CALGARY - Just as it did at last year’s National Hockey League trade deadline, the road to St. Louis runs through Calgary for Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.
Participating in Canada’s National Men’s Team Orientation Camp this week at the Markin MacPhail Centre, the 29-year-old is one of 47 players vying for a spot to compete against the world’s best at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Due to the high cost of insuring roughly $1.5 billion worth of NHL contracts, Hockey Canada has been prohibited from holding formal, on-ice sessions as they had in years past. Instead, the camp has been dedicated to system work, video meetings and a series of dry land walkthroughs on a covered ice surface.
Still, it’s been an incredible opportunity for Bouwmeester and fellow Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo -- both of whom are strong bets to crack the squad come December.
“Most guys have played with each other at some level already, so there's been a certain amount of familiarity that we can bring and build on in a camp like this,” Bouwmeester told stlouisblues.com after Tuesday’s late afternoon ball hockey practice. “It’s huge to have this opportunity to get together and be around the guys before we all go our separate ways to start the (NHL) season.
“Obviously with the ball hockey it’s a little different than a regular practice -- I mean, we’re hockey players and competitiveness is our life. We’re not skating and can’t get to places as quickly as we normally would, but it gets the detail of our assignments across. From that standpoint, it’s been great and I think we learned a lot this week.”
“Of course we’d prefer to be on the ice, but we can’t control that,” added Pietrangelo. “The camp hasn’t been so much about evaluation anyway, so the meetings and whatnot have been a solid tune-up for the start of the year.
“Overall, it’s been an awesome experience and being here with Jay has made it that much better. He’s a great player and we’re thrilled to have him on our side in St. Louis.”
Bouwmeester was acquired back on April 1 in a deadline-day swing that sent defenseman Mark Cundari, goaltender Reto Berra and a first-round draft pick to the Calgary Flames.
The Blues went on a tear upon his arrival, winning five in a row and 11 of their final 14 games before advancing to face the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“That roll we went on made the transition to St. Louis a lot easier,” Bouwmeester said. “When you’re playing well and making that kind of a push, everything comes together. We had a tough series against LA, but we're at the stage now where -- we're still fairly young, but we're past the learning stage. We've got a group that's probably going to be together for at least a few years and it seems like a good opportunity for us to do some damage.
“The experience in St. Louis has been awesome so far. It’s been a great fit.”
Bouwmeester, who turns 30 in late September, will be part of that core for a long time. The Edmonton, Alberta native signed a five-year contract extension earlier this summer, ensuring he will remain a Blue until 2019.
“Jay has been the perfect addition to what we’re building here,” Pietrangelo said. “He came in last season, put up good numbers (one goal, seven points and a +5 rating in 14 games) and was logging a lot of minutes. Having that on our back end for a full season this year, it can only be a good thing.”
With an older, more experienced group, exceptional depth in goal and a mix of talented offseason acquisitions (Magnus Paajarvi, Derek Roy, Maxim Lapierre and others) in tow, the club looks poised to make another deep postseason run and perhaps even emerge as one of the teams to beat in the freshly realigned Central Division.
In fact, The Hockey News has already pegged the Blues as their choice to win the Stanley Cup this season. While Bouwmeester doesn’t put much stock into those preseason prognostications, it’s comforting to know the rest of the League is beginning to take note.
“It's certainly better than being at the bottom,” he laughed. “Weren’t the (MLB’s Toronto) Blue Jays picked to win the World Series this year? We’re not really thinking about it because it adds some unnecessary pressure, but it’s exciting, there’s no doubt about that.
“I can’t wait to get going. We have a special group here.”