As a sixth-rounder who’s never played in a single pro game, Samuel Blais came into Blues camp as one of the biggest roster longshots. Could he play in the NHL this season?
NHL.com’s Lou Korac wrote a fantastic piece on his In the Slot blog Thursday about St. Louis Blues forward Ty Rattie and his quest to break camp with the NHL club for the first time in his pro career.
Rattie’s quest to break into the lineup on a full-time basis has been a frequent topic of discussion among Blues fans for the past two seasons, so it was very enlightening to hear about the approach that he’s taking to accomplish that goal. But perhaps the most enlightening nugget of information in the article was buried in a quote from head coach Ken Hitchcock, speaking about Rattie’s offensive skill:
"“The puck follows him around the ice. He gets points for you. It’s going to really add to our team. It’s him, it’s (Kenny) Agostino, it’s (Samuel) Blais, it’s (Magnus) Paajarvi. These are guys that, man, they can make our team be a little bit different here, quite a bit different and really be one of those teams where we’re dangerous right throughout our lineup if they can make the grade.”"
That’s right, Hitchcock mentioned 20-year-old Samuel Blais–a sixth-round pick in 2014 who has yet to play in a professional game–in the same group as Rattie and Magnus Paajarvi, the two favorites to make the team as the 13th and 14th forwards, and fourth-year pro Kenny Agostino, who’s been the star of training camp so far.
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Blais has impressed through nearly a week of training camp, and in his preseason debut on Sunday, he collected a goal and three assists in 11:31 of ice time. For Blais–who is still eligible to return to the QMJHL for one more year of junior hockey, but is also old enough now to start playing professionally–it was a major accomplishment to survive the team’s first mass cut and advance to the stage of camp in which Hitchcock says the staff begins putting the team together.
If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Blais has outperformed his draft status. In the season after he was selected, Blais scored 34 goals and added 48 assists over 61 games for the Victoriaville Tigres. Last season, Blais scored 33 goals and collected 48 assists while splitting time between the Tigres and the Charlottetown Islanders. The Blues developed enough confidence in Blais to sign him to an entry-level contract last November, which is an accomplishment in and of itself for a sixth-round pick.
Hockey’s Future refers to Blais as a “speedy, offensively-inclined skill forward”, but points out that “his positional play and defensive game are still developing.” In other words, based off of that evaluation, Blais is basically a younger, less-experienced version of Rattie, Paajarvi, or Agostino. And while he’s stood out on various big stages–this year’s training camp being one of them–he’s also been quiet at times, such as at the organization’s annual prospect camps and at the Traverse City prospect tournament.
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With that said, Blais does seem to be a guy who’d be a natural fit in the Blues’ new speed and skill-based offensive attack. There are various measurements for Blais circulating around the web, with the most favorable (and usually the most recent) being on HockeyDB, which lists him at 6-foot-1 and 181 pounds. Regardless, he appears to be big enough that he won’t get run over by NHL competition, and he has the potential to put more weight on as he ages.
It’d be an absolute shock if Blais made the opening night roster; he’d have to jump over at least three or four forwards on the depth chart, and it’d seemingly be irrational to keep a player who’s never played in a professional game on the NHL roster when there’s not an obvious spot for him in the lineup. Clearly, though, Blais has established himself as a trusted depth player.
If the 2016-17 season is anything like 2015-16, when the Blues had to utilize six different forwards who weren’t on the initial 23-man roster due to injuries and poor performance, it’s definitely possible that Blais could earn himself a shot if he performs well in the AHL. And for now, that’s the most important thing for him: providing enough intrigue during camp that he earns himself a consistent spot in the lineup of the Chicago Wolves, the Blues’ AHL affiliate.
Hitchcock has a well-known tendency to make bold statements in the heat of the moment, and he’s not the general manager of the team, so it’s hard to tell how much weight his opinion of Blais actually holds, especially as the Blues prepare to transition toward Mike Yeo as head coach next season. But the fact that Hitchcock believes Blais can be a real asset in the system that Yeo wants to play has to count for something.