Hitchcock calls forward "a dominant two-way player" when at his best
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As the summer went along and T.J. Oshie took his restricted free agency status right down to the wire, instead of trying to drag out any lengthy arbitration process or holding out for a longer-termed deal, Oshie welcomed the Blues' one-year, $2.35 million contract.
It was an offer from the Blues' standpoint that basically said take the season and prove yourself.
The Blues went this route after a bit of a tumultuous ending to Oshie's season a year ago, a season that saw a lengthy ankle injury along with being kept away for two games for conduct detrimental to the team.
Effort and maturity have helped T.J. Oshie revitalize his game.
So the 24-year-old Oshie, who was the team's No. 1 pick (24th overall) in 2005, for the first time could see doubts from many adoring fans that had stood by his side.
But after washing his hands of last season, Oshie wanted to begin a new leaf, one that would lead to a productive season and a long-term deal to stay with the only NHL team he's known.
But the start of this season didn't exactly begin as Oshie had hoped for. The offensive production wasn't there, and there was a temporary benching for a period in a game at Philadelphia from former coach Davis Payne, a decision Oshie said he still doesn't agree with.
But since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the Blues' bench Nov. 6, Oshie has been given a bigger role with more responsibilities and he's beginning to recapture some of the things that wowed the Blues his first two seasons.
So what has helped make the transformation? Simple: maturity.
"I'm not pouting like I was there for a little while at the beginning of the season," said Oshie, who is tied for the team lead with Alex Steen in scoring with 19 points. "I don't know exactly what it is. It might be the winning, but I just feel more grown up."
Grown up enough that Oshie has transformed his game enough that he, David Backes and Steen form the team's top line, one in which has the responsibility to shut down the opposition's big guns and one that has carried much of the team's offensive output.
Oshie has gone from three goals and eight points over the first 13 games under Payne to six goals and 11 points in 16 games since Hitchcock took over.
"He plays the right way," Hitchcock said of Oshie. "He uses his speed as a checking tool, and that's what creates all the turnovers and that's where he gets all the scoring chances.
"For me, he was playing weird before because he was waiting for the game to come to him and then trying to play with speed. Now he's going and getting it. He's on top of people, he's harassing people, he's making people make mistakes. He's using his work ethic without the puck in a good way, and that's the change for me. When you play like that ... when you have skill and you act like a worker, good things happen all the time, and that's exactly what's happening to him."
Oshie has gone from 19 shots in 13 games (1.46 shots per game) under Payne to 46 shots in 16 games (2.88 per game) under Hitchcock. The veteran Blues' coach is utilizing Oshie in ways that were there for him before, but he never seemed to grasp those tools consistently.
"Shooting the puck, going to the net a lot more and playing in the hard areas," Oshie said of what's helped transform his game. "I think I've been playing on the inside in the offensive zone. It's just opened up a lot of opportunities for me shooting the puck. It keeps defenders honest on me and they have to respect my shot and that's why the last couple games I've been able to cut to the middle and make some space for myself to create something else.
"It just fell into place for me ... I don't know. I honestly can't explain that. I can't put a word on what it is. Everything's just gone my way. I don't know why."
"He's hungry. You can see it," added teammate and friend Chris Stewart. "Not that he wasn't hungry before.
"He's going to be the first to tell you how hungry he is this year. He's the poster child of this organization. He doesn't want to let the boys down and he's a guy we know we can count on."
Blues winger T.J. Oshie (right) is tied for the team lead in points.
When Oshie's at his best, Hitchcock said he's, "A dominant two-way player. As long as he can finish the chances he gets and creates the chaos on the ice, I think he can become a dominant two-way player.
"He's never going to be one of these guys that's going to score 50 goals, but he's a guy that can contribute offensively and really dig in and frustrate good players like he's been able to do the last 10 games or so."
Oshie, who's a plus-6 on the season, posted 14 goals and 39 points and a plus-16 rating in 57 games his rookie season. He then followed that up with career-highs of 18 goals, 30 assists and 48 points in 76 games his sophomore season.
Last year's 12-goal, 34-point output was not what the Blues were looking for in a contract year. They expected better and were waiting to see if they got better this season, hence the one-year contract offer.
But Oshie feels like he's playing some of his best hockey and doesn't want to stray from what's going on these days.
"I think it's been close," he said. "I think it's pretty close effort-wise. I've been trying as hard as I can. I always do that, though. ... I think consistency is the No. 1 thing.
"I can still shoot more. I think I can still be better on the power play in front of the net. I'm still new to that area. I can be better screening and tipping, making more crisper plays. I have a lot of room for improvement there. I hope I keep going the right way."
Added Hitchcock: "He has quickness in small spaces that really make it uncomfortable on people. ... I thought he was more of an energy guy, but he's got great hockey sense and intelligence. There's guys that are quick and just chase the puck, but he's got hockey intelligence that knows where it's going to go, so he's ahead of the play on things."
It's understandable for a young professional to want to live it up. Oshie's a popular figure here in St. Louis, and there is a nightlife for everyone to enjoy. But with responsibilities on the ice staring at him, Oshie's taken an initiative. The Blues are glad to see it and fans are quickly forgetting the speed bumps that preceeded this season.
"I don't know exactly what it is," Oshie said. "I just feel more mature ... just ready to come to the rink every day."