- Craig Custance
More and more, it's looking very wise to throw out the results of last season. It was such a strange campaign, shortened by a lockout and then crammed together by the calendar. It's especially true for goaltenders.
With the goalie jobs in Europe limited and training camp over in a blink, the usual routines were disrupted. It took time for guys to get their timing, it took time for others to get into ideal shape.
Safe to say neither ever quite happened for St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak. He played in just 16 NHL games last season, finishing with a .899 save percentage, a dramatic drop from the .926 he posted in 2011-12. Nobody was making Halak stop signs in St. Louis like we once saw in Montreal.
So the message from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to both his goalies heading into 2013-14 was to forget last season. Wipe it away from your memory. It's a clean slate.
"You had to write it off," Hitchcock said when we chatted earlier this week. "You had to say, 'Hey listen, this was an anomaly, this isn't a normal season.' We had to figure out a way to just kind of relax and let everything form a new kind of formula this year."
Part of that new formula was improved conditioning. Halak missed time last season because of a groin injury, and was told by doctors that a better fitness level helped lower the recurrence rate of groin injuries with goalies. After last season's disappointing postseason, the coaching staff asked each player to do something in the summer above and beyond what they normally do in the offseason so that the Blues would return that much more improved as a team this season.
Halak made the decision to stay in St. Louis all summer long -- the first time in his NHL career he didn't return to Slovakia -- in order to raise his fitness level to where it needed to be. Working closely with Blues strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte, Halak clearly held up his end of the deal.
"This is a really good example of a guy who has put himself in a good frame of mind. Physically and mentally. He's worked really hard to recover from the injury," Hitchcock said. "He's not tired during games. Not tired after games. It doesn't matter if it's a goalie, a defenseman or forward. Your fitness level has to be really, really high. He's done an unbelievable job."
The coaching staff is also seeing the same level of motivation from Halak that he brought when he first joined St. Louis after the Canadiens picked Carey Price over him despite Halak's playoff heroics.
"With Jaro, it's all about how much he wants it," Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said during a phone conversation Thursday morning. "I would say he caught that fire again, the fire that made him successful. That's probably the biggest thing."
The Blackhawks caught a glimpse of that fire Wednesday. It was only Game 3 of the Blues' season, so you can't overreact. There's still a long way to go. The best you can do at this point is gather more information about a team that some suspect is on the verge of putting together a very special campaign.
Heading into Wednesday's game, the Blues were 2-0, outscoring their opponents by a total of 11-2. But they'd done it against the Predators and Panthers, two teams that have managed only two wins through six games.
The reigning champs presented a fantastic information-gathering opportunity.
Before the game, in a different city, I asked Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey what made the Blues so tough to play against.
"They wear you down," Quincey said. "Their mindset is almost, wear you down and we'll beat you in the third. We're going to hit each guy 10-15 times. That one time the D-man thinks, 'Maybe I don't want to get the puck,' that's when they pounce. They score."
Against the Blackhawks, that third-period goal came with 21.1 seconds left in the game, with St. Louis winning an early-season statement game against the team they hope to dethrone in their division and in the league.
Both teams were juiced up for the game, so there were probably more odd-man rushes than Hitchcock would have liked, but if we're in the information-gathering portion of the season, it was telling.
First and foremost, Halak was outstanding. He allowed two goals, but both came on the Blackhawks' power play to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Otherwise, he was perfect, stopping all 25 shots he saw at even strength, none bigger than a Patrick Sharp breakaway that kept the score tied in the second period.
With the game on the line in the third, he was at his best. He made a huge pad save on a Marian Hossa drive. When it looked as though Marcus Kruger was setting up a game-winning goal with a pass across the crease, Halak's quick stick broke up the play. And late in the game, Brandon Saad left a puck for an open Duncan Keith, who unleashed a huge shot that Halak handled.
Entering this season, goaltending was the only question mark for a team that shored up its defense with long-term deals to Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. GM Doug Armstrong also was able to get Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy on low-risk, short-term deals, giving the the Blues the deepest forward group in the Western Conference, after the Blackhawks had to let key contributors such as Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik move on after winning the Cup.
But after last season, Halak was the question mark. Not anymore.
"He's done a heck of a job so far," Hitchcock said during his postgame meeting with the media in St. Louis. "All three games."
Both Halak and backup Brian Elliott are in the final year of their contracts, with Halak's deal including a cap hit of $3.75 million. That's a nice value if he continues to play the way he does. It's one of the reasons that this season could be the Blues' best shot to win it all. If Halak returns to form and proves he's a bona fide No. 1 goalie, that cap hit may eventually double.
The goalie on the other side of the ice last night, Corey Crawford, will see his salary jump from $2.67 million to $6 million when his extension kicks in next season. The going rate for a legit No. 1 goalie isn't cheap, and that additional $2 to $3 million can be the difference in being able to add a player such as Morrow or Roy in free agency, especially for a budget team like the Blues.
In an email Wednesday, Halak's agent, Allan Walsh, politely declined to comment on where contract talks stand with the Blues.
"At this point, Jaro is just focusing on stopping the puck," Walsh said. And right now, that's going pretty well.
Of course, Halak wasn't the only revelation from the win over the Blackhawks. Jaden Schwartz, playing on a line with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko, was very noticeable, and appeared completely comfortable going toe-to-toe with the talented Blackhawks. The 21-year-old didn't register a point, but directed a total of six shots at Crawford.
This season, Schwartz has an 8.2 Relative Corsi, Berglund is at 10.5 and Tarasenko is at 16.8, which suggests that this line controls offensive play despite typically starting their shifts at even strength in the defensive zone. The even-strength offensive zone start percentage for both Tarasenko and Berglund is at 46.7 percent. Those three finish their even-strength shifts in the offensive zone almost 56 percent of the time on average.
Those are strong numbers, especially considering that some would identify the trio as the Blues' third-best line. The depth at forward allows Hitchcock to manipulate his lines to better match up the opposition. Against the Blackhawks, he swapped Vladimir Sobotka and Morrow on the Derek Roy line with Chris Stewart, with Sobotka's speed and playmaking giving the Blackhawks something else to defend in the St. Louis top nine.
"They both did a good job," Hitchcock said of Sobotka and Morrow afterward. "Soby is a guy we use anywhere and everywhere."
That's what makes the forward group so dangerous. They're versatile, extremely structured and four lines deep. Mix in the goaltending from Halak and the top-end defensemen and the Blues are positioning themselves among the league's best.