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Blues bring in veterans to cope with injuries up front

by Louie Korac

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Doug Armstrong could have turned to the bevy of prospects thriving with Chicago of the American Hockey League. Instead, the St. Louis Blues' general manager is playing it safe and bringing in NHL veterans to bolster an injury-depleted corps of forwards.

Martin Havlat and Dainius Zubrus came into their first Blues' practice Wednesday seeking to make a strong first impression. Each has 10 days to parlay a professional tryout into an NHL contract. Each feels he still has something left in the tank, so when Armstrong reached out to the 34-year-old Havlat and assistant GM Martin Brodeur extended an invitation to Zubrus, 37, it was an easy decision for them to come and give it perhaps one last opportunity to stay in the NHL.

Long-term injuries to forwards Jaden Schwartz (broken ankle), Paul Stastny (broken foot) and Patrik Berglund (shoulder surgery) forced Armstrong to look for help. But instead of promoting prospects from the Blues' AHL team who might not be NHL-ready or exploring trade possibilities, Armstrong opted to see what Havlat and Zubrus, who have a combined 2,031 games of NHL experience, could offer.

"We have 13 here now and three of those players don't combine for 100 games total in the NHL," Armstrong said of his forward group. "I'm comfortable with our group right now. It's planning for the best and hoping there's no more injuries. We're hoping for the best and planning for the worst.

"On short-term injuries, you're very comfortable with your depth at your [AHL] system in your own organization. But having Schwartz and Berglund out likely until the All-Star Game or later and Stastny not back until December, it made it something like a low-risk, high-return. We've been looking at a few different players. These are two guys we focused in on."

The Blues have rookie Robby Fabbri on a nine-game trial before deciding if he stays, which seems extremely likely, or he's returned to Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League. Coach Ken Hitchcock recently said Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin, second-round picks in the 2011 NHL Draft, could get more responsibilities. Magnus Paajarvi, the 10th player taken in the 2010 draft, and Ivan Barbashev, a second-round pick in 2014, are also considerations.

However, Armstrong feels the Wolves' start (3-1-1) is something the organization didn't want to interfere with, and that ultimately, having NHL-ready players at the Blues' disposal is the safest alternative.

"Rattie's going to get his opportunity, there's no question," Armstrong said. "Robby Fabbri's played [three] NHL games and everyone wants to anoint him as the second coming. I think we all have to tap our brakes on some of these guys and find out how good they really are. If they pass the test, that's great; good for us. If they don't, we want to have some quality replacements."

Havlat had five goals and 14 points in 40 games with the New Jersey Devils last season. In 14 NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks and Devils, Havlat has 241 goals and 593 points in 788 games. He went to training camp with the Florida Panthers on a tryout contract but was released.

"I still love the game," said Havlat, who said he had been training in Boca Raton, Fla. "I like to play and I'm happy I got the chance to come here and skate with the boys today.

"I'll just go day-by-day, just work hard and try. I got the opportunity to be here, right? Every chance I have I'd like to show them what I can do. They know me as a player; it's not my first year in the League."

Zubrus had four goals and 10 points in 74 games with the Devils last season. In 18 seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and Devils, he has 225 goals and 584 points in 1,243 games.

He had spent the past eight seasons with the Devils but had his contract terminated July 30. Zubrus had been working out at the Devils' training facility but began to wonder if another NHL opportunity would come. He said he contemplated going to Europe but that didn't sway him from thinking that a call from an NHL team would come eventually.

It came when Brodeur, a teammate with the Devils from 2007-14, reached out by text, then with a phone call.

"He just asked me how I'm doing and if I'd be willing to come in and I said, 'Of course,'" Zubrus said. "I still feel like I'm an NHL player; I want to play in the NHL. I kind of waited for some options, maybe go to Europe and things like that, but in my head, it was NHL or nothing.

"... I realized that it was a rebuilding process [in New Jersey]. So when it happened, the flip side of it for me was I was hoping to get a call from a team like this; to be on a team as a contender and has been in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and try to make as good of a run as you can. So yeah, I was really kind of hoping for this kind of situation the day after it happened in New Jersey. I'm happy that St. Louis gave me this opportunity."

Havlat and Zubrus will continue to work out daily with the Blues; a decision on whether to sign them will come down by Nov. 6.

St. Louis signed forwards Scott Gomez, who also played with the Devils last season, and Scottie Upshall when they were brought into camp on tryout agreements.

"You get guys like [Gomez] and Upshall, you feel good for them because they're guys that came here with no promises and earned the right to play and I think that's good and that's what we're hoping with Havlat and Zubrus," Hitchcock said. "These are real pros, they've been good players.

"We don't need them to save us; we just need them to help us. There's a real opportunity for those guys here too."

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