Already a top shut-down defenseman,
Polak could be key contributor offensively
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Roman Polak understands that he's got a pretty heavy shot and that his skating ability is better than average for someone with a bull-like body.
Polak, 24, is not only developing into one of the Blues' steadiest defensemen but also in the league as well.
His physical strength and work ethic in the defensive zone is noticed by his teammates, coaches and most importantly, the opposition. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, the Ostrava, Czech Republic native will certainly force you to earn your keep in the Blues' end of the ice.
"His closing speed and his strength getting there and his strength on his skates, it's impressive," Blues coach Davis Payne said of Polak. "Not only can he get there, but he can outmuscle a lot of guys when he gets to the puck. That's what makes him so effective.
"I think Roman is a guy who's got some excellent defensive strengths."
As Polak, who represented the Czech Republic at the Winter Olympics in February, enters his third full NHL season and fifth overall, there's also the ability to unload a heavy shot from the point and a quick skating ability most big men do not possess. He was the team's top skater for the second year in a row in the fitness testing skills.
But there's an area the Blues would like to utilize Polak and feel his game fits the bill.
Erik Johnson is expected to be the Blues' top offensive defenseman, along with Carlo Colaiacovo. But there's a belief Polak can be a key offensive contributor as well.
Polak has five goals and 37 points in his career (4 goals, 17 assists last season in 78 games) but with the Blues' need for more offensive contributions from not only their forwards, the defensemen are going to be asked to be more involved under Payne's system. And Polak is one guy the Blues believe can jump into the play without sacrificing the ability to defend.
"I think his confidence with the puck, his ability to get shots through, his ability to join the rush and when to join the offensive zone," Blues assistant coach Brad Shaw said when asked what Polak can bring to the table. "He's a big, strong guy. He's been strong forever. He's been feisty forever. We have never asked him to get involved physically.
"We'd like him to be a little bit more involved on the offensive side without having to give anything up defensively. You have to be careful sometimes what you ask for because sometimes the scales get tipped the other way too much. He's a great young man with a great work ethic. I think he wants to keep driving to see how good he can get as a hockey player. From that respect, he's a real good guy to work with because he absorbs everything, he takes it all in, he tries to apply it to his game. I think the offensive side ... three, four, five, six years down the road, it's probably a little more of a complete guy at both ends of the rink."
Polak is arguably the Blues' best shut-down defenseman and prides himself on blanketing the best in the game. Even though there is some desire to contribute on the offensive side of the ice, Polak is hesitant to sacrifice where he's needed most.
"I don't want to go onto the offensive zone too much, but it's an area that I can improve a little bit," Polak said after Monday's practice at Scottrade Center. "I want to focus on the defensive side first and then we'll see, maybe join the rush a little bit more. I want to focus on the defensive side, play my game and keep it as simple as possible."
Brad Boyes sees Polak in practice every day, and the Blues' winger knows exactly what it feels like on those hard, tough encounters with his teammate.
"He's tough. He's got a long stick and he uses it pretty well," Boyes said. "He's very strong, so it's tough when he battles. He's a meat and potatoes guy. It's tough going up against guys like that. He never quits.
"It forces you to work hard, too. It forces you to keep battling. You want to beat guys like that. It's a good sense of accomplishment when you can beat a guy like that."
Although opposing forwards typically feel Polak's physicality with each passing shift, there are areas in his own zone Polak is using training camp to make improvements on. Making those upgrades could lead to more offensive opportunities.
"The first touch with the puck, keeping things simple and find the first outlet," Polak said. "If I can do that, then I can go into the offensive (zone) and join the rush.
"Yeah, I got a shot. I can skate. I can join the rush and go to the net. I don't have the great hands like the forwards do, but if I can just play a simple game and go to the net, I can shoot the puck."
So as Polak moves forward without giving up those odd-man rushes should he take the risk, it comes down to reading the plays properly and using the correct instincts, something his coaches feel he has.
"I think it's more knowledge because it happens so fast," Polak said. "You have to decide if you can go or not. I don't want to make a mistake. I don't want to jump into the rush and all of the sudden, the puck's going the other way and they're going 2-on-1 or 3-on-1. I just have to make the smart read there whether to do it or not."
Polak's hesitancy in the past to join the rush had nothing to do with uncertainty but who typically he's with on the ice. When he's constantly wondering where Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews or Henrik Zetterberg are and working on shutting them down, it makes the thought a tough one to move knowing a quick counter can cost his team at the other end.
"When you're playing against the first line, it's always tough to join the rush because you're thinking too much about stopping them," Polak said. "I just want to stay on the defensive side because you're playing against great players."
The Blues understand the process may not happen overnight, but they're willing to make it a project, one they feel can bring positive results.
"You get into those situations enough .. he's an explosive skater, so when it calls for a guy to jump in and he makes that decision, he has the ability to get there," Shaw said of Polak. "We don't want to hold him back. We'd like him to keep getting better at those reads so he knows when it is time to go and when it's not. We don't want to give up anything defensively to try and create all this extra offense. ... We're trying to layer all this on, and Roman's a part of that layering as far as the defensive corps goes."
It's been a steady climb thus far, and the Blues are glad to be reaping the rewards from Polak's climb -- hopfully at both ends of the ice.
"So far, so good," Polak said. "This is just training camp and it's going to be different in the real games."