much has been said about the chemistry between Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko, but the Finnish center is a marvel on his own. His passing and offensive instincts seem to match that of any second-line center in the league.
The coaching staff has ran several drills throughout camp that emphasized cycling in the offensive zone for the forwards and recovering from a defensive-zone turnover for the defensemen. During one such drill, Tarasenko and Lehtera, paired with Peter Mueller, went against top defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. You would think that the sizable advantage would be in the defense’s favor; this was not the case. Lehtera and Tarasenko found each other multiple times before Tarasenko received a perfect pass from Lehtera and buried the shot from goalie Matt Climie’s doorstep.
Although these types of drills simulate real-game situations, an in-game circumstance could produce different results. However, the chemistry has been highly publicized and it’s obvious now as to why.
The Blues’ defenseman was the subject of scrutiny after the 2014 postseason. A small group of fans felt that Shattenkirk was a moveable piece from the Blues’ stacked blue line, resulting in trade rumors swirling through the NHL media.
Time has passed and Shattenkirk remained a Blue (thankfully). The 25-year old, paired mostly with Ian Cole, still possessed his quick transition game and thread-the-needle passing ability to open camp. While some players seem to lose a step during the offseason and need to regain it through the early stages of training camp, Shattenkirk was already in prime condition when he took the ice on Friday.
Factor this in with a new defensive partner (Carl Gunnarsson, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery), and it seems that Shattenkirk is primed for his first 60-point campaign.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@jponder94) through the preseason for more thoughts on the St. Louis Blues.