Health means choices as to who plays, who sits; players embracing decisions
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Alex Steen. Andy McDonald. Matt D'Agostini. Kris Russell. Even Roman Polak. These are all players the Blues have missed for extended periods of time. Some not-so-extended.
But in the grand scheme of things, as the Blues (47-20-9), with six games remaining in the regular season, are finally rounding into form. Bodies are slowly filtering their way onto a team contending for the NHL's top spot and off the walking wounded list.
That means there's going to be -- in the terms of a distinguished poker player -- a crowded cabin. Someone's going to be left on the outside looking in.
Only coach Ken Hitchcock knows, and the Blues know they have to make space for these returning players ... only if they're deserving.
"I think you get into a situation like this ... the players have had six months to give us the evaluation," Hitchcock said. "It's not like it's overnight. They've given us six months to make up our minds. We're basing it on performance, not reputation ... it's how you're playing.
The return of Alex Steen (left) to the lineup only solidifies the Blues' lineup
heading into the playoffs.
"We're in the 'now' period. Nashville (the Blues' opponent tonight) has got the same situation. They're sitting out players who contributed all year but are struggling now, so they've got to go out. That's just the way it is. When you've got healthy people and you've got good players, that's just the way it is. For us right now, it's all based on performance."
Hitchcock added: "I think we've just got to be prepared to be mobile there. I know when Steen and McDonald come back, they're in. They've earned the right to be in. They've been good players for us. So they've earned the right. I think it's up to the players to decide that. If a guy is not performing, no matter who he is, we'll go a different direction because we do have depth and we've worked all year to have that depth. A guy like (Jaden) Schwartz has come in and surprised everybody with his good play. So he's trying to grab a spot, too. I think you're just going to go with that the rest of the year. It's all based on what have you done for us lately."
Steen returned to the lineup Sunday -- to the surprise of many, including himself -- after missing 39 games with a concussion suffered Dec. 26 against Dallas. McDonald returned after missing 51 games with a concussion to tear up the stat sheet with 18 points in 17 games before suffering a shoulder contusion earlier in the month at Carolina. He's close to a return. D'Agostini has been out since Feb. 7 following a concussion suffered at Ottawa. He's close. Russell returned Sunday after missing 14 games with a concussion and Polak has missed three games with a bruised knee. He's on the verge of regaining a spot he loaned out for a couple games.
That just means somebody that's been holding down the fort, guys who maybe don't have the top-end skill as some of the returning players but got the job done in their own ways, will have to take a seat. Not just guys up front but on the backline, too.
In a way, they're tough decisions for the coaching staff to make, but in the end, they're good problems to have.
"Yeah. I think internal competition is great," McDonald said after Monday's practice. "I think with the return of some guys, we've got internal competition and it's going to drive the guys that are playing right now, realizing that we've got Dags and Steener back in the lineup...two players who are going to make everybody else better. It's good, we're going to need that depth in the playoffs. Injuries are going to happen. That's what we need. That's what we've been lacking in the past. The organization did a good job this year of signing guys to give us added depth and it's paying off right now. We're going to have everybody healthy for Day One of the playoffs and it's going to be great."
D'Agostini, although pining to return himself, is not a sure-fire guarantee to get back in. But he gives Hitchcock another option ... and another weapon at his disposal.
Matt D'Agostini (right) is on the cusp of returning to the Blues' lineup.
"It's not a bad problem to have," D'Agostini said after practice Monday. "When you look at it from the team's perspective, we've got I'd say the deepest team in the NHL right now. We've got 5 ½ lines that can play in the playoffs. I don't know what's going to happen."
It likely spells limited roles for guys like Chris Porter, B.J. Crombeen, Ryan Reaves and even Schwartz, who was signed to a pro contract just two weeks ago after leaving Colorado College.
"I knew coming in here that they had a deep team and a lot of good players, so I knew that was the case," Schwartz said. "I'm just trying to learn as much as I can and work hard. There's a couple of injuries and once they come back, I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I'll be happy either way. I'll practice everyday as if I'm going to play.
"I'm going to try to be, playing whatever role that is, and whatever line that is, I'm going to take and run with it. But right now, I'm happy and I'm looking forward to when these guys get back in the lineup."
Porter was the odd-man out Sunday when the Blues won 4-0 at Phoenix. When Steen made his surprise return, as Hitchcock said, he was going in ... and someone was coming out.
"Every time they've called my name this year, I've just tried to go out and play my game and play physical and bring some energy to the team," Porter said. "Whatever they've asked me to do, I feel like I've been able to provide that for the team."
Crombeen added: "Obviously everyone in here wants to play and contribute. It's obviously tough when you're not part of the lineup, but it's part of the business. We've got a real deep team and a lot of good guys. We don't have enough spots to put guys on.
"I think that's the reason we are where we are. To be a top team in this league, you're going to have injuries and ups and downs, and you've got to have guys that are willing to do whatever they're asked. I think that's something our team has really embraced and I think that's a big reason why we are where we are."
That's why when the postseason begins April 11, Hitchcock will chose the best 20 guys he feels will win on a night-in, night-out basis.
"To me, I've always said this about the playoffs. It's all about quality over quantity," Hitchcock said. "I think the players have to buy into that. And I think this is a group quite frankly that has bought into that. We've asked more from people and less from some people. When you've got your older players like (Jason) Arnott and (Jamie) Langenbrunner, who are willing to do that, I think it makes it easier for everybody else to fall in line."