As he surveyed his surroundings in the St. Louis Blues dressing room Monday at the team’s annual prospect camp, goaltending prospect Luke Opilka had to be thrilled.
The lifetime Blues fan was dressing in the same stall occupied by Blues goalie Brian Elliott during the season. He performed drills and later played in a prospect camp scrimmage being watched by Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong, coach Ken Hitchcock, future Hall of Fame goalie and Blues assistant GM Martin Brodeur and former Blues star and Hall of Famer Al MacInnis.
“It’s a pretty great feeling,” said Opilka, an 18-year-old Effingham native who since has moved to St. Louis and was the Blues’ fifth-round pick in the recent NHL Draft. “It’s kind of funny, I skated here on Thursday and that was my first time skating here in about five years since I was with the AAA (Blues) team. It’s definitely a different feeling, but it feels good.”
Another good feeling at the camp Monday was generated by 2014 first-round draft pick Robby Fabbri, a talented forward sure to be pushing for an NHL roster spot sooner than later. Fabbri has added size and strength to his 5-foot-10, 176-pound frame and looked noticeably larger than he did a year ago during training camp.
Fabbri had a breakaway goal during the scrimmage.
“We all saw last year what he did at training camp, so now our expectations are a little bit higher,” said Tim Taylor, the Blues’ Director of Player Development. “Now it’s put back on him, that he has to get to that that level of work ethic off the ice to produce the on-ice result. He’s put on some real good strides here in the early summer and there’s a long way to go, so we’re hoping that he’s going to make more strides.”
Perhaps a bit surprising as well was a near-capacity crowd at the St. Louis Outlet Mall practice facility, where hundreds of fans turned out on a Monday afternoon in July to watch the team’s top prospects and recent draft picks. During the week the players will get a crash course in conditioning, nutrition and all aspects of the game.
Fabbri impressed the Blues during training camp, then amassed 25 goals and 51 points in only 30 games last season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm. Fabbri got some valuable time with the Blues last February while rehabbing an ankle injury.
“I just got a taste of what it was like on the road, the way they handle themselves and go about their business,” said Fabbri, who returned to action and played in three regular-season games and three playoff games with the Blues’ top farm team, the Chicago Wolves.
How is Fabbri treating this week of camp?
“I like to just worry about myself,” he said. “Any time you go on the ice or you’re in the gym, it’s a good time to make a good impression. I’d like to think that I have a legit shot. I’m just going to go out there and do everything I can to make the most out of it.”
Opilka recently made the decision to pass up his scholarship from the University of Wisconsin instead play this season with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He spent the last two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan.
“(It’s) just the opportunity to be able to play more games and being in a great organization like Kitchener and hopefully being able to improve a lot there next year,” Opilka said. “I liked Wisconsin and it’s a great place to play. I don’t think I could have gone wrong either way but I think I made the right decision.”
The Blues think so, too.
“Instead of possibly playing 20 games or 25 games at most at the college level, this year he’s going to play at minimum 50 games,” Taylor said. “Not saying one is better than the other, but we kind of have our hands on him a little bit earlier, two years away from junior eligibility being done. Now we get a little more control, we get to see them more and we get to help them a little more.”
Opilka has been around NHL players before since he was coached by former Blues star Keith Tkachuk for several seasons while playing for the AAA Blues.
But for Opilka, it didn’t get much better than shaking hands and meeting Brodeur at the draft.
“It was unbelievable,” Opilka said. “Obviously he’s a legend and I was shocked, I didn’t expect him to be at the (draft) table. When I walked up and I saw him there I was like ‘Whoa.’’’
On Monday, Opilka’s locker room stall was right next to that of Brodeur’s son, Jeremy Brodeur, another goaltending prospect the Blues are looking at this week.
Opilka was asked how Tkachuk was as a coach.
“He was a great coach and really pushed hard, made us work hard every day,” said Opilka, a teammate for many years with Tkachuk’s son, Matthew. “He got on us if he thought we were slacking. There was no getting away with anything on his team.”
Opilka thanked his parents for helping their three sons all pursue hockey. The family moved from Effingham to St. Louis when he was in sixth grade.
“The only reason we moved was because of the travel,” he said. “My mom and day had to drive two hours here and back. I had an older brother playing with me at that time so it was going OK with just us two. When my little brother started to play, the travel became way too much, traveling back and forth with three different kids.”
Opilka said many times his parents would make the two-hour drive from Effingham to St. Louis three or four times a week.
“My mom and dad ... God bless them,” he said. “They were great about it. We always wanted to play hockey so they made it work.”