By making seven non-surprising roster moves on Thursday, the Blues have brought their roster battles into clearer focus entering their final preseason game, against Columbus on Friday at Enterprise Center.
Forwards Nikita Alexandrov, Sam Anas and Nathan Walker, defensemen Calle Rosen and Steven Santini and goalie Charlie Lindgren were sent down to Springfield on Thursday and forward Michael Frolik was released from his tryout. That leaves the Blues with 17 forwards (not counting the injured Oskar Sundqvist) and essentially seven forwards for four spots on the opening day roster.
In the chase for those spots are James Neal, in camp on a tryout basis, Jake Neighbours, Kyle Clifford, Dakota Joshua, Mackenzie MacEachern, Logan Brown and Klim Kostin. Neal and Neighbours are the linchpins in the equation. Neal is the one goalscorer in the group and Neighbours is still eligible to play in juniors; he can play up to nine games in the NHL before it counts as the first season of his entry-level contract. Joshua and Kostin are the only ones that can be sent to the AHL without going through waivers.
Both Neal and Neighbours are expected in the lineup on Friday as the Blues try to get as many looks at the two as they can. For Neighbours, it would be his fifth preseason out of the eight for the Blues. On Tuesday in Dallas, he played on the top line with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron; in practice on Thursday, he skated with Ivan Barbashev and Tyler Bozak on what looks more like a fourth line. “We want to look at him one more time in a different situation,” coach Craig Berube said.
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As for Neal, he skated on a line with Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko on Thursday.
“He’s good below the tops of the circles, that’s his game,” Berube said. “He hounds pucks and he’s on pucks. He’s got a good stick and he’s around the net and he gets goals around the net, which is important. He’s been around a long time, he’s played a lot of good hockey in his career and he’s scored a lot of goals.”
If Neal makes the team and the Blues choose to keep Neighbours around for a tryout, then the Blues are looking at five players for two spots.
With the Blues down to 29 players in camp, including the injured Sundqvist, the lineup against Columbus will be the closest they’ve been to a regular-season roster in preseason.
“There’s a couple guys in there that we’re going to be looking at still,” Berube said, “but a lot of our lineup will be in there.”
Long day’s journeys
The game in St. Paul on Wednesday was the fourth in six days for the Blues, all on the road, and when you figure in the two off days in St. Louis, they were been in five cities in that span. While Berube and his staff have rotated players — Scott Perunovich, Joshua and Kostin got in three of the four games — the one constant in the four games was the coaching and support staffs. There have been no overnight trips in the run. Instead, the team went out and back on the same day four times, to Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas and St. Paul, Minn. While the Blues will play four games in six days on several occasions during the season, they’ll never be in five cities in six days.
“It’s part of the job,” Berube said. “We’re used to it, but it’s a grind for sure. Camps are always a grind. There’s a lot of players, there’s a lot of things going on, you’ve got to analyze players and it’s a lot for everybody. That’s training camp though. That’s just part of the job.”
In practice on Thursday, Brandon Saad moved into the left wing spot on Ryan O’Reilly’s line. He’s the third wing Berube has used alongside O’Reilly and David Perron in camp, following Jordan Kyrou and Neighbours. … Josh Dunne of O’Fallon, Mo., who was sent down by Columbus earlier this week, was recalled on Thursday, which should mean he’s in the roster for the game on Friday in his hometown. … The Wild’s Adam Beckman, who lost his fight with Walker on Wednesday but came back to score the game-winning goal in overtime, broke his nose in the fight and was wearing a full visor in practice today. Beckham, like Walker, got a Gordie Howe hat trick in the game of a goal, an assist and a fight.
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