With the 23 players who everyone thought would make the Blues making the Blues (substituting Justin Faulk for Joel Edmundson, of course), the team’s training camp played out pretty much as expected. But if there was a winner from those three weeks, it was probably Sammy Blais.
The young forward has been called up from — and sent back to — San Antonio 11 times over the past two seasons, but this may be the season he finally sticks. For now, at least, his play in training camp has earned him a spot on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron, a spot that Zach Sanford had in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and when training camp began.
“I thought he had a great summer for sure,” Blues coach Craig Berube said Monday. “He obviously put the work in in the summer which is great. He’s the type of player I think that over the last three years I’ve seen improve every year. He keeps improving, which is a good thing.”
“He’s a big body,” said O’Reilly. “I think he brings everything. He makes plays in tight areas, but I think his physicality opens a ton of ice. I think it’s a good fit. Me and Perron aren’t overly physical guys so it helps us a lot in being more aggressive and finishing for sure.”
Blais had one goal and five assists in five preseason games, putting him in a tie for sixth in preseason points in the league and tied for the team lead with Klim Kostin and Jaden Schwartz.
“He’s worked hard to get to this level,” Perron said, “and I think every game he’s played really well. Even his assist (against Dallas) to O’Reilly was pretty impressive. Good on him and we want him to keep getting better for our group and he’s one of them that’s really stepped up right now but it’s just preseason and we’ll see where it goes.”
Blais had just two goals and two assists in 32 games last season, but the big number was his 2.9 hits per game, the most for any Blue who played more than 10 games. The Blues want more offense from him. With his new linemates, and the potential for way more ice time than the 9:51 he averaged last season, that seems do-able.
“They just wanted me to keep coming to training camp and play like I was playing in the playoffs,” said Blais, who had one goal and two assists in 15 postseason games last year. “I’m an offensive player, I’ve always been an offensive player. (He had 26 goals in his first AHL season.) They told me they wanted more offense from me and I think in training camp I tried to play more with the puck and keep the puck on my stick more and I did that and it went pretty well.
“I have a good hockey IQ and I just try to make plays out there.”
Sanford skated as an extra forward on Monday as Robby Fabbri claimed the only open forward spot, moving into Pat Maroon’s old spot on Tyler Bozak’s line.
“I thought Fabbs had a good camp,” Berube said. “Sanny maybe not quite as good a camp as those guys. It’s just the way it worked out. Fabbs looked good, he’s skating well. So hopefully he continues to get better and better and feels more comfortable as it goes along.”
The other revelation on the first day of practice was the first look at the team’s much-scrutinized power play. In camp, the team worked on the power play with only whoever was in the game group that day, which meant the likely candidates for the unit were never out there at the same time. With the team down to its 23-man roster, Berube and special teams coach Marc Savard were able to put out two very distinct units. One, with Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Robert Thomas and Vince Dunn, has four lefties and one righty (Thomas). The other, with O’Reilly, Perron, Bozak, Faulk and Alex Pietrangelo, has four righties and one lefty (O’Reilly). (Colton Parayko is being kept off the power play so he and Jay Bouwmeester can take the ice afterward when the opposition’s top line will be on the ice.)
Each power-play unit has its own identity.
“The one with Petro and Faulk and Perron, they can all really shoot it and one-time pucks,” Berube said. “So with O’Reilly on the goal line, he’s got a lot of options. It’s a shooting power play for sure, guys that can shoot the puck.
“And then the other one is a little bit more of a downhill power play the way we look at it with the lefties. It’s the way we put them together right now and we’ll see how they work out.”
“Our group has a lot of different weapons,” Thomas said. “I thought we moved it pretty well today. We’ve got Vlady’s shot on the left side. It’s always good for me to try to get him the puck in the right spot and the rest will go as planned.
“I’m the only righty on mine. For me, it’s kind of nice. On my one side, I’m looking at all lefties so that’s pretty good for one-timers and quick shots and the other side it’s all moving downhill through Vlady’s shot. We’ve got some different looks and we’re able to change it up.”
With the dispersal of talent, there doesn’t appear at the moment to be a No. 1 and a No. 2 unit.
“I think with the depth we have, that’s the way it has to be,” O’Reilly said. “There’s good personnel on both and plenty of opportunities to put the puck in the net so I think that makes us dangerous. A lot of teams don’t have that, for us, it can be the mentality ... You leave it out there for that shift and we have another unit coming out there that can do the same thing. I think it provides us more intensity and it can be beneficial for sure.”