Saturday, August 24, 2013

Halak feeling at home in St. Louis

Slovakia native spent summer training, conditioning here in hopes
of ridding self of groin ailments after injury-filled 2012-13 season
 
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Since he arrived via trade in St. Louis in 2010, it's been a common theme for Jaroslav Halak to head overseas to his hometown when the Blues' season ended.

The Bratislava, Slovakia native would incorporate a workout regimen that would get Halak ready for the upcoming season before returning to St. Louis late in the summer.

But this summer, Halak made St. Louis his workout haven.
(Getty Images)
Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak in action last season.

Halak, coming off a pair of groin injuries that limited him to 16 games a season ago, could never quite get over the down time during the National Hockey League lockout that seemingly hampered some goaltenders and made a return to action tougher than usual.

After compiling a 6-5-1 record with a respectable 2.14 goals-against average and .899 save percentage, Halak could not get back to full form and saw frustration reach a peak following a heated argument with coach Ken Hitchcock during the first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings. Halak and the Blues ultimately decided it was time for a change of course.

It was time to put in a heavy workload with strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte, and it was a decision Halak embraced with open arms.

"It hasn't been a tough decision," Halak said. "After the season I had being injured and not staying healthy, I decided to stay here and train with Nelson. We've been working hard getting back on track.

"Unfortunately, it's part of a lot of players' careers. You go through some adversity and it's only up to you how you deal with it. I know some guys who are not fortunate to come back from injury. Hopefully, I'll be fortunate and come back and stay healthy. I want to prove to myself and I want to prove to everybody that I can play."

He added: "I feel good. I've worked hard. We'll see how it goes. I've been skating on the ice for the past two weeks. My body felt good, didn't give me any signs of being tired or anything. It's been perfect and we'll see how it goes next week. I'm looking forward to training camp."

The program entails everything from Halak's lower-body to his upper-body and even involves a dietary program rich in protein and little to no carbohydrates. The current result has seen Halak drop 14 pounds (he's listed at 5-foot-10, 186-pounds) and he's lowered his body fat count down to 9.4 percent.

"No carbs at all this summer," Halak said with a smile. "Once in a while -- maybe once a week -- I can have ice cream. Usually no bread, no rice, no sushi even though I like sushi, I had to cut it. I've got three more weeks of dieting. I'm not saying I'm going to take off and start eating bad again, but obviously I'm going to enjoy sushi again. Steaks were my best friend in the summer. Steaks were really good.

"Last season was a strange season with the lockout. I gained some weight, some body fat and I needed to lose it. I did everything I had to do in the summer to lose what I had to lose and get back to normal."

Hitchcock, who said previously that the spat he had with Halak is nothing uncommon, especially for someone who wants to play. He's ran into his goaltender multiple times at the team's training facility at St. Louis Outlet Mall this summer. 

"He's excited, he's feeling healthy," Hitchcock said of Halak. "Part of it was conditioning, but another part was strengthening that area.

"He's a really young guy (28) and you don't want to have an injury-plagued career. So he wanted take the question marks out of it by having a really high fitness level. He's done a really good job of finding that fitness level."

The lockout really hurt some goalies but some were not affected at all. Halak was one who was not able to overcome the work stoppage. Without the benefit of a full training camp and without playing a regular schedule of preseason games or games in Europe like many other NHL goalies had the benefit of playing, Halak was up against it from the get-go. He wanted to play in Europe but for multiple reasons was not able to do so other than one game in Germany.

"If you look around the league, I'm not saying all goalies had a bad season, some of the top goalies had bad seasons or not the best," Halak said. "I think the big reason why it happened was the lockout. It was eight months. I'm sure goalies, they love to play in Europe, but the teams in Europe, they wanted to get players. It's easier to replace a (skater) than a goalie. If a goalie would play great for a European team and then walk out, the goalie has to go back to their NHL team and that (European) team would have to go back to the original goalie, who I'm sure wouldn't be happy about the fact that an NHL goalie played.

"I wanted to play somewhere. It's just even my insurance was a little bit higher and that was kind of a big reason why I didn't play anywhere."

Halak, who has a career mark of 115-72-22 with a 2.41 GAA and .917 save percentage, is 59-39-15 with a 2.23 GAA and .915 save percentage in his three seasons with the Blues. They're respectable numbers, but Halak feels there's higher ground for him here.

"I want to play my best. I want to play the game the way I'm capable of playing," Halak said. "I know I can play much better than what I did last year. But the big fact was that I was injured and I could not stay healthy. I would come back, get injured and there was always a setback. I needed to obviously work hard to get back, but you still had to wait for a chance to play.

"We'll see how this goes. We've still got three weeks before training camp. I'm taking this one day at a time. It's a long season. Anything could happen."

Anything can happen in training camp obviously, but Hitchcock has called Halak the team's starter and Brian Elliott the backup heading into this season. Jake Allen, who made his name a season ago and helped vault the Blues into the postseason, will likely play with the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League this season.
 
"Halak hasn't lost his starting job due to his play," Hitchcock said. "He lost his starting job due to injury, so there's a difference. If Brian comes in and takes the job, that's one thing. My feeling is training camp is for evaluation, but to me it's status quo as long as both guys are healthy."

That wouldn't be a bad thing, especially if the tandem can repeat the Jennings Trophy-winning numbers Halak and Elliott collectively put up in 2011-12. That would mean roughly 55 percent of the starts go to Halak and 45 percent to Elliott. But Halak isn't taking anything for granted.
(Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak (right) makes a save in Dallas against the Stars' Michael
Ryder last season.

"It's always nice to hear it. At the same time, I still have to go out there, perform and do the job," Halak said. "Obviously if I don't do it, Ells or Jake will take the spot and I'll be gone. That's the bottom line. You still have to play and you still have to perform at the highest level."

Halak is in the final year of a four-year, $15-million contract he signed following the trade from Montreal. It's obviously a contract year but for him, it's Halak's chance to re-establish himself as one of the game's top netminders as well.

"I'm just focusing on one year -- not even one year -- one day at a time," Halak said. "That's my approach for this season. I'm not worried about what's going to happen for next year. I just have to enjoy what's ahead of us now.

"The summer has been great. ... I feel really good on the ice. I've worked hard. Nelson pushed me. Obviously, not all the exercises were easy. Obviously there were some challenges, but I was able to manage them and go through them and did everything he told me. That's why I was here. I was here to do what I was told to do and what I needed to do."

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