Veteran goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have helped raise the St. Louis Blues back to a place among the elite teams in the NHL.
However, it was around this time last year that Jake Allen made the League take notice that the Blues' goaltending depth didn't stop there.
Recalled from the American Hockey League to replace an injured Halak in February and again in early March, Allen posted a 9-4-0 record in his 15 appearances with St. Louis, including one shutout. The significance of his performance, which earned him a spot on the NHL All-Rookie Team at season's end, was recognized by Blues assistant general manager Kevin McDonald, who also oversees the team's prospects in the AHL.
Jake Allen was a savior for the St. Louis Blues during the 2012-13 season; back in the AHL this season with Chicago, he's put together an All-Star campaign as he bides his time until his next NHL call-up. (Photo: Ross Dettman)
"It was a very important time when he came up, because in the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule it was a real sprint to the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs," McDonald said. "Those points were vital to the Blues making the [postseason].
"It was a pressure-filled time to come up as a rookie and get a good run of games, but Jake always seems to rise to the occasion and he did that again last year."
Allen, who was selected by the Blues in the second round (No. 32) of the 2008 NHL Draft, didn't have any expectations going into what would become his regular-season NHL debut (he had previously played one minute in relief during the 2012 playoffs).
"It was my first real time with the Blues, so I didn't know if I was going to get in any games or not," the 23-year-old said. "I just kept plugging away, and when I was called upon things went well for me.
"I got to show off everything I've been working on over the course of three years, and I think I answered a lot of people's questions whether I had the ability to do it or not."
The Fredericton, New Brunswick native began his professional career in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen, then the Blues' affiliate, for three seasons. With their top prospects now playing for the Chicago Wolves, Allen has registered a 17-11-2 record in 30 games this season and ranks among the league's leaders with a 2.13 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
McDonald notes Allen's poise on the ice is just as prevalent outside the rink.
"Jake has always been one of the most mature kids we've ever had [in our organization] in terms of the total picture," McDonald said. "He's found a way to improve an area of his game every single year, and I think that's what has him playing the best hockey of his life right now."
Allen remains unaffected by his positioning behind Halak and Elliot in the Blues' goaltending system.
"He knows his time is coming," McDonald said. "You have to give him credit as a young kid for really doing what he needs to do every day so that when he gets that opportunity to go to the NHL, he's as prepared as he can be.
"He's only worried about what he can control, and all he can control is to be the best goalie he can be and be No. 1 at the American League level."
It appears Allen is doing just that. He has been selected as one of two goaltenders to represent the league at the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, on Feb. 11-12. The AHL's best will face Färjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League, marking the first such event featuring international competition in league history.
"It's going to be a good challenge to play against one of the top European teams, to show the world what our league is about and to represent the AHL as best as we can," Allen said. "I'm going to go over there with the mentality that we're going to try to win and have some fun too."
He is equally as excited about the chance to return to St. John's, where he began his junior career with the Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2007-08.
"I have a lot of friends and family there," Allen said. "I played in that arena and a lot of the staff members for the IceCaps were on my junior coaching staff, so I'm excited to get back there and see some familiar faces."
Participating in his second All-Star Classic (he previously competed as a rookie in 2011) is another opportunity to build on the developments he has made since his stint in the NHL, according to Allen.
"You want to play as much as you can, especially as a growing player," Allen said. "Back in the American League this year, it's been a huge bonus for me to get more experience under my belt every day, and I think I've honed my game a bit more."
He's confident his continuous progress will lead him down the same path to the NHL that many before him have taken.
"A lot of the guys that are now the top goalies in the NHL have done the same thing I'm doing," Allen said. "I'm just enjoying the process, and hopefully sooner or later it's going to work out."
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