Friday, December 31, 2010

Other teams' castoffs turn into Blues' gems

Crombeen, Winchester, D'Agostini, Sobotka all find
homes in St. Louis after drafting teams said goodbye

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues' 19-12-5 start deserves a lot of credit from different angles.

The defensemen and goaltending have for the most part been steady and solid. Despite having difficulties at times scoring goals, there have been games where timely goals have been scored.

What may surprise some but not the Blues are some of the players contributing to those areas. They're players that were considered castoffs by other organizations.

The Blues are getting the job done with certain players that other teams basically had no use for.

Brad Winchester and B.J. Crombeen were second-round draft choices by Edmonton and Dallas, respectively. Matt D'Agostini was picked in the sixth round by Montreal. Vladimir Sobotka was a fourth round pick by Boston.

What do these guys have in common? They are all players their original teams gave up on but the Blues have somehow, someway found prominent roles for.

How can a player fall off the charts from one team and find success with another?

"It's a situation where a player finds a niche for himself and does a job," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "Sometimes it takes more than one organization. There's plenty of examples that have made a first stop here and have had success in other places. It's finding a role, finding an opportunity. There's a certain amount of development that a player goes through in order to get to that point as well. It's right-time, right-place but right amount of work, right amount of preparation, right amount of commitment, too. An opportunity's there and you're ready for it, you're doing the most with it."

Winchester was not brought back by the Oilers, who picked him in the second round in 2000. He signed a free agent contract with Dallas before eventually landing with the Blues in 2008. Crombeen was a 2003 second-round pick by the Stars, who turned around and waived him before the Blues plucked him off the waiver wire, also in 2008. D'Agostini was a 2005 sixth-round pick by Montreal, who traded him to the Blues for prospect Aaron Palushaj last season and Sobotka was the latest, dealt to the Blues in the off-season for defensive prospect David Warsofsky after the Bruins picked him in the fourth round in 2005.

All have found life with the Blues, and all have played key roles one way or another keeping the team afloat while injured players recover from serious injuries.

"They've found ways to contribute," Payne said. "They've found ways to earn their next opportunity, whether it's with Beener and Sobe in penalty killing or checking roles, whether it's Winny in providing a physical edge and some toughness, these guys have found a way to keep the door open long enough to establish themselves. That takes career focus, it takes work, it takes opportunity."

Crombeen remembers the day when he was told by the Stars they no longer needed him. It was like a kick in the gut.

"They kind of said to me, 'We're happy with you, but we don't have room for you and we've got guys coming back. We're going to put you on waivers,'" Crombeen recalled. "It's obviously a disappointment at first, but I tried to kind of keep an even-keeled approach and if I did go down (to the AHL), work my hardest to get back up and not let anything get in my way. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to come here and it worked out great for me. I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity or organization."

Getting traded is just as hurtful. D'Agostini knows all too well.

"It's kind of mixed emotions when you get traded," D'Agostini said. "You kind of feel like, 'Oh, wow. I didn't do the job here, so they're shipping me out of town.' At the same time, you've got to feel that there's other teams interested and hopefully, the Blues saw the potential I can bring to this team. They're showing a lot of confidence in me now with the ice time. I've just got to prove I can play a good role here."

As the old saying goes: one person's loss is another person's gain. The Blues don't turn away when a player has been dispatched by another organization. They do their due diligence, see if the player is a fit and make it work, as general manager Doug Armstrong attests.

Armstrong was not around when the Blues signed Winchester and picked up Crombeen, but he helped orchestrate the trades that brought D'Agostini and Sobotka to St. Louis.

"(Director of professional scouting and Peoria GM) Kevin McDonald gets a lot of credit for this one," Armstrong said of the Sobotka deal. "He obviously followed him through the Boston area and in the minor leagues. And when I was doing my work for the Canadian Olympic team, I saw Boston quite a bit and he was a player you noticed. You just noticed when he was on the ice. You were always looking down at your sheet and saying, 'Who's that kid? Where did he come from?' And when you look at his American (Hockey League) stats, he produced offensively. His offense isn't a shock to us.

"It was an area that we had an opening. Boston certainly had enough players to fill that role on their team. They got a good, young defensive prospect. We needed more immediate help. It was a trade that worked for both sides, but obviously, I'm glad it's working for us."

And there are also the scouts, who are dispatched all over the country and in Canada to see players that might be good fits for the Blues.

"(Pro scout) Rob DiMaio saw quite a bit of (D'Agostini) and really pushed for us to take a chance on him, too," Armstrong said. "That's where your pro scouts -- that get no recognition -- go to see games at different spots in the minor leagues. The credit for these trades, the (general) manager is obviously responsible for it on making the decision, but the groundwork is done by the pro scouts, and I want Robby and Kevin McDonald to get the credit for D'Agostini and Sobotka."

For a player that is basically told he isn't wanted anymore, it becomes a mental grind to try and regain the confidence of someone.

"Half the battle of getting in the league is trying to find a spot where you fit and getting an important role," Crombeen said. "Obviously I started out in Dallas and it wasn't working out there. I got the opportunity to come here and right from the start, they gave me an opportunity to play and let me try to prove myself as a player in this league. ... It's something that you're obviously very thankful for and you have to continuously work because there's always people trying to take your job and knocking on the doorstep. It's something that if you take for granted, it could be gone the next day."

Crombeen has been everything the Blues could hope for, a tenacious presence on the penalty kill, a physical force with the occasional penchant for the net and positive influence. D'Agostini has found his offensive touch with the Blues after the Canadiens felt it was gone. Winchester is the physical presence and big body in front of the net that can throw down the gloves when needed, and Sobotka is turning into a diamond in the rough that the Bruins one day might regret letting go. He's already an instant fan favorite who is thriving in a top six role and continues to get better.

"He was in a situation where he had done his apprenticeship in the American Hockey League," Armstrong said of Sobotka, who has 16 points in 32 games. "We obviously felt he was an NHL player. We gave him a contract that showed that. He's been everything we want, not only what we're seeing on a nightly basis but off the ice and his commitment to detail. He plays the style of hockey we want to be known as here as a Blue. He's a competitor. He plays every shift. He plays every night. For our organization to add players with that type of character, it raises the bar on the younger players, it raises the bar on the players that are here."

Not every situation will turn out like this for teams, but the Blues seemed to have struck the right chord on these particular moves. And they found the players with the right attitudes.

"You just enjoy every moment and continue to work hard, try and get better and establish yourself more and more," Crombeen said.

"Deep down, maybe there is a little something to prove there," D'Agostini said. "Not just Montreal but to everyone knowing I can play in this league."

Sometimes, these deals can be crapshoots, but as Armstrong laughed when talking about the Sobotka deal, "I knew it was going to turn out exactly like this."

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