Monday, November 29, 2010

Payne breaks up forward lines, looks for balance

Players caught a bit off guard, not totally
surprised by moves; lines to likely stick against Chicago

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's no secret that the Blues' top line of David Backes, Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes have carried the bulk of the offense of late. The trio have been on fire.

They combined for 28 points during an eight-game stretch prior to Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.

But the Blues (12-7-3) are in search of more consistent scoring from all lines after averaging only 2.64 goals per game, which is 24th in the league.

It could be worse for the Blues, who play in Chicago tonight at 7 (Versus, KMOX 1120-AM). They could be at the bottom of the league like the New Jersey Devils, who are scoring a paltry 1.79 goals a game. But when a team is tied for sixth in the league in goals against (2.50), some separation between goals scored and goals allowed will bring more victories.

That's why when the Blues took the ice Monday at St. Louis Mills, there was a different look to the lineup working through fast-paced drills.

McDonald and Boyes will remain in tact -- with McDonald sliding to his natural center position -- but Alex Steen was flanked on left wing and Boyes on right wing. Center Patrik Berglund saw a pair of different wingers in Vladimir Sobotka on left and Backes at his natural right wing.

One could argue breaking up the McDonald-Backes Boyes line, but if all the production is top-heavy, it makes things much easier for the opposition to play a shut-down role against the Blues.

Although coach Davis Payne would not cement those lines for tonight's game against the Blackhawks, he was toying with the idea Monday.

"Just taking a look at some different combinations from the weekend and obviously the matchups going into the next couple nights with needing to make sure that (Chicago's Duncan) Keith and (Brent) Seabrook are guys that can keep numbers down and keep offensive chances down," Payne said. "If we need some sort of even distribution from our skill guys, it's something we wanted to have a look at today."

A guy the Blues have looked at in both an offensive and defensive role, Steen is one that could most benefit from playing with the skilled McDonald down the middle and firepower of Boyes on the opposite side.

Steen, who is pointless in six straight games and nine of his last 10, has no issues with the movement. He's played on the second line recently and earlier in the season, was on the checking line with Jay McClement and B.J. Crombeen.

"We've been switching -- aside from the top line -- all the lines pretty much for the last few games here," Steen said. "It's nothing new. I think guys are used to playing with each other no matter who it is. We've all pretty much played with everybody. It should be good. It should be an interesting one in Chicago tomorrow."

Does it change Steen's game at all?

"I don't know if it changes much. It's a little bit different," he said. "I think it's more of an offensive mentality. But at the same time, I need to maintain the defensive part of my game.

"I'm not going to change too much. It's going to be fun. We have good chemistry. We talk a lot, especially in the room when we can discuss certain situations with each other. I think we see the game in the same way."

McDonald, who has been red-hot with 12 points (six goals, six assists) in nine games, can definitely benefit from a change despite playing well on the wing.

"In the middle, you have more touches with the puck, probably more of a distributor in that area," McDonald said Monday. "That's something obviously I'm experienced with and I've played a lot of years in the middle. ... It's about winning and shuffling things up to create some offense.

"I've played in the middle with Brad before. I'm excited to get back to that kind of situation. Steener is fast, he's got a great shot, he's good in a lot of areas. It'll be exciting to play with that line tomorrow."

Boyes, who has four goals and four assists in eight games, can now see an up-tempo style. He likes the idea of balancing the scoring out against Chicago.

"I think it speeds it up (with McDonald)," Boyes said. "He's a guy that's real quick. Backes was good, but Andy's different. He's smaller and quicker, will bolt through areas. So I think that part of it, we'll get it going. He's a left-hand shot, too, which tends to be easier to play with.

"... To split it up and hopefully get more depth, that's going to be good. You know those guys (Keith and Seabrook) are going to be playing a lot, but they can't play all the time. So if we can take advantage of that, with Backes out there, that's what we want to do."

As for Backes, it's an opportunity to get a fresh look himself and he doesn't mind seeing the hot trio break up -- at least temporarily.

"Obviously with our lack of production (as a team), I figured there was going to be a little shifting around, a little more balance throughout our lineup," Backes said. "Not that I'm the solution or I'm going to produce that personally but just to have a different gel to try and create more is something I figured (would happen). Whether our line was going to be broken up or some other changes, I wasn't certain. But to see myself on the wing hopefully produces more energy in the offensive zone and production for myself."

Backes, who played on right wing on Nov. 11 against Nashville with McDonald at center and Steen on left wing, has an opportunity to play with another big body in Berglund and the versatile Sobotka.

"Maybe we can take off the checking line that would be against those guys and give them more room or they can do the same for us. We'll see what happens," Backes said. "Obviously Brad and Andy will continue to play well and Steener has been playing phenomenally with the puck ... maybe they'll have even better chemistry than we had. If it's better for the team, I'm happy to surrender that spot to someone else."

And as for Sobotka, here's someone still trying to find his niche in the 18 games he's played since the Blues acquired him from Boston over the summer. He missed four games after off-season shoulder surgery.

"I'm excited to play with Bergy and Backes," Sobotka said. "Of course, if it's not working, we have to do something, change a couple of things. But I feel the last two games against Dallas, we were skating good and had some chances. We just didn't score the goal that we needed."

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