Friday, March 25, 2011

Temporary or permanent, Oshie solid option at center

Injuries, trade leave Blues thin down the middle

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Nine games ago, Blues coach Davis Payne needed someone to step into a role down the middle, someone that could fit in during the ladder stages of a season without having to go through an abundance of tutorial.

Enter T.J. Oshie, who's had extensive time playing down the middle, mostly while at the University of North Dakota.

Oshie, the Blues' first-round pick in 2005, has had stints playing center in the NHL as well, but his versatility has been utilized mostly on the wing.

However, nine games ago there was a need. Jay McClement was traded, Patrik Berglund is currently banged up and Vladimir Sobotka has missed 12 games with a broken foot.

"There's more than one benefit. There's probably two (and) three benefits for the situation in that right now, it's out of necessity," Payne said. "With Bergy being out and Sobotka being out, Jay Mac involved in the trade, it creates a hole there and we need a guy that can step in.

"Obviously when you play some teams that are three lines deep, you need to have that ability. That's been the necessity."

Oshie, 24, has performed well. He began playing down the middle against Columbus on March 7 as a third-line center and moved up to second-line center after Berglund suffered a lower-body injury two games ago in Phoenix.

After Thursday's one-goal, one-assist performance in a 4-0 win over Edmonton, Oshie has four goals and five points in nine games. But is this move a temporary fix or are the Blues (33-32-9) looking at this as an opportunity that could lead to a more permanent role in the future?

Payne is certainly open to the idea.

"The benefits are seeing him play in that situation; it gives us options," Payne said. "It gives us a real tenacious, intelligent checker down low. I think in d-zone coverage other than the San Jose game, the games he's been down low in those areas have been really, really good. We have to look at that and say, 'Is this a long-term option for us in whatever role fits our lineup?' The versatility of him both defensively and offensively is something here that we're getting a great look at."

In his third season with the Blues, there was some perception that Oshie would have developed into more of a scoring forward than someone who is heavily relied on as a shutdown player. But Oshie has shown signs of being both a scorer and defensive stalwart. His relentless energy with or without the puck is proof positive.

"I think the guys we have out and the situation we're in right now and moving to center, I'm moving more to a defensive role," said Oshie, who has 10 goals and 29 points in 43 games this season. "But they're asking me to shoot the puck a lot. They're wanting me to have a little more faith in my shot. I've been doing that lately. I think I've been averaging around five shots a game the last five games. Just keep that up, keep shooting, keep scoring. I obviously want to put more points on the board."

Oshie's rookie season produced 14 goals and 39 points in 57 games that was limited because of an ankle injury. He followed that up with 18 goals 48 points in 76 games a season ago. And looking at this season, the numbers have not been there mainly because of a broken ankle that forced Oshie to miss 31 games.

But moving forward, the opportunities seem to be there for Oshie to thrive in a position that looks like a natural fit for him.

"We saw him in the beginning of the year in a top six role with some success," Payne said of Oshie. "I think that the scoring role for him is going to be understanding how to create beyond the one-on-one. That's something young offensive players all have to continue to understand that this is a two-on-one, create-your-advantage-with-your-teammate kind of league because defense gets better as the year goes on.

"As you face top-end defensive players, you have to look to create those spaces and those angles of opportunity, those transition opportunities in short spaces with the give-and-go mentality. This is something that not with just him but with all our guys we're having to preach because you're not going to beat a lot of top defensemen one-on-one, whether it's on the rush or out of the corners or in net-front situations. They're pretty skilled at defending with their sticks and the support layers that are in behind. It's just far too difficult. The best players in the world have trouble doing it. It's something that we've had to emphasize to all our guys."

For the time being, Oshie will center a line with Chris Stewart on it. The two seemed to click Thursday night. And when Berglund returns to reclaim the No. 2 center position, Oshie will likely slide back to being a No. 3 center, one more geared towards being a defensive marksman with the versatility of providing offensive punch.

The Blues know they will have options with Oshie -- a restricted free agent this summer -- moving forward. Whether Oshie stays in the middle or moves back to the wing, he has no preference.

"Honestly, I feel the same amount of comfort ability there and on the wing," Oshie said. "... If they need me to be a centerman, I definitely can do it. We've got three good centermen in Sobotka, Bergy and Backs (David Backes). But if it comes down to it that they want me to play middle, I'm definitely comfortable with it."

* NOTES -- The Blues practiced Friday at St. Louis Mills before departing for Minnesota, where they'll play the Wild in a home-and-home series starting today in St. Paul (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM). The Wild (35-31-8) are winless in seven straight, going 0-6-1. The rematch is slated for Tuesday in St. Louis. ... Berglund (lower-body) did not practice Friday but accompanied the team to Minnesota. He is questionable at best but more inclined as doubtful to play. Andy McDonald and Roman Polak also missed practice Friday but made the trip and will play. ... Expect Jaroslav Halak to make the start once again. Halak has started eight consecutive games since coming back from a broken hand and is 4-3-0 in that span.

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