Cross Checks: Jaroslav Halak

NEW YORK -- Goaltending has always been a hot-button issue for the New York Islanders, but heading into the 2014-15 season, they seem to have the position solidified with a pair of offseason moves to address what has long been the club's Achilles' heel.

General manager Garth Snow traded in April for the rights to impending unrestricted free agent netminder Jaroslav Halak -- a gamble that paid dividends when the 29-year-old inked a four-year deal worth $18 million with the Islanders.

"Since I've been there, goaltending has always been up in the air. There's always been a lot of competition, but this year it's kind of set before camp even starts. That's something that hasn't happened," Islanders center John Tavares told ESPN.com. "Having a guy like Jaro, who's proven but still young, in the prime of his career and has a lot of experience -- whether it's playoffs or playing on some great teams with great seasons -- he's a very consistent goalie. He played a lot of minutes, he can handle a lot of work."



Snow further bolstered the Islanders' depth between the pipes by adding backup Chad Johnson in free agency. Johnson had a strong 2013-14 season behind Tuukka Rask in Boston, posting an impressive 17-4-3 record with a .925 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average.

"Johnson's been a really quality backup for quite some time and had a really good year last year," Tavares said. "Those two guys, to go into camp with those two goaltenders that are set and ready to go, it definitely will be a change for us and will be a good thing."

Fortifying the team from the net out should give the Islanders stability and added confidence as they try to get back to the postseason in their final year at Nassau Coliseum.

Said winger Kyle Okposo, who had a career-high 27 goals last season: "We want to give the fans the proper send-off and have the best season possible."

No one was happy in St. Louis when the highly touted Blues made a hasty exit from the 2014 NHL playoffs.

The Blues built a 2-0 series edge against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals only to surrender that lead to their hated division rival in a stunning six-game set.

That bitter defeat will be a sore subject when training camp begins next month, no doubt, but according to former Blues star Keith Tkachuk, it may serve as quite the learning experience as well.

[+] EnlargeKeith Tkachuk
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonKeith Tkachuk likes how his former team is building for postseason success.
“I think everyone in the organization was disappointed, fans clearly were, when we were up two games to none [and lost],” Tkachuk told ESPN.com in a recent phone interview. "The young guys, I think it will be beneficial to them to be a little aggravated, to see them knocked off by Chicago, which is a good rivalry here in town.

“I think you’ll see a lot of angry guys, pissed-off guys [in camp].”

Those young guys are the key to the Blues’ future and remain a bright spot for a team that has gone into recent postseasons as one of the elite squads out West and then run into some of the most fearsome opponents.

Tkachuk, who recorded 1,065 points in 1,201 NHL games and spent nine seasons with the Blues, sees defenseman Alex Pietrangelo thriving this season with another year of experience under his belt. And he views Jake Allen as a strong competitor who will push Brian Elliott for the starting goaltending job.

Tkachuk says the 24-year-old Allen has done things “the proper way,” paying his dues and rising up the ranks steadily after years in junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He also has good size, keen stickhandling skills and a growing sense of confidence. Tkachuk thinks his development, and the Blues’ stability in net, will benefit from that.

“This is the perfect situation. Elliott is a little bit later [into his career] and Allen who needs more NHL seasoning,” said Tkachuk. “If you have Elliott, who is a great pro, and they push each other in practice, Elliott’s working habits in practice will have a big-time influence in Allen. Whoever’s playing well is going to play.”

That’s not to say that Tkachuk did not support the Blues’ bold move to trade for Ryan Miller in February last season. It was a bold decision from management, namely general manager Doug Armstrong, that indicated the club was ready to go all-in on the 2014 postseason.

But the acquisition did not go as planned. Miller posted a pedestrian 10-8-1 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and .903 save percentage for St. Louis, and the Blues chose not to re-sign the longtime Buffalo Sabres netminder, who subsequently signed a free-agent deal with the Vancouver Canucks in July.

“It was definitely worth a shot,” said Tkachuk, who spends the majority of his time traveling to watch his two teenage sons play hockey and coaching his youngest in midget minor. “Last year, there were a lot of question marks with Jaroslav Halak, so [the Blues] made the move and I’d have done the same thing. It didn’t work, but it’s not all on him. As a team, sometimes you need a change. Jake Allen, as well as he did in Chicago, deserves to be here.”

Tkachuk also said he loves the signing of center Paul Stastny, which adds depth down the middle and gives captain David Backes some help at the position.

“It brings some much-needed offensive help, not just 5-on-5 but on the power play, which is huge,” Tkachuk said.

Heck, in a Central Division that keeps raising the caliber of competition, the Blues had no choice but to ante up.

“It’s a challenge every night,” Tkachuk said. "You’ve got the two-headed monster in [Patrick Kane] and [Jonathan] Toews, who really played well [in the playoffs]. You know Colorado is going to have another good year, especially adding [Jarome] Iginla. Dallas has gotten better with [trade acquisition Jason] Spezza.

“I think Stastny was a huge move shown by management and ownership that we want to take it to the next level, but it’s definitely a tough division. We have to close out teams when we have them.”

The New York Islanders were aggressive in trading for the rights to blueliner Dan Boyle, but after failing to get his signature on a contract, the NHL club is now shopping him before he walks away as an unrestricted free agent.

"I don’t know if we’ll get anything done, but we'll see what's out there," Islanders GM Garth Snow told ESPN.com early Wednesday afternoon. "We've talked to a couple of teams, we'll see if anything comes to fruition here."

The San Jose Sharks will get a fifth-round pick in 2015 in exchange for trading Boyle’s rights to the Islanders earlier this month. That pick would have changed to a fourth-rounder had Boyle signed with the Islanders.

Snow is smart to cut bait now because there's less than week a left before other teams can reach out to any UFAs.

New to the CBA is a talking period when clubs can contact pending UFAs from other teams, which this year is as of 12:01 a.m. ET June 25, five days out from the official opening of free agency on July 1.

No formal offers can be tabled but the ground can certainly be set.

The Islanders made their best pitch to Boyle and give him plenty to consider.

"Garth's done a great job, he's kept us abreast of everything along the way, we understand he's got to protect his interests," Boyle's agent, George Bazos, told ESPN.com. "That being said, we haven't closed the door on talking to them. The Islanders gave Dan a lot to think about."

Boyle turns 38 on July 12 but remains a terrific skater who can help with the transition game and power play.

The risk is that any contract signed by a player 35 or over counts against a team's salary cap, regardless of whether the entire deal is played out. But there's no question Boyle will continue to seek out a two-year deal in whatever contract he signs.

Sticking with the Islanders, Snow had hoped to bring back veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov to back up new starter Jaroslav Halak, but the GM says that's unlikely to happen.

"We couldn’t come to an agreement, it looks like he's headed to July 1," Snow said of Nabokov.

Leino, Booth clear waivers
Ville Leino and David Booth had their buyouts made official Wednesday after both players cleared waivers. With money in their pocket, both wingers get to double-dip now and test free agency come July 1.

"His first priority is to play in the NHL," Leino's agent, Markus Lehto, said Wednesday. "He knows he's an NHLer. He knows the numbers haven't really been there for the past year. But he had had some health issues, he's totally healthy now. We'll see what happens, it's going to be interesting."

As part of the buyout, Leino will earn $1.22 million in each of the next six seasons; Booth's buyout will pay him $1.58 million for each of the next two seasons.

Other free-agent rumblings
No surprise, but the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings have already reached out to Marian Gaborik's camp to try to get something done to keep the pending UFA in the fold. Gaborik led all players in goals in the playoffs, with 14. ... Veteran blueliner Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens remains unsigned as the clock ticks toward July 1. "No news. I don't expect anything to happen anytime soon," Markov's agent, former NHLer Sergei Berezin, told ESPN.com via text Wednesday morning. "But you never know." ... Veteran agent Steve Bartlett remains in talks with the Tampa Bay Lightning about pending UFA Ryan Callahan: "Good-faith talks with Tampa continue, hard to handicap at this point," Bartlett said via email Wednesday morning. ... The NHLPA's annual summer player meetings, presided over by Donald Fehr, will be held July 14-17 in Pebble Beach, California, to discuss issues raised during the season. An official agenda has yet to be set.
Canucks turning into a circus
Having stable ownership doesn't necessarily denote good ownership, a reality worth keeping in mind as the Vancouver Canucks find themselves in a state of chaos. Somehow, in less than three years, the Canucks have gone from being a perpetual Stanley Cup contender to a team in disarray. We're about to find out about the character of this team, and the search for the character (or identity) of this franchise starts at the very top, with owner Francesco Aquilini. On Tuesday, Aquilini fired GM Mike Gillis, ostensibly because Gillis all but came out with a sandwich board that said, "You know, I wasn't so hot on that Tortorella guy to begin with" during a recent radio show. Gillis' comments reinforced the commonly held belief that it was Aquilini, not Gillis, who was driving the bus when it came to hiring coach John Tortorella in the offseason. The comments were bold but ultimately self-destructive for Gillis. So the Canucks are out of the playoffs for the first time in six years and Gillis is gone, which isn't necessarily the wrong call, given how the team's personnel has been mismanaged the past three or four years. Ownership now has to find someone to un-bungle this mess. Whether that means promoting Laurence Gillman to GM or hiring from outside with a proven NHL manager -- which could fall to former captain Trevor Linden, who was named president of hockey operations Wednesday -- this is a defining moment for a franchise that has fallen precipitously from its run to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. And what of Tortorella? Ownership must also decide if it believes in the combustible coach and, if so, must come out quickly to reinforce that he'll be back. If not, ownership will have to suffer the dual embarrassment of having to fire both a coach and GM less than a year after presenting both with four-year contracts. Sadly, embarrassment is something with which the Canucks are becoming intimately acquainted, and it will be up to ownership to prove it can turn the tide and not simply add fuel to the fires of discontent.

Jets aren't flying high
Speaking of ownership decisions, the Winnipeg Jets continue to flaunt the Atlanta Thrashers' DNA as the Jets will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season (the third straight since moving to Winnipeg). We've known Paul Maurice a long time. He is a smart, forward-thinking coach, and his impact on the Jets after taking over for Claude Noel was immediate and stunning. But it didn't last. After closing in on a playoff berth at the Olympic break, the Jets won their first two post-Olympic games but have not won two in a row since. They went winless in six games shortly after the break and have suffered from periods of listless team defense, mediocre to awful goaltending, and a lack of offensive production. In short, they are what they've been for most of their existence: an average to below-average team that shows flashes but never enough consistent quality play to be a legitimate playoff team. The question for ownership is whether that is a function of coaching or personnel. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made no significant moves at the trade deadline. That inactivity, coupled with the team's swoon out of contention, raises the question: personnel or coaching? Could the Jets be a playoff team under Maurice next season? Sure. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, including the emergence of Jacob Trouba as a top-end young defender. The Jets have proved, in some ways, to be a resilient lot, with 15 wins after giving up the first goal, third-most in the NHL. And maybe status quo is the way to go for the Jets, although for a team with so little to show for its efforts over the past decade, "Hang on for another year" is a tough idea to sell to fans.

Not just the shootout for Devils
The New Jersey Devils are on a collision course with missing the playoffs for a second straight season after their surprise run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals. Most will point to their shocking 0-11 record in shootouts and, yes, that's pretty unbelievable. Win just five of those, and the Devils are playoff-bound. But for us, it's not just the breakdown in the skills competition but the team's inability to overcome. As of Wednesday, the Devils were dead last in wins after falling behind in games. In games where they gave up the first goal, the Devils had come up with just five wins. The Anaheim Ducks have won 20 games when giving up the first goal, best in the league. The Detroit Red Wings, whom the Devils are chasing for a wild-card spot, have 15; the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team holding down the final wild-card spot, have nine. Nine is not a lot. But it's four more than five, and for the Devils, that difference represents the difference between being in and being left behind. Again.

Halak makes curious call
Not sure what to make of Jaroslav Halak's decision that he'd rather not play Tuesday against his old team, the St. Louis Blues, in what was a must-win situation for the Washington Capitals. As it turned out, Braden Holtby was excellent for the Caps, who came up with a crucial 4-1 win as they kept their slim (and growing slimmer by the day) playoff hopes alive. But "I'm not comfortable" as a reason for not being available to take the ice in a crucial moment leaves us more than a little cold. Kudos to Halak for being honest, and maybe there's a backstory but it's the kind of honesty that we're pretty sure is going to make a lot of GMs take notice as Halak heads for the open market as a free agent this summer. Allan Walsh, Halak’s agent, denied in a statement that his client asked out of the game. But it still remains another curious development for a team fighting for its playoff life.

Bishop-less Bolts' hopes are looking grim
What are the chances that the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens if top netminder Ben Bishop is lost to injury? Slim. Sub-slim. Bishop injured his wrist early in Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs and there's no word on when he might return. Anders Lindback came on to preserve the shutout and keep the Bolts within two points of Montreal in the hunt for home-ice advantage in what should be a terrific first-round matchup. But Lindback has played sparingly, with Bishop earning Vezina Trophy buzz for his work in keeping the Lightning afloat in spite of injury and turmoil that has enveloped the team at various points of the season. And when Lindback has played, he has been OK. Well, let's be honest, less than OK. The 6-foot-6 Swede has not won back-to-back games all season and boasts a pedestrian .884 save percentage. He has exactly 13 minutes of NHL playoff action to his credit. The upside? Well, not sure it means anything, but recently top NHL analysts suggested to us that the Minnesota Wild would have the worst goaltending in the Western Conference come playoff time and maybe the worst goaltending of all 16 teams. Since then, Ilya Bryzgalov has gone 5-0-1 and helped the Wild secure the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Maybe similar reports of doom and gloom will prompt a similar response from Lindback and the Lightning. Maybe.


So much for it being hard to move goaltenders at the trade deadline.

Counting Ryan Miller's move to St. Louis late last week, no fewer than six NHL netminders have changed jerseys in the past few days. And who knows where that number will go by Wednesday's trade deadline?

Miller led the pack both in terms of his résumé and the timing of his move when he was dealt Friday night from the Sabres to the Blues in a deal that also included netminder Jaroslav Halak moving to Buffalo.

Tuesday the goalie carousel picked up speed in earnest with Ilya Bryzgalov moving from Edmonton to Minnesota, where the loquacious netminder will back up rookie Darcy Kuemper for a Wild team that has virtually locked up one of the wild-card spots in the West.

The Oilers, having signed Ben Scrivens to a new two-year deal Tuesday, then acquired Viktor Fasth from Anaheim to shore up their goaltending depth.

And finally the whopper of the day saw Roberto Luongo making his long-awaited departure from Vancouver in a trade back to Florida that also saw the former future heir to the Panthers' goaltending job, Jacob Markstrom, go to Vancouver.

One would imagine that the market for guys like Martin Brodeur, Halak and either Justin Peters or Cam Ward in Carolina (the Canes inked Anton Khudobin to a two-year extension) might have dried up with all the goings-on Tuesday. But then again, it was supposed to be difficult to move goaltenders in general at the trade deadline, so anything is possible.
Scott Burnside and Craig Custance break down what the Ryan Miller trade means for St. Louis and Buffalo.

BURNSIDE: Craig, well, that didn’t take long. Just nicely back in the NHL groove after the Olympic break and St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong pulls off what can rightfully be called a blockbuster deal, acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo for a first-round pick in 2015, a third-round pick in 2016, prospect William Carrier, underachieving power forward Chris Stewart and suddenly superfluous netminder Jaroslav Halak. Wow!

I think a lot of us figured there was a match to be made between the Sabres and Blues for Miller. As well as the Blues had played defensively this season -- they are third in goals allowed per game -- there was a distinct feeling that the tandem of Halak and Brian Elliott simply wasn’t capable of getting the Blues over the hump in the Western Conference. History suggested that was true and obviously Armstrong felt the same way as he went after a goaltender with a top pedigree in Miller. So, does the former Vezina Trophy winner tip the scales in your eyes? Are the Blues now as good as the rest -- or better -- in the tough, tough West?

CUSTANCE: For my money, the Blues already stacked up as one of the best teams in the West. They're deep up and down the lineup. In listening to Armstrong explain the trade Friday night, I think you can give one player in particular credit for inspiring this move: Jonathan Quick. The Blues ran into Quick and the Kings the past two seasons in the playoffs and he was a huge reason the Blues were sent home early.

"I saw that again in the Olympics for Team USA," Armstrong said during his Friday evening conference call.

Now, in Miller, he has a goalie who can go toe-to-toe with Quick -- if that's the matchup at some point -- in the playoffs. The way those two teams are built, it almost seems inevitable.

Love the aggressiveness, but boy, that's a lot to give up for two players who can hit free agency in a few months, no?

BURNSIDE: Agreed that the Blues gave up a lot, although part of what they gave up was salary, which is no small thing for a team on a budget like the Blues. And it will be interesting to see how other teams in the West, like, say, Los Angeles, Chicago and Minnesota, react to the Blues' move. I know GMs don’t like to acknowledge making moves because their neighbor does, but I think it’s the reality especially with Chicago and the Blues seemingly on a collision course for a second-round matchup (I know, a ton of hockey to be played before then, just saying, it’s going to happen).

But let’s talk about the Sabres for a minute. Is it possible new GM Tim Murray may make a hundred trades before 3 p.m. Wednesday? For instance, is it beyond the realm of possibility that both Stewart, who has one more year left on his deal at a $4.15 million cap hit, and Halak, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July, could be dealt again before the deadline? And let’s just think of this: What if Halak ended up going back to the Western Conference to, say, Minnesota or even Chicago as a backup to Corey Crawford? I think it’s more than a little possible. Murray also has other assets he might end up dealing, including Matt Moulson and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

CUSTANCE: I could also see a guy like defenseman Henrik Tallinder being an attractive addition for a contending team looking to add depth like the Boston Bruins. When I spoke with Murray on Thursday, he said there were four or five guys beyond Miller, Ott and Moulson drawing interest from NHL teams. I wondered if former GM Darcy Regier raised the expectations in Buffalo too high with the return he got for Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, but that's clearly not a concern any longer. Murray did just as well in this deal and could potentially have three first-round picks in a stacked 2015 draft. Other teams around the league should take note of the Sabres' strategy. The Sabres wisely started the rebuild while their best players still could get a premium return rather than wait too long like the Calgary Flames. Teams considering big changes, like the Vancouver Canucks, might want to follow suit. So what does this leave us to look forward to with Dan Girardi signing an extension in New York and Ryan Miller already traded?

BURNSIDE: Oh, I think there will be a few more surprises before Wednesday.

OK, before we close, let’s go back to the Blues. You referenced a couple of hard-fought but ultimately disappointing playoff losses to the Kings the past two years. They got swept in 2012 and then blew a 2-0 series lead against the Kings by losing four straight in the first round last spring. Yes, the goaltending wasn’t great in either of those series and it certainly didn't match up to Quick’s performance. Do you think Miller gives them at least a saw-off in that department if the two teams do end up meeting? Part of the Blues’ problems the past two playoff years has been a lack of offensive production. I love the addition of Steve Ott. Hey, he’s got Windsor connections so what’s not to love. But do you think this Blues team is capable of keeping up offensively with, say, the Blackhawks or the Ducks? I love these additions for the Blues, but boy the West is a hard, hard place for anyone wanting to get to the top.

CUSTANCE: It certainly levels the playing field for the Blues in having Miller in goal. But even so -- if they face the Kings, it's against a goalie in Quick who has owned them. If they face the Blackhawks or Sharks, it's against starting goalies who have both won Stanley Cups. The Ducks? All they have is a goalie in Jonas Hiller who currently owns a career save percentage of .935. This trade certainly removes the one question everybody had about the Blues and puts them on a level with the West's elite. Now we wait to see what the rest of the West does to counter.


Nothing like some Black Friday afternoon hockey, eh? Some observations and thoughts from some of the games:

SHARKS 6, BLUES 3
This was really the best game of the day, at least on paper. In what could be a potential Western Conference finals matchup, the Sharks scored four goals in the opening 11 minutes, 27 seconds of the first period before a deliriously thrilled Shark Tank.

(OK, it's really called the SAP Center, but it's always going to be the Shark Tank to me, one of my favorite stops on the NHL circuit.)

Blues backup goalie Brian Elliott was the victim in this one, and while he didn't look very good -- pulled at the first intermission -- that doesn't take away from the Sharks' ferocious attack in the opening period. They were coming in waves.

With Jaroslav Halak in goal to start the second period, the Blues tallied three unanswered goals to make it interesting at 4-3 after Jaden Schwartz scored at 11:19 of the third period, but Brent Burns lit the lamp just one minute later to seal both the game and the power forward's first career hat trick.

It's interesting that when the Sharks moved Burns to forward from defense last March, it was seen as a short-term move to help spark a struggling team, but now you can't even imagine Burns not playing wing, given the impact he's had up front.

Were the Sharks, meanwhile, motivated by what happened in their previous meeting with the Blues, in which Max Lapierre hit Dan Boyle from behind into the boards and was suspended? Given how popular the veteran Boyle is within that Sharks dressing room, and regardless of what the Sharks say, the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

This would be one heck of a playoff series. Both teams are similarly deep up front and are solid defensively. Sign me up if the Blues and Sharks cross paths in the spring.

DUCKS 5, FLAMES 2
Dustin Penner is making Ducks general manager Bob Murray look good.

The veteran winger, signed last summer to a one-year, $2 million deal, is arguably playing his best hockey since the 2012 Stanley Cup run with the Los Angeles Kings. Penner scored twice Friday in the 5-2 win over the visiting Flames, his first tally a redirect of a gorgeous slap pass from Ryan Getzlaf on a Ducks power play in the second period that gave Anaheim a 3-0 lead. Penner now has nine goals and 20 points overall in 21 games this season; compare that to two goals and 14 points overall last season in 33 games, and just 17 points (7-10) in 65 games in 2011-12.

Now, it obviously doesn't hurt playing alongside Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the top line, but believe me, if Penner wasn't playing well enough to be there, Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau would not have him there. Things didn't start all that well this season, with Penner producing a tepid training camp and being put on notice by Boudreau. But give Penner a lot of credit -- he's responded with some terrific hockey, even leading the team with a plus-18.

Pretty good story, I'd say.

BRUINS 3, RANGERS 2
Zdeno Chara, for my money, is the most feared player in the NHL.

Intimidation is a part of the game, and nobody scares the opposition more in this league than the towering Bruins captain. Whether it's a hit or a crosscheck or a fight, whether it's dirty or clean, the Slovak star can single-handedly dominate a game.

And he did on Friday afternoon with a Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, an assist and a fight -- in Boston's 3-2 comeback victory over the visiting Rangers. According to TSN statistician Kevin Gibson, it's Chara's fifth career Gordie Howe hat trick.

His goal was a Chara special, an absolute rocket from the point at 11:05 of third period that simply went right through Henrik Lundqvist and gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead they would never relinquish. It was the kind of response the Bruins wanted after being embarrassed 6-1 in Detroit on Wednesday night.

Boston's 36 points lead the Atlantic Division. And get used to seeing the B's in that spot for most of this season.

For the Rangers, it was a decent road effort but a loss nonetheless, and they've got little time to mope. They have regroup quickly for Saturday afternoon's A.V.-Torts Bowl: John Tortorella making his return to Madison Square Garden with the visiting Canucks while Alain Vigneault coaches his first regular-season game against his old Vancouver squad.

Money on the board before the game in each dressing room? You'd better believe it. Shhhh, that's against NHL rules ...

FLYERS 2, JETS 1
The Jets killed off a 5-on-3 Flyers power play early in the second period that kept the game at 1-0 and seemed to give them momentum. But a mistake minutes later during a Winnipeg power play by Dustin Byfuglien allowed Sean Couturier to intercept his blue-line pass and skate in alone on Ondrej Pavelec; the Flyers forward didn't miss, scoring a back-breaking shorthanded goal that would stand up as the winner. Byfuglien is in the mix, of course, for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but it's those kinds of defensive mistakes that give Team USA management pause for thought. I'm not saying Byfuglien's not going to make the team, but don't be surprised if he doesn't.

Meanwhile, Steve Mason had another solid outing for the Flyers, and if you were naming a Flyers MVP through the opening two months, it would be Mason in a landslide. It should be noted, too, that so far this season he's easily outplayed Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, who caused no shortage of grief in Philadelphia when he won the Vezina Trophy last season after being dealt away by the Flyers the year before.

Right now, those transactions don't look so bad for the Flyers, who got a second-round pick and a pair of fourth-round picks for Bobrovsky in June 2012, then got Mason from the Jackets last April for journeyman goalie Michael Leighton plus a third-round pick in 2015. If Mason can continue his current form all season long, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren will have perhaps garnered apologies from many a critic who didn't think Mason was worthy of a pickup.

RED WINGS 5, ISLANDERS 0
Was this Alfie getting warmed up for the big one?

Veteran winger Daniel Alfredsson scored twice and added an assist in Detroit's whitewash Friday of the Islanders. His next game, of course, is Sunday in Ottawa -- his first game back in Canada's capital after his controversial exit last summer. (I'll be there to chronicle things.)

The Wings have won three straight and outscored the opposition (Buffalo, Boston and the Isles) 14-2 during that span, getting back on track after a difficult November.

But perhaps the real story here is the continued malaise of the Isles, who have dropped five straight and are 2-10-0 in their past dozen games. Something's got to give on Long Island. Sources from other teams suggest GM Garth Snow has been phoning around trying to find a match on the trade front. This is a team that needs upgrades on defense and in goal.

How about those St. Louis Blues?

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
9:39
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Blues 3, Blackhawks 2
* Blues: Third 3-0-0 start in team history (1969-70 and 1993-94)
* Alexander Steen (STL): game-winning goal with 21.1 seconds left; has scored in each of first 3 games of season (8 goals in 40 games in 2012-13); FROM ELIAS: 1st go-ahead goal in final minute of 3rd period by a Blues player since Nov. 28, 2007 (Brad Boyes scored at 19:02 mark of 3rd period at Buffalo)
* Jaroslav Halak (STL): 26 saves; has stopped 73 of 77 shots this season
* Patrick Kane (CHI): Goal (3), assist; has a goal in all 3 games this season (23 goals in 47 games in 2012-13)

Kings 4, Senators 3 (F/OT)
* Jeff Carter (LA): 2 Goals (3, 4), including OT winner (5th career OT goal and 2nd in past 5 seasons)
* Kings: 6-0-1 in past 7 home games vs Senators (LA's last home loss to Ottawa was Jan. 11, 2000)
* Dustin Brown (LA): 25th career multi-goal game (1st 2 goals and points of the season)
* Senators: 3 different players scored their 1st goal of the season (Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Bobby Ryan (1st goal with OTT, Milan Michalek)

Flames 3, Canadiens 2
* Sean Monahan (CGY): Goal (3) in 3rd straight game (has a point in all 4 career NHL games); FROM ELIAS: longest point streak to begin a career by a Flames player since October 1989 (Sergei Makarov – 7 games)
* Flames: 7-0-1 in past 8 home games vs Canadiens (Montreal's last win in Calgary -- Jan. 5, 2002); FROM ELIAS: Montreal’s longest road losing streak vs one team since Feb. 1999-Dec. 2001 (lost 7 straight in Toronto)
* Lars Eller (MTL): Goal (4); 6 Points (4G, 2A) in 3 games (T-2nd in NHL in points)
You can bet the question that New Jersey Devils head coach Pete DeBoer will be asked the most often this season is whom he’s starting in net. Just how he divvies up starts between Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider will be one of the intriguing storylines to follow all season.

It’s a delicate balance, having to find enough starts for the game's all-time winningest netminder, who’s 41 now, while also integrating the 27-year-old Schneider, a goalie who is no longer a kid but entering his prime.

"I don’t see an issue," DeBoer told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We’ve got a league high of back-to-back games, I think 22 of them; which right off the bat lends itself to playing both guys. And I think with the condensed schedule, with the Olympics, I think it's going to be a real luxury to have two guys. And I think both guys get that."

Early media reports from camp indicate the Schneider-Brodeur relationship is off to a good start, which is no surprise to anyone who has crossed paths with either netminder. They both have great, team-first personalities.

From a hockey standpoint, it means the Devils will have a quality netminder in net for 82 games.

"I term the situation as a 1 and a 1(A)," DeBoer said. "I think that's where we're at. Cory is not a young goaltender anymore. He's got a great opportunity here to learn from but also compete against the best goalie of all time."

Putting you on hold
The contract stalemate between defenseman Cody Franson and the Toronto Maple Leafs was termed a "holding pattern" Thursday by one source close to the action.

The standoff is clear: the Leafs want Franson on a two-year deal; the defenseman wants to do a one-year deal.

The salary cap is going up next summer, so the Leafs would obviously rather gain a bit of term security with Franson under the current economic climate. Franson, as you might imagine, figures a one-year deal gets him to a landscape next summer that features an expanding salary cap with more money to go around.

Some folks were surprised when Franson -- coming off a terrific season -- chose not to file for salary arbitration this summer when he had the chance; some felt he lost his best piece of leverage. Perhaps that’s true but I think Franson feared the Leafs would have elected a two-year arbitration award and hence he’d be locked into one extra year that he doesn't want.

The problem for Franson right now is that the Leafs are deep on defense -- the likes of Paul Ranger and Morgan Rielly are pushing to make their way on -- so Toronto isn't desperate enough to fold its cards in this contract stalemate.

Furthermore, when Franson gave away his best leverage point in negotiations by not going to arbitration, the thinking in the Leafs' front office is, why give that leverage right back if you do a one-year deal, with Franson having arbitration rights again next summer as an RFA? The only way I see Toronto doing a one-year deal is if the salary is low enough.

I don’t see the Leafs backing down on this one.

Meanwhile, I’d bet on the Leafs making a contract offer before the end of camp to tryout invitee Mason Raymond. The Leafs view him as a potentially good fit on a third line with Dave Bolland and Nikolai Kulemin. The Leafs won't offer too much in a deal, I don't think, something around $1 million for one year. The hook for Raymond is that he could re-establish himself this season and hit the market next year when the cap goes up and get a better deal.

There's always the chance Raymond gets a better offer from another team at the end of camp; you can’t discount that, either. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if other teams called on Raymond. But I do think the Leafs would like him to be part of their squad this season.

All eyes on Halak
Whether or not the St. Louis Blues get over that playoff hump this season relies heavily on what happens in goal.

For starters, the organization has gotten a look at Brian Elliott in two straight playoffs and understands fully now that while he’s a terrific, solid backup -- one who can start for a stretch if need be and deliver the goods -- he's not going to be that elite difference-maker in net come playoff time.

No, the Blues believe Jaroslav Halak has to be their man. Gone in St. Louis is the politically correct spin that the Blues have two capable netminders and both will battle for starts. The Blues have made a collective, organizational decision that this season is Halak’s to win or lose. They’re handing him the keys, perhaps for the last time, being that Halak is a UFA after the season. Halak rededicated himself in the offseason, staying in St. Louis to focus on his workouts instead of going home overseas, and showing up to camp dropping his body fat from 14 percent to 8 percent.

Beset by injuries the past two years, Halak hasn't had the chance to duplicate the kind of playoff magic he delivered in Montreal in 2010. The sense in St. Louis is that if the Halak of 2010 can re-emerge, the club is in great shape to contend for a championship.

If Halak hasn't instilled that kind of confidence in the front office by March, my sense is that the Blues won't be scared to look to the trade market. Look for those Ryan Miller trade rumors to begin if Halak isn't rolling this season.

But the preference/the hope/the plan in St. Louis is for Halak to answer the bell.

Leblanc's early departure
Louis Leblanc's demotion earlier this week created quite a stir in Montreal. And not because he didn’t make the team -- he was hard-pressed to do so -- but that he was in the first wave of cuts.

That’s the part that surprised some fans, given that he’s a first-round pick from 2009 (18th overall).

But I believe this was the plan before camp started, the Habs' front office wanting to send a message, deliver a challenge to Leblanc, that it’s time for him to look in the mirror and understand that his development has not been up to par. He had a subpar season last year in the AHL. Word is Leblanc did work hard in the offseason to be ready for this camp. So credit to him for that. Now the Habs hope he responds to the first-wave cut by getting off to a great start in Hamilton and forcing Montreal into making him its first call-up.

The fact of the matter is, Leblanc is seen by most people around the league as a third-line player, albeit one who could be effective in that role in the NHL once he figures things out. But it also tells you the Habs were reaching a little when they took him 18th overall in 2009.
No one likes it when they're going through it, but the adversity the St. Louis Blues faced this season could easily be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Winners of five straight and suddenly just two points out of fourth in the Western Conference, the Blues are peaking at the right time, with just 10 games to go in their regular season.

Reminds me so much of the way the Los Angeles Kings played survival hockey in the second half of last season; by the time the puck dropped in the playoffs, they were a hardened group and a dangerous foe.

"I think that ideology makes sense where you learn some great lessons during the regular season when going on a (losing) skid and finding out your true identity," Blues captain David Backes told ESPN.com Wednesday. "It doesn't mean your season is over. Where if you wait until the playoffs to have those experiences, you might be watching on TV before you have a chance to right the ship."

It's taken 38 games but the Blues appear to have righted the ship.

"We're starting to manage the game the right way," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We still have a whole other level offensively that we have to get to from a continuity standpoint. We still have to create more. But we're playing with a real spirit right now and a real energy. We just want to keep it up."

It certainly has been quite the journey for a team many picked to do great things this season.

A 6-1-0 start seemed to validate the preseason hype (yours truly picked the Blues to go the Cup final), but that was followed by a sobering five-game losing streak and a stretch of up-and-down hockey that left the team at 11-9-2 on the morning of March 6.

One month later, thanks to an 11-5 run, the Blues are coming out of the worst phase of that journey and look stronger for it.

"This is a really good lesson for anybody: Don't just assume, because you have the same players back, you're going to have the same chemistry, because things change," Hitchcock said. "We looked really good early, but it was on last year's energy. And I think the players recognize that they had to re-create new chemistry, they couldn't rely on the old chemistry.

[+] EnlargeKen Hitchcock
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesKen Hitchcock said the Blues "needed to re-connect with each other again. That's hard stuff."
"So there was a lot of stuff where they needed to re-connect with each other again. That's hard stuff. Creating new chemistry and creating new awareness is hard to do. I think our players had to dig in and do that. We had to grind both emotionally and physically, and it's helped us become a team again. We have ups and downs like everybody else, but now we have a foundation we can go back to."

Case in point: In watching Tuesday night's 1-0 win over the Nashville Predators, one thing you noticed was that even at 0-0 for almost two periods, the Blues looked poised with or without the puck, seemingly confident that good things would eventually come if they stuck to their game plan.

That's a confidence in their game that wasn't there a month ago.

"Yeah, I think with the goaltending we've had, especially as of late, we've been able to feel comfortable in a one-goal game, or a 0-0 game; we just stay with our game and we don't have to get crazy trying to score four goals to win," Backes said. "We know just a couple on most nights will be enough."

The goaltending. You can't write a Blues story this season without touching on that eventful issue.

Rookie Jake Allen has been called upon for 12 starts, an absolutely unforeseen turn of events. But between injuries and the inconsistent play of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, Hitchcock was desperate for a fix.

With Halak hurt now, however, a timely development has helped save the season: the return of the Elliott, circa 2011-12.

Elliott was a healthy scratch 11 times this season behind Halak and Allen -- that's how badly his game had gone. To his credit, Blues GM Doug Armstrong said, Elliott never allowed his struggles change his work habits.

"He continues to work hard during practice and after practice," Armstrong said. "That says a lot of about him."

To Elliott's credit, he accepted a two-game AHL stint late in March which, frankly, may have been the turnaround. He stopped some pucks under less pressure and got his mechanics back in order, and ever since he has looked like the Brian Elliott who led the NHL in save percentage last season.

Elliott has won four straight starts, including back-to-back shutouts this week.

"He swallowed hard, he went back to the minors to get some games in," Hitchcock said. "He deserves a lot of credit for being willing to look into the mirror and work to get his game back. He had to eat some humble pie, but in the end, it's paid off."

National TV analyst Ed Olczyk has caught two of the Blues' last five games, including the shutout win at Detroit on Sunday. He also says the turnaround starts in net.

"Up until this point, they've gotten below-average goaltending; that's just fact," Olczyk told ESPN.com Wednesday. "Now what has happened with that team as well is getting a top-2 defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester and a top-five guy in Jordan Leopold. You can argue now and say that St. Louis' defense corps one through six is top-five in the NHL. That's huge. The new guys, along with (Kevin) Shattenkirk and (Alex) Pietrangelo, can skate them out of trouble."

Olczyk said the third defense pair of Roman Polak and Barret Jackman also provides excellent toughness in a shutdown role, and he called Polak one of the most underrated blueliners in the league for what he does.

"But certainly it starts with the goaltending," Olczyk said. "Elliott played really well in Detroit in the game I worked. That's great for his confidence and for the team's confidence. They're a very good team. I'm not surprised to see them on a roll."

Certainly the additions of Bouwmeester and Leopold cannot be glossed over. They've had a major impact on the Blues' back end.

And while Bouwmeester has been as advertised -- a top minutes-eating star doing his thing -- Armstrong pointed as well to Leopold as being a bit under the radar for his impact, a comment that Backes echoed.

"Just the poise and the veteran know-how back there has been welcomed," Backes said of Leopold. "There's really no panic. He has the ability to jump in on the rush offensively but also recovers defensively, he helps us not getting hemmed into in our own end. Those things give our guys energy and confidence."

In no way is anyone in the organization relaxing. But the fact is, the Blues are only two points out of fourth place and five points ahead of the danger zone. It's OK to start setting new goals.

"For the first time all year, I told the players last night: 'At some point in time, we have to stop looking over our shoulders and start looking up,'" Hitchcock said. "I know this is hard to do with this season and how close the standings are, especially when you're not one of the top three seeds, but I told our players that sometime I really want our players to start looking up in the standings."

It's been a roller coaster of a season. But you get a sense the best is yet to come for the Blues.

"There's been some growing pains and some adversity faced, and through that I think you grow as a team and learn to have success," Backes said.
We’re into the final 10 games of the regular season and the inevitable separation has occurred in both conferences, the inevitable eroding of faint playoff hopes for many teams juxtaposed against those teams now more concerned with gaining home-ice advantage or hitting the postseason in some sort of groove. Sometimes late-season grooves mean nothing, but if you’re the St. Louis Blues, the recent play of netminder Brian Elliott has to be a good if not tremendous omen with the playoffs set to start in three weeks.

We happened to be traveling with the Blues earlier in the season when Elliott’s game was at a low ebb. With veteran Jaroslav Halak injured, Elliott could not carry the load and the decision was made to bring up untested rookie Jake Allen, who may have saved the Blues’ season with a three-game winning streak on the road. Elliott worked diligently with goaltending coach Corey Hirsch, even went back to an old set of pads in the hopes of finding the karma that saw he and Halak win the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals last season. At the time, coach Ken Hitchcock pointed out that Elliott was not a veteran goalie working through a slump but a young netminder (he will turn 28 tomorrow).

Halak is again injured, but it’s been Elliott who has answered the bell this time. He was outstanding Sunday as the Blues won their fourth straight game, edging the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena by a 1-0 count. Elliott stopped 28 shots, including 13 in the second period. More importantly, the win was the third in a row for Elliott. All three have come against quality opponents -- Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota -- and he has allowed just four goals over that span.

Agreed, it’s a small sample. But this is a netminder who had nine shutouts and a .940 save percentage last season. Can that player emerge again when the Blues need him most? And more to the point, is his recent play an indicator that such a renaissance is at hand?

Nothing’s a given. The Blues are as close to earning home-ice advantage in the first round with the fourth seed as they are from falling out of the playoff bracket altogether: four points separates them from both. But for a team that many, including this reporter, thought was ready to take a giant step forward in its evolution, the play of Elliott has definitely proved to be a bright light at the end of the regular-season tunnel.

Five things you need to know about Monday’s games:

1. The Maple Leafs got a scare when starting goalie James Reimer left Monday’s game early against the Flyers with a lower-body injury. Ben Scrivens was strong in relief, making 32 saves in Toronto’s 5-2 win over the Flyers. The better news for Leafs fans came after the game, when Randy Carlyle told reporters that the injury to Reimer wasn’t believed to be serious. Might not hurt for Canucks GM Mike Gillis to make an exploratory phone call to Leafs GM Dave Nonis anyway.

2. The Sharks have completely wiped out their fast start. The Sharks didn’t lose a game in January and have been just as streaky in February, losing every game this month. Monday night might have been the worst; they lost 6-2 to the Blue Jackets to drop them to 0-3-2 in February. Brandon Dubinsky scored his first goal as a member of the Blue Jackets. The players acquired from New York in the Rick Nash trade have now combined for 15 points this season.

3. If the Islanders want to make the playoffs, they might actually need Tim Thomas to be more than just a contract that keeps them above the salary floor because their goaltending isn’t cutting it. Rick DiPietro allowed five goals on 30 shots in the Islanders' 6-4 loss to the Hurricanes. Neither Evgeni Nabokov nor DiPietro has a save percentage above .900 this season. Former Leafs prospect Jiri Tlusty scored twice for the Hurricanes and has seven points in his last five games. Four of those points came in the third period Monday night.

4. Shane Doan can still will his team to a win. He scored twice against the Avalanche, his second goal coming in the final minute of overtime after a clearing attempt hit a referee; the puck went to Kyle Chipchura, who found Doan for the winner. After a slow start, Mike Smith is heating up, finishing with 41 saves in the win. He has won four of his last five starts.

5. Goaltending is an issue for the Blues, but not for the Wild. Jaroslav Halak’s triumphant return didn’t make it out of warm-ups. He was activated from the injured reserve but a groin strain meant Brian Elliott was thrust into starting against the Kings. Elliott allowed four goals on 23 shots, including a pair to Jeff Carter, dropping his save percentage to .849 on the season. Niklas Backstrom was strong for the Wild, leading Minnesota to their first road win by allowing one goal on 24 shots against the Flames. The Blues and Flames are in the group of four teams (Oilers and Stars) sitting at 13 points, tied for the No. 8 spot in the West.

Talking Hockey: Picking Game 7 heroes

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
5:56
PM ET
This week, playing down a man, the regular guys go at another fantasy angle -- picking a shooter and goalie with everything on the line. Tim, please call home.

DAVID WALTON: I don't know what to do with all of this white space this week. With Tim being on vacation, how are we ever going to account for the 1,500 words he uses on Insane Clown Posse, "Blades of Glory" or any other thought that pops into his head?

I guess I already started there a little bit.

OK, Paul, here's the situation: Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, who do you want going head-to-head, shooter and goalie?

For me, there's only one real answer for the skater. I think if you do a search on NHL for best goals, the results have, like, all of his goals. And because I have watched him torch my beloved Blues season after season, I know that this guy is a one-man wrecking crew and the only player I would want with the game on the line. Who? Pavel Datsyuk. I'm sorry, there's no one better suited for that situation. His moves and dekes are unreal.

And I think I watched him do the Riverdance while skating in -- and scoring -- on a breakaway.

Now for the goalie. I had Mike Richter already in mind and I was going to write a long diatribe about how he robbed the Canucks of the Cup in 1994. You could say, "What about Patrick Roy?" But how would anyone tell him what game of the series it was with those Stanley Cup rings in his ears? But, alas, I'm left with a current crop of goalies that don't have quite the same swagger that Richter and the other goalies of that era had.

So do you go with uber-patriot Tim Thomas? Today's flavor, Jonathan Quick? I say neither. I take Jaroslav Halak for the win, please!

While he hasn't quite had the jaw-dropping flair in St. Louis that he had in Montreal, I don't think you can discount what he did to the Capitals in 2010. And if it's Game 7 in a one-on-one situation, he's the guy I want.

What about you, pal? Who you got? Aren’t you obligated, by Canadian law, to take Sid the Kid as your shooter?

PAUL GRANT: Is Tim on vacation? I thought he was on work release. Anyway.

Two players, everything on the line, do-or-die, backs against the wall … no more exciting situation in all of sports to imagine. Including the Olympics.

Whom do I want? A lot of names came immediately to mind when I was looking at skaters. I was going to nominate Patrick Kane, if for no other reason than to see if he could pull off that Diving Superman Sweeping Goal thing in a Game 7. He’s got mad skills and the guts to try crazy action like that, which is a great combination. But he’s not my guy.

Martin St. Louis is top-notch; Marian Gaborik is shifty in a good way; Anze Kopitar could glare his way to a goal. John Tavares, Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos, Erik Karlsson and, yes, Sidney Crosby would all be fine choices.

But I’m going with Evgeni Malkin. The dude has got sick hands, moves the puck around, is big with a long reach and can dazzle and intimidate goalies to no end. He’d be my guy; his relatively substandard playoff performance (by his lofty standards) last season was a blip. I can see the move now: His size makes him look like he’s barely moving, just kind of loping in there, which messes with a goalie’s head on pace. He’ll mosey in, stickhandling the entire way, go left, go right, tuck it under the befuddled goalie or roof it or snipe it from behind the goal line. And he looks so confident, so cool with that puck, that you feel there’s no way he’s going to mess it up. Or at least you feel that he feels there’s no way he’s going to mess it up, which is even more important.

As for my goalie, I’m not going the homer route that you went, Mr. Gateway Arch. No way am I picking James Reimer, even though I’m from Toronto. Instead, I’m going with Dominik Hasek. Just kidding. That’s two weeks in a row! Thomas and Quick are good choices, particularly when you look at what they’ve done in the playoffs. I like the way Thomas bounces back from shootout goals, especially two seasons ago when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. You want that kind of rubber psyche in net for your team.

But no better clutch goalie remains in the league than Martin Brodeur. Before last season’s run, I would have said he was washed up, but his decision to go with bigger pads and stretch his game a bit has really paid off. The dude has won some Cups, he’s recently put his team on his back for a long playoff run and he’s seen almost every move known to man. He would be my guy. Could you imagine Malkin and Brodeur staring each other down in Game 7? Suh-weet.

Without Tim's verbosity, we kept this week's short. And why not? Until next week, David, keep your head up.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets do not appear to be close to trading Rick Nash, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Nash has agreed to waive his no-trad clause for six teams, and none of them have improved their offer enough to make Jackets GM Scott Howson agree to a deal.
  • Shane Doan hasn't decided if the Coyotes' future is secure enough for him to re-sign with Phoenix. Doan's agent confirmed to the San Jose Mercury News that the Sharks are a potential landing spot for the 35-year-old. It is also believed that the Kings and Canucks are in the running.
  • Defenseman Mike Green declined the Capitals qualifying offer of a one-year, $5 million contract, according to The Washington Post. GM George McPhee says he is confident a deal will get done despite the expiration date on the qualifying offer.
    Update: The Capitals announced Monday afternoon they re-signed Green to a three-year, $18.25 million deal.
  • Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak is still experiencing discomfort from the high-ankle sprain he suffered this spring, but the team is thinks he will be cleared by July 21, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.




LAS VEGAS -- Interesting to hear St. Louis Blues forward David Backes talk about the coming labor talks between the players and the owners.

The Frank J. Selke Trophy nominee hopes to play a role in the talks, and appears to have a very moderate stance on how the two sides can and should work things out without missing any game time.

“I feel like I have something to contribute to the players’ association," Backes said. "Not to pump my own tires but [I’m] a guy that went to college and I feel like I’ve got somewhat of a brain between my ears, a sense of reasoning, someone that hopefully can help us not miss any hockey for next year. I think fans are looking for that. That’s what ... would be best for everyone and best for the game. I think we’ll be working towards that hopefully soon.”

He acknowledged there is a sense of pessimism among fans regarding the talks, in part because basketball and football struggled to get their recent deals done in a timely fashion. He noted Major League Baseball seems to have been able to avoid the labor stoppages that have marked the other sports, including hockey.

“Baseball seems to have it all figured out for some reason," he said. "If we can find something, get on that baseball program that they seem to have something that they tweak it here and there, but it works for everyone, and, in the end, they keep growing their game. We’ve grown our game amazingly since I’ve been part of the league, for six years; to stall that for either side’s trying to grab too much of the pie I think would be foolish.”

Backes is part of a strong Blues contingent at the NHL awards. Netminders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak will pick up the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals during the regular season. GM Doug Armstrong is a finalist for the GM of the year, and Ken Hitchcock is a strong favorite to win the Jack Adams as coach of the year.

Both Backes and Elliott said they hope the young team can learn from its experiences this spring, when the Blues won their first playoff round since 2002, defeating San Jose in five games before being swept by eventual Cup champion Los Angeles.

”I don’t know if there’s any easy way to [lose in the playoffs]. But you watched how they went about their team game ... you knew exactly what was going on in that room, exactly what those guys were feeling and how cohesive that L.A. team was; they epitomized what a team was going to be in the playoffs and they were clicking on all cylinders," Backes said. "There’s something to be learned from the experience, and I think if we do learn and we're better off moving forward, then it’s not in vain.”

This season was quite a transformation for Elliott, who a year ago was wondering whether he was going to have an NHL job at all, let alone turn in the kind of stellar performance he did for the Blues.

A year ago, Elliott was without a contract before signing a two-way deal with the Blues and having to fight for what was supposed to be the backup job behind Halak.

“You get a little bit anxious, but I learned from the beginning of my pro career, talking to some mentors that I’ve had, worrying gets you nowhere," Elliott said. "You can stay up worrying all night but what does it bring you in the end? I think I just put it on the back burner and focused on training, and wherever I was going to be, I was going to do the best that I can.

“Going into camp obviously I knew if I had to take a two-way contract, you have to be a rock star basically every night and get yourself noticed. I tried to do that. When the day came that I signed with St. Louis, I was excited for the opportunity. Not where you wanted to be with your career, but you can’t dwell on it; you just have to move forward.”

Elliott was rewarded during the season with a two-year contract extension that will pay him an average of $1.8 million annually, although he insists the security won’t change his outlook and how he prepares.

“It’s big but I thought I played my best this year with that pressure that I put on myself to be the best and to go into camp ready for the start of the season and not limping in or not just wading into the pool; you want to dive in head first and be ready to go right off the bat, so I want to take that same mindset. It doesn’t matter your security; you want to get out there, you have to earn your next contract, and you want to be in the league and playing for the Cup every year,” he said.

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