Blues brimming with optimism as training camp opens

News-DemocratSeptember 11, 2013 

The St. Louis Blues on Thursday opened their training camp. Here's a view from the ice.

NORM SANDERS/BND

— Even though Ken Hitchcock has been coach of the St. Louis Blues for nearly two seasons, he's about to do something he's never done with this team before.

He gets to run the Blues throughout an entire training camp.

Hitchcock replaced former Blues coach Davis Payne early in the 2011-12 season, then had only an abbreviated camp last season because of the NHL lockout.

The Blues open camp at noon Thursday at Scottrade Center, minus contract holdout defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Training camp practices are free and open to the public.

"All of us recognize that there are teams in the West that have improved," Hitchcock said. "I think we have, too. With the guys that we've re-signed and the guys that we've added, we're deep."

The Blues have finished second and sixth overall in the NHL the past two seasons and are looking to make a deeper run in the playoffs. They were ousted in the second round two years ago and the first round last spring --both times by the Los Angeles Kings.

Major Blues moves in the offseason were signing veteran centers Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre and trading enigmatic David Perron for young winger Magnus Paajarvi.

They also locked up their own talent, signing defensemen Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole and forwards Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart to contract extensions.

The Blues seem to be going all in on the notion that growth and the maturity of their homegrown players -- seasoned with Bouwmeester, Leopold, Roy and Lapierre and a healthy season from goalie Jaroslav Halak -- will lead to greater success.

The addition of Bouwmeester and Leopold helped spur a strong finish to the regular season last year, but the Blues couldn't hold a 2-0 series lead in the opening round of the playoffs and lost again to the Kings.

"We're pretty bloody excited with where we're at right now," Hitchcock said. "We're in that window that we really want to be and to take advantage of the next few years."

There are some things that need to fall into place for a Blues team that has yet to prove itself in the postseason.

"We're banking on a guy like Derek Roy getting back to where he was two years ago," Hitchcock said. "Then we're banking on chemistry with Berglund and Paajarvi ... I think the Leopold signing was a big signing for us."

Also big would be a return to scoring form by captain David Backes, a two-time 31-goal scorer who dropped to a career-low six goals last season.

Halak remained in St. Louis for most of the offseason and Hitchcock and Doug Armstrong talked about dramatic changes the veteran netminder made in his conditioning, diet and fitness levels.

"I've been very impressed with Jaro and the change that he's made in addressing a strengthening issue and a fitness issue so that he can remain healthy," said Hitchcock, whose team's goaltending depth is superior again with Brian Elliott still around and top prospect Jake Allen likely starting the season at minor-league Chicago, the team's new affiliate.

Halak and Elliott combined for 15 shutouts two seasons ago.

General Manager Doug Armstrong has mentioned several times how he hopes the Blues can add a big dose of "swagger" to their games and attitudes.

"When I say it's a big year, it's a year where we should believe -- and be comfortable believing -- that we can walk into any building and walk away with two points, and that we have as much right to compete for the championship as any other team," Armstrong said. "I don't think I could say that with 100 percent confidence any year prior to this year.

"But this is the year I really feel that we should be viewing ourselves as a team that should be competing for the championship. Are we the favorites? I don't know. Do other people view is that way? I don't know, but that's the way I view us."

Camping with the Blues

Top prospects to watch include forwards Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin and defensemen Jani Hakanpaa and Joel Edmundson.

Armstrong said that the bulk of the roster is set, but plenty of ice time and specialty roles are available to the top competitors. It will be interesting to see what veteran defenseman Ryan Whitney, signed to a pro tryout contract, brings to the mix.

"He's a big man, he's a former top pick, he's got experience," Armstrong said of the 35-year-old former Oilers defenseman. "He's still a young man in that this isn't his swan song."

* Players reported for physicals Wednesday and defenseman Cade Fairchild (shoulder) and forward Cody Beach are both dealing with injuries.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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