HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Going back to his days with the Montreal Canadiens and continuing a common theme with the St. Louis Blues, Jaroslav Halak always remained consistent in one regard: once an NHL season ended, it was time to head home.
Home always has been Bratislava, Slovakia.
The 28-year-old wants to spend as much time in familiar surroundings as possible, and in the process would go through a workout regimen that would get him ready for the upcoming season before returning to St. Louis late in the summer.
But this year, Halak changed course. St. Louis would be home for the summer and for good reason.
Coming off a pair of groin injuries that limited him 16 games in 2012-13, Halak never could get over the down time during the NHL lockout that hampered some goaltenders and made a return to action tougher than expected.
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 [wasn't] a tough decision," Halak recently told NHL.com. "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.
"I feel good. I've worked hard. We'll see how it goes. I've been skating on the ice for [several] 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."
Halak's program entailed everything from lower- and upper-body to even a dietary program rich in protein and little to no carbohydrates. Halak dropped 14 pounds (he's listed at 5-foot-10, 186 pounds) and he's lowered his body fat to eight 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'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 ran into his goaltender multiple times at the team's training facility at St. Louis Outlet Mall during the summer and liked the results.
"He's excited, he's feeling healthy," Hitchcock said. "Part of it was conditioning, but another part was strengthening that area. He's a really young guy 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."
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," he said. "I want to play the game the way I'm capable of playing. 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. ... 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 the season. Jake Allen, who helped vault the Blues into the postseason last season, more than likely will begin the season with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League barring injury, poor play by Halak or Elliott, or he stands out in training camp to the point the organization has no choice but to keep him here.
"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 posted 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.
"It's always nice to hear it," he said of being named the starter. "At the same time, I still have to go out there, perform and do the job. Obviously if I don't do it, [Elliott] 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 the four-year contract he signed following the trade from Montreal. It's a contract year but for him, but it's his chance to re-establish himself as one of the game's top netminders.
"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 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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