(HockeySTL)-- Later this evening, 60 players will take the ice for the first official team skate of the year. Of those 60 players, 23 will be announced on opening night; only 19 will be in the lineup. In that regard, it’s the same as it is every year. But this year the roster is better, the choices are harder and the competition is fiercer.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had a busy offseason, signing a number of pieces both on offense and defense. Most of the signings could be labeled as depth signings, but nearly all of the signings could also be considered impact signings.
“There is going to be more internal competition for ice time, for roles than we’ve had here since I’ve gotten here,” said head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has been with the team for three seasons. “That’s good for the coaches, tough on the players.”
When one does the number-crunching, it’s not hard to see how difficult making the roster will be. Of the 60 players reporting to camp, 20 are on one-way deals, not including Jaden Schwartz (unsigned) and Vladimir Tarasenko (two-way), both of whom are locks for a roster spot this season. It leaves little room for the other 38 players.
“I think we have one spot open on defense that will have strong competition, maybe two,” Armstrong said. “I think there are probably three forward spots open for competition.”
But Armstrong was clear about his intentions, and he warned that locks for roster spots aren’t locks for playing time.
“When you take it to the next layer, players that are guaranteed jobs are they going to be primary power-play players like they have been in the past,” Armstrong questioned. “Are they going to be on the ice in the final minute when we need a goal or when we need to defend a goal? Those guys are going to have to earn their ice time now and I know they are excited for the challenge.”
With guys like Colin Fraser, Peter Mueller, Joakim Lindstrom, Chris Butler, etc. being signed in the offseason, the competition in camp will become much more of a storyline than it has been in past years. Each of the aforementioned players is capable of playing in the NHL, but only a few may make the roster.
“As much as you look forward to the exhibition games, I actually think the practices are going to be more defining than the games themselves,” said Armstrong.
Hitchcock admitted on Thursday that he wasn’t sure what to expect, except a more competitive scene on the ice than he’s seen in any preseason with the club.
“I’m really curious to see where these guys level off to, where they come in roster-wise,” said Hitchcock. “Getting guys like Butler, (Nate) Prosser, Mueller, these are guys who legitimately can play in the National Hockey League and they are going to compete for spots here.”
One thing the club has been cautious with over the years has been keeping one-way players in the American Hockey League while two-way players grace the NHL. The move is cost-efficient, but can lead to a disparity amongst some talents at the two levels. However, last season, Armstrong did not bother with formalities, sending the likes of Chris Porter through waivers mid-season in order to better the NHL club. This year, the message is clear. The best talent will be at the NHL level regardless of the arrangement of their contracts. That notion makes the next few weeks even more intriguing.
“Doug’s been straight with that. If you’re good enough to play, you are going to find a spot,” said Hitchcock. “I think the truthful aspect to this is that anyone who isn’t a veteran player is going to have to be a little bit better.”
Pre-camp, Hitchcock and the rest of the coaching staff sat down with every player that possessed a two-way deal and laid out their plans. They told the players what they needed to do to make the team and they didn’t mince words. After all, it’s a rather simple concept: be better.
“We had a meeting with guys who are on two-way contracts and told them that they are going to have to be a little bit better than the guy they are playing across from,” Hitchcock said. “If they’re the same we are going to go with the guy who was here, but if they are a little bit better, we are going to go with them.
“We are not going to have one of those speeches at the end of training camp where we say: ‘You had a great camp but this guy has a one-way contract. Sorry about that.’ That’s not the speech Doug wants to have and he’s not prepared to make it.”
One player hoping to make the roster is Mueller, who signed with the team this offseason. The former first-round pick is looking to rebuild himself and is one of the pre-camp favorites to land one of the roster spot.
“It will be a challenge,” Mueller admitted. “I have to fight for a spot. I have to try to make my name put out there. But it just comes with working hard. When I get an opportunity, I try to make the best of it.”
But Mueller’s outlook is the same as every one of the roster hopefuls. It will come down to who performs, who works the hardest, and who is better. One thing is certain, there will be no lack of storylines in the preseason, but surprises are just as much of a guarantee.
“I think the depth is maybe the strongest we’ve had since we’ve been here,” said Armstrong. “I think the competition is going to be outstanding.”