By Lou Korac
The hype began when general manager Doug Armstrong began reshaping the Blues roster on July 1.
Now, with the 2018-19 regular season here, it’s time to see how the finished product looks for the Blues, who open the season Thursday at Enterprise Center against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Blues, who were 44-32-6 last season but missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons by one point after getting beat on the final night of the regular season by the Colorado Avalanche, retooled their team, particularly among the forwards, with only three players (Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn) that will be in the lineup against the Jets that were in the opening night lineup last season in Pittsburgh.
Armstrong signed Tyler Bozak and David Perron, who begins his third stint with the Blues after being a first-round pick in the 2007 draft, on July 1 before making the blockbuster trade later that night for Ryan O’Reilly, acquiring the center from the Buffalo Sabres for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, a first-round pick in 2019 and a second-round pick in 2021.
They brought in Chad Johnson to be Jake Allen’s backup after Carter Hutton left via free agency to sign on as the No. 1 goalie with the Sabres, Armstrong also signed Oakville native Pat Maroon on July 10 to and a pair of rookie forwards (Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou) will be making their NHL debuts.
The city is abuzz with hockey excitement, the team knows it, and now is the time to implement the pieces to a potential return to the playoffs and hopes of making a deep Stanley Cup run.
“I think that we have a team that should be able to compete with the top teams in the league now,” Armstrong said. “We have experience in key positions, but also a youthful enthusiasm that keeps life entertaining on a day-to-day basis. I like the makeup of this team having young players that are going to push. I think the depth of our team right now is strong. We have guys now in the American Hockey League that believe they should be here and are going to push to get here. It’s a competitive group and a deep group.”
O’Reilly was brought in to give the Blues a powerful punch down the middle of the ice, along with Schenn and Bozak. With the rookie Thomas also In the mix, it’s a big change since last season ended with Kyle Brodziak as the No. 2 center.
The additions put the Blues firmly up against the salary cap ceiling, so there’s a theme of ‘go big or go home’ circulating among fans, and the Blues are OK with that.
“A lot of it was self-induced, so I guess I was expecting it,” Armstrong said. “When we traded [Paul] Stastny last year, we knew we were creating an opportunity to bring a different player in. We were able to bring two in, in O’Reilly and Bozak, which I think strength down the middle of the ice is very important in today’s NHL. We did have expectations for [Sammy] Blais to come in and push hard. We had sort of penciled Thomas in for a nine-game tryout and he’s starting that. Kyrou will be the one player that we were hoping for the best and expecting the worst. Instead, he came in and did a great job to secure a spot on opening night and we’re excited about that. His speed is something that you don’t realize you miss it until you see it. I think it’s a real benefit to our team right now. Now the question is, ‘Can they keep at that level when there’s real bullets flying?’ We’re going to find that out.”
Defensively, the Blues did not change much from a team that was sixth in the NHL in goals allowed last season. Alex Pietrangelo returns as the team’s leader — and captain — on the blue line. Joel Edmundson, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn are a year older and wiser, Robert Bortuzzo and Jay Bouwmeester are veterans and Jordan Schmaltz and Carl Gunnarsson round out the top eight.
Edmundson, however, is dealing with a groin issue that came up in the preseason, Gunnarsson is still working his way back from offseason surgery on his torn left ACL and right hip and begins the season on long-term injured-reserve, and Bortuzzo will serve out the final game of a three-game suspension and will not play. That’s the reason the Blues will begin with nine defensemen on the opening night roster, including Niko Mikkola and St. Louis native Chris Butler, who is likely to be paired with Schmaltz and will make his first opening night lineup for his hometown team.
“It’ll be special,” Butler said. “I understand where I’m at in my career what my role is here. To be able to be a part of an opening night, to be able to kind of see the buzz around the city … all my friends that I grew up with are huge hockey fans and they still live here. The sense of excitement that you feel through them with all the things that transpired this summer, to be able to be a part of that, whether it’s just got opening night or for a week or whatever, it’s something that I’ll remember for a long time.
“I understand it’s a young man’s game these days, but at the same time, it’s what motivates you every day. You have that inner drive to want to be able to compete with these 18-, 19-year-old kids. A lot of them give you a hard time about being an older guy, but you kind of relish it and you enjoy it. That says something about you when you can last as long as you have.”
There’s also defenseman Jakub Jerabek, who was acquired for a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick from Edmonton on Monday, who will not be in uniform to open the season while he awaits paperwork for his working visa.
At forward, the anticipated return of Robby Fabbri, who has overcome two left knee surgeries to repair a torn ACL, will have to wait until Fabbri is able to, what Armstrong called on Wednesday: “get into hockey shape.”
Although the knee is holding up well, Fabbri has injured his groin, hip and back. He currently is recovering from a Grade 1 groin strain.
“I think it’s consistent with what we’ve said over the summer,” Armstrong said. “Last year we had him penciled into our group of six and this year, it’s a wait-and-see approach. Robby’s worked his tail off. His knee is as strong as ever, but he’s compensating in different areas, whether it’s the back, the groin or the hip. What we’ve got to now do is get him back in hockey shape, and that’s going to take a little while. Whether he’s a good player on Oct. 8th or 10th or even Nov. 1st, we’re into a five-year plan with this guy. He’s a young player we think is going to be here for a long time. We’re not going to be penny wise, pound foolish.”
Allen will get the bulk of the games in goal, and even though the Blues have made their lineup steady from top to bottom, in goal is where the question marks come from, and Allen, who was 27-25-3 with a 2.75 goals-against average and .906 save percentage last season, will have all eyes firmly laid in him.
“Goaltending’s a huge part of the game,” Armstrong said. “When I was interviewing coaches in Dallas, we were going to transition from Eddie Belfour to Marty Turco and I was interviewing Pat Burns, and Pat said, “Eddie’s a good goaltender, and goaltending is 80 percent of the game unless you don’t have it, then it’s a hundred.” We all know that that position is very important. We’ve seen really good things from Jake mentally ovet the summer in how he prepared. He came in with a little bit of a hiccup injury, but when he’s played, he looked fantastic, but I can’t really say too much. It is what it is, he’s got to get the job done.”
Mike Yeo will begin his second full season as Blues coach and third overall. He took over for Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1, 2017 and will get arguably as deep a roster as he’s had in nine seasons behind the bench, including five-plus with the Minnesota Wild.
Yeo adds a new coach to the staff, former Blues defenseman Mike Van Ryn, who was the coach of the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League, last season. Associate coach Craig Berube and assistants Steve Ott, Sean Ferrell and David Alexander (goalie coach) return.
“You could feel it today, there’s a different buzz, you always feel when you step out of training camp that the level is up and you could see it in practice today,” Yeo said. “The extra jump, the extra intention in players to get out there and to make things happen. There’s an excitement level. We’ve got big expectations and I think the important thing for us now is to make sure we stay in the moment, to continue to remember how much work needs to go into to getting to where we want to be.
“It’s a deep team, that’s for sure. As a head coach, it’s certainly up there for sure. … We’ve added some players, and obviously some good players, and what’s important now is we remember what’s important for us. That’s the only thing that matters right now, in our eyes, and what’s important for us in this locker room, that we don’t come to the rink and think we’ve added players and now everything’s going to be better and we’re going to be better. Bottom line is you still win in this game, you need good players, but you have to outwork the other team and play a stronger team game than the other team and we have to do that more often and more frequently than the teams that we’ve been playing against, if we do that night after night, we’re going to like where we’ll be at end of the year.”
Along with Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson, Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Hutton, Dmitrij Jaskin is no longer with the team after being claimed off waivers by the defending champion Washington Capitals.
“It’s not really anything that we didn’t see,” Armstrong said. “At the end of last year, Dmitrij asked if possible for a trade. He felt that his career was stagnating and I understood that. At the draft, I informed all the teams that he was looking for a new opportunity. That didn’t transpire and at training camp, I reconfirmed with all the (general) managers that he was looking for a different opportunity. I didn’t get any calls. Part of it too is you look at things a little bit differently and people don’t want to be around. I was going to be comfortable if he had cleared waivers, being a part of our organization. It might have been something that sparked him with us, but I’m happy for him. He gets to go to Washington, it’s a little bit ironic that Washington claimed him because they get a player suspended, so we actually lose two players in that transaction, we lose [Oskar] Sundqvist and we lose Jaskin, but I wish ‘Jasky’ nothing but the best. He’s been a good soldier here. It’s been a difficult time because he wanted more and we couldn’t give him more. I hope he has a lot of success in Washington.”
The Blues are without Sundqvist (concussion, shoulder) after he was crunched on an open-ice hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson, who was suspended 20 games by the Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.
“My issue was more it was the second period of the last preseason game,” Armstrong said. “I don’t understand the logic of hitting someone like that at that time of year, but in all candor, if Washington wanted to trade Tom Wilson, there’d be 30 managers to give them a call. That’s the nature of our business.
“‘Sunny’ is day-to-day, his situation is he was concussed, and he also sustained a little bit of a shoulder injury. With [Nikita] Soshnikov (concussion), Sundqvist, Gunnarsson, [Erik] Foley (concussion), Edmundson, [Luke] Opilka (hip), Fabbri … that list is getting too long. Those guys won’t be here, any of those guys for any time this week and a lot of then won’t be here for a while.”
The Blues play 11 of their first 15 games at home, so a good start to the season is imperative.