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Comfortable in physical role, Blais wants to balance offense with grit

Life in the NHL has taught Blais if he's going to make a career at the highest level, grit, physicality and toughness were going to have to be added ingredients.
Credit: AP
St. Louis Blues left wing Sammy Blais celebrates after the Blues scored against the San Jose Sharks during the first period in Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference final series Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS — When Sammy Blais entered the zone Sunday, his offensive instincts immediately kicked in.

A burst to his left, then cut between two defenders, followed by a toe-drag to the backhand, a cut back to the forehand around a stick and as the capper, a quick, snapping wrister high short side on Columbus goalie Elvis Merzlikins.

No chance for a goalie in that situation.

This was a small sample size, but this is the kind of talent the Blues drafted when they chose Blais, from the small Quebec province of Montmagny, with the 176th pick (sixth round) of the 2014 NHL Draft.

Blais, 23, came out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; he played for Victoriaville, where offense is the name of the game.

But life in the NHL has taught Blais that if he is going to make a career at the highest level, grit, physicality and toughness were going to have to be added ingredients, which they have been, and were key parts in helping the Blues win their first-ever Stanley Cup last season.

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"Not really, but I'm able to do it, so it's a part of my game that I'm happy to have," Blais said when asked if he ever thought playing physical would have to be part of his game. "In the NHL, you have to be physical, you have to win your battle. I've been doing it pretty good since I added that to my game. I'm going to try and keep going like that."

But the sample size Blais, who signed a one-year, one-way contract worth $850,000 as a restricted free agent in the summer, displayed in the 5-3 win over Columbus Sunday is what he hopes to bring to the table along with his physical play for the 2019-20 season.

They're qualities he's shown before with 82 points (34 goals, 48 assists) in 61 games for Victoriaville in 2014-15, and again in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves in 2016-17, ironically under Blues coach Craig Berube, when Blais had 43 points (26 goals, 17 assists) in 75 games.

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In the NHL though, Blais has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 43 regular-season games and a goal and two assists in 15 Stanley Cup playoff games.

"Playing physical is part of my game now," Blais said. "I'm not going to change it. I'm just trying to bring some offense, too. It's going to be huge for me if I can bring that."

Imagine Blais and some of the other younger guys like Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas—who's expected to be an offensive threat—and Robby Fabbri, among others, if they can each contribute offensively in some form to add to those playing in the top six that are counted on to do so on a regular basis? Imagine the possibilities. That's what Blais is hoping for, but for Blais, he learned quickly that simply being an offensive threat wasn't going to give him a shot at an NHL career and he was going to have to use his current 6-foot-2, 205-pound body in ways he wasn't used to in his earlier days.

So, he used a short summer after parading around the Stanley Cup in his hometown for the first time to rededicate his commitment to a stronger, bigger body.

"I took some time after the season. It was a long, long year, but I worked on conditioning and stuff and it was a good summer and I'm just happy to be back here," Blais said. "The lower body is the thing I have to work on. I did a lot of leg stuff during the summer and I feel pretty good on the ice. I'm happy about that."

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Blais finally cemented his spot during the playoffs last season when Berube threw him right into the fire, an elimination game, on the road, in the second round against the Dallas Stars. It was Game 6, one the Blues had to win to get it back to Game 7 at home.

All Blais did was cement a 4-1 win by powdering a slap shot past Ben Bishop in the third period; he also laid a huge, heavy check on Boston's Danton Heinen during Game 7 of the Cup Final, and pass back to the point that led to Ryan O'Reilly's goal to open the scoring of a 4-1 win that clinched the Cup.

"Last year, I showed everybody what I can do and in the playoffs, I played pretty good hockey," Blais said. "I'm pretty confident right now and I just want to keep playing like I did last year. If I do that, I think I'll be fine.

"... I thought I could play here last year. I think, like I said in the playoffs, I played pretty good. I took some confidence there. This summer, I worked hard in the gym and tried to be prepared for training camp and it's been a good training camp so far.

"It was my first game in two months. I think I was hurt before that. When I came in, I was just trying to ... they were winning (the series) 3-2 I think. I was just trying to make an impact in the game and I remember I was physical and I scored a goal there at the end and I was happy to get that."

Berube wanted to give the Blues more edge to the team game and by adding Blais, not only could he learn the challenges of playoff hockey but also offer the then 22-year-old a boost of confidence and experience by thrusting Blais into that situation. It paid off.

"Just going back to the Dallas game, he was physical right away in the game, energy, made some real nice plays with the puck," Berube said. "He's good with the puck. He sees the ice real well. What would I like to see more? Goals, but he gets his opportunities. Sometimes it takes young guys a little longer to find the back of the net. It's not easy to score goals in this league. If he can keep that physical game and energy that he brings to our lineup and puts some goals in, that would be nice.

"Going into the playoffs and getting a goal in the playoffs, playing a big role for us, later on in the playoffs, he played a pretty big role for us in the Dallas series going forward. That obviously will give a guy confidence for sure."

Blais, who had 40 points (17 goals, 23 assists) in 42 games for San Antonio in 2017-18, is hopeful that the San Antonio-St. Louis shuttle express is over. He has put the most frequent flier miles in that route with 14 recalls in two seasons, including six last year.

"Hopefully it's over, but I'm not thinking about going back to San Antonio," Blais said. "I think I can be an NHL player and that's what I'm going to try and show in training camp.

"... Nothing is guaranteed for anyone. Just going to work hard and earn your spot." 

Blais will be in the lineup for the Blues again when they host the Dallas Stars Tuesday night at Enterprise Center. It will be another chance to showcase his multi-talented skills, and he'll do so with the majority of the Blues' regulars in the lineup. Blais will just continue to improve his overall game leading up to the Oct. 2 season opener.

"Yeah, I feel good," Blais said. "I try to make plays too, but when you're physical, you always get the puck back, too. I think that's a big part of our team, too.

"Defensively I think is the biggest part for me. I think I've made huge strides since I started playing pro hockey. I just got to be good at 200 feet and I think I'm doing pretty well right now."