GM hoping for improvement with Blues' centers

ST. LOUIS — The men in the middle — both new and old — will be one of the focal points of this Blues training camp, which begins Friday.

When he met with the media on Thursday to discuss the camp, St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong was asked where he saw the biggest improvement in his team since last season when the Note went 52-23-7 and earned 111 points.

“I’m hoping down the middle of the ice,” Armstrong said. “I think that adding a player like (Paul) Stastny — obviously his resume speaks for itself, his playoff performance speaks for itself — right in the prime of his career we’re getting him. But also bringing (Jori) Lehtera, a big body.

“I think one of our greatest assets a few years ago was when we had the bodies of (Patrik) Berglund, (Jason) Arnott and (David) Backes, three big bodies coming out there that could play against anyone.”

That team, back in 2011-12, went 49-22-11 with 109 points and won the Central Division title. That was also the group that won its first-round playoff series against the Sharks before losing to the Kings in the conference semifinals.

“I see the potential of having that now,” Armstrong said. “We can move Backes to the wing, we can move Berglund to the wing. We can use all those guys in the middle, move Stastny over. There’s so many different options that Ken (Hitchcock) has and I think that’s the exciting part. But I hope we’re strong down the middle. I hope we have different styles of players down the middle than we’ve had in the past, where we’ve done scoring from the middle and maybe not as much distributing. I think now we have the ability to do both.”

The Blues will certainly have options at the center spots.

Stastny, who scored 60 points (25 goals, 35 assists) in his final season with the Avalanche, could be the kind of distributor St. Louis has lacked over the years. He had three 70-plus point seasons on his resume and had a career-high 59 assists during his 79-point season back in 2009-10.

The Blues’ third-round pick in 2008, Lehtera is a bit of an unknown because he has not played in the NHL before. But the Blues liked what they saw from him with Finland during the 2014 Olympics — he had two assists in the victorious bronze-medal game against the United States — and during his time in the Kontinental Hockey League. He averaged nearly one point per game over the last three seasons.

St. Louis knows what it has in Backes, who put up 57 points (27 goals, 30 assists) in 74 games a year ago, and brought back Berglund (32 points in 78 games last season) on a three-year deal worth $11.1 million and Steve Ott on a two-year deal worth $5.2 million.

Now Ken Hitchcock and Co. will have to figure out the best way to deploy the Blues’ collection of centers.

The St. Louis coach said Thursday that both Backes and Berglund would be used at center and on the wing, like they were at times last season.

“It’s going to be moved throughout training camp to see what works best,” Hitchcock said. “David played 65 percent as a center iceman and 35 percent as a winger last year because when (Alexander) Steen took the face-offs, he ended up being the right winger so that's a possibility to do it that way. Both guys are going to be experimented as centers and as wingers and we’ll see what makes us the best.

“I think it does depend on Stastny and Lehtera. It depends on how much they can absorb, how high up the ladder they play and we'll know that after we have a bunch of competition. Not in the first four (preseason) games, but in the last three games when teams pair down their rosters, we'll have a better evaluation of where we’re at.”

You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter at @NateLatsch or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com


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