ST. LOUIS — When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong signed five restricted free agent forwards this summer after winning a Stanley Cup, with all of them getting raises, he did so to lay out a plan of how to help younger players increase their responsibilities.
It was predictable considering that the Blues had just won their first-ever Cup and young players were important pieces of it, but in getting those raises, there was one simple message in mind:
You got paid, now go earn more ice time, go earn more responsibilities.
If anyone has taken those words to heart more, it's been Sammy Blais.
It's early, yes, but if anyone has grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns, Blais has done so and then some.
But this is no fluke. Go look at the playoffs last season. Go look at Blais in San Antonio of the American Hockey League two years ago when he had 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 42 games. Go look at Blais in Chicago of the AHL three years ago when he scored 26 goals. It's gradually been building up, and it's built up all the way where a spot in the top six was open, and Blais said, 'I'll take that.'
He's not only taken a spot on left wing with David Perron and Ryan O'Reilly, but it's hard to envision anyone taking it from Blais any time soon, if at all.
"He's played real well," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Blais, who is tied with O'Reilly with three points (two goals, one assist). "He's come into camp and he's done exactly what we've asked him to do in the summertime. He looks in great shape, he's strong and he's playing his game.
"He's a confident player even going back to the days in Chicago when I had him, he was a real confident player then too. He's got great puck skills and he plays a hard game. He's physical. He's an effective player for us."
Blais came from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where offense is, well, offense. Blais was good at it (71 goals, 107 assists in 149 games), but progressing up the ladder, the 23-year-old Montmagny, Quebec native would have to learn a few different tricks to the trade. Hitting, physicality, forechecking, the little things that will make one successful.
Blais embraced it, and it's balanced his game quite nicely.
"He's a player," said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, a teammate with Blais on the Wolves. "It's nice that he's getting his opportunity and continues to work hard. He realizes you've got to be good all the time and consistent all the time and he's doing a great job."
What is helping Blais with confidence is that he had Berube coach him in Chicago, and Berube could see the tenacity and physical play of Blais coming. No nudging was needed but the coach certainly encouraged it.
"He actually had that, but for sure, you encourage it, because if you can use your body with physical play, it's really going to help your game, especially when you want to go get pucks and you're physical on them," Berube said. "He does a good job of finishing his check with the puck there and getting the puck. That's the key. Talking about physical play, you want to get the puck back, right? He does a good job of that."
Blais was inserted into Game 6 of the second round of the playoffs against Dallas last season, and he stepped into that role with Perron and O'Reilly and scored a goal scorer's goal. It was his forecheck that helped set up O'Reilly's goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against Boston, and not being complacent as a young player winning it all, it was a summer of searching for ways to get better and solidify a spot on the team for the first time in his young career, Blais got back to work, came into camp and has made his name known.
Blais wanted to focus more on his offense, and he's balancing it quite nicely with a physical role.
"After playoff last year, they told me they were really happy with my game," Blais, who has 12 hits in two games, said of the Blues' coaching staff. "They wanted me to bring that again this year. I wanted to bring more offense in my game. I have the chance to play with two real good players, 'Perry' and 'O'Ry', and I'm just trying to make the most of it. It's been working good."
Blais has been used to people working hard getting him pucks in the past. Now he's working hard on retrieving pucks for not only his linemates but himself as well.
"He's obviously made huge strides in the past three or four years," Blues center Brayden Schenn said. "I think you're going to get his best hockey this year. He's kind of St. Louis Blues are all about too. He's physical, he's got skill to him. He plays hard, so obviously he's getting an opportunity right now to play with some good players and he's taking advantage of it.
"I think that's a credit to Chief. Chief had him in the minors there in Chicago and encouraged him to play physical and play hard. Obviously you see when he has the puck how skilled he is. When he's playing hard and playing physical, it just adds another element to his game. Maybe it's not the easiest thing to come out of juniors to go to the hard areas or to be physical, but he's certainly doing a good job of it and it's a huge piece to our team moving forward."
Blais, O'Reilly and Perron have combined for eight points (three goals, five assists) in the first two games of the season before the Blues take their game on the road for a four-game Eastern Conference swing beginning in Toronto on Monday. As veterans, Perron and O'Reilly are taking notice just what their vibrant linemate is providing.
"What's awesome is I think he built that game in the AHL a little bit," Perron said of Blais. "He build that last year coming into the playoffs and making an impact that way. I was talking to a lot of people this summer about him. They see him as a skill guy, and that's one thing that he's going to keep getting better at the NHL level and making those plays like he made on my goal. The way he played in the playoffs opened a lot of eyes to those people that knew him from junior, to people like that.
"I think 'O'Ry' and I, we know what our game looks like and we know what we need to do to be successful. To have a guy like that that's confident, carries the puck, it's always important. Sometimes as a young guy, you play with older guys, I try not to talk to him too much for that reason. I want him to keep playing good. He's confident and it's awesome for us. We're going to need him to keep making those plays."
Blais is making $850,000 on a one-year, one-way contract. It's his first one-way contract, and one where the Blues are basically laying the platform for Blais to prove himself and the pay raises will continue to climb. Shouldn't be an issue at this rate, and at this level of dedication.
"When I'm hard on the forecheck, we get the puck back and these two guys are great playmakers," Blais said. "They know how to make plays and I just try to go to the net and help them make plays, and I think that's been working really good."
Blais' play has all but eliminated the St. Louis-San Antonio Extress. Those persistent call-ups from the AHL, getting sent back down appear to be a thing of the past.