Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Trades for Bouwmeester, Leopold have paid immediate dividends

New Blues defensemen making immediate
impact in team's season-high winning streak
 
By LOUIE KORAC
If numbers are the story, then it's no coincidence that the Blues' recent five-game winning streak can tie in directly to the acquisitions of defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold.

Just what have the two recent acquisitions meant to the Blues' season-high winning streak? Consider the fact that in three straight losses prior to first acquiring Leopold, then Bouwmeester, the Blues allowed 10 goals (an average of 3.3 goals per game). In the five games the Blues have won in a row, they've allowed five goals in all (Leopold has played in all five, Bouwmeester has played four).

Sound familiar? Very reminiscent of last season's 49-win total of shutdown defense and stellar goaltending. The two went hand in hand.

Of course better goaltending from Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have played a part in the numbers in recent games as well as the overall team game, but adding the 32-year-old Leopold from Buffalo and the 29-year-old Bouwmeester from Calgary has not only added stability to the blue line but also given confidence to those that were already mainstays on the blue line.

(Getty Images)
Jay Bouwmeester has three assists in four games and is a plus-3 since
joining the Blues last week.
"Solid, responsible, smart, patient," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said when describing both players. "Smart and patient would be the key and that allows us to be better in our own zone. We don't run out of good ice now. We're covering over the responsible scoring areas. We recover better into those areas. Their efficient play has helped us get better. They don't over-pursue and they don't chase hits. Smart guys.

"You can hear their voices on the ice, on the bench, all the time. They really help us there. Their maturity on the ice really helps us."

Both players were floundering with teams going nowhere as far as the playoff chase was concerned. Coming to the Blues has certainly reinvigorated their careers.

"I've been through this before, and you know when you get traded around the deadline, you're usually going to a team in the thick of a playoff race," said Leopold, who hasn't registered a point in five games but is averaging roughly 17 minutes of ice time per game. "It's nice to know that you're wanted. I'm grateful the Blues wanted me."

Bouwmeester, who the Blues have been linked to for the better part of the last year, is playing over 23 minutes per game, which is down two minutes from the 33 games he played in Calgary. He has three assists in four games since joining the Blues.

But more than anything, the pair have rubbed off on their respective defensive partners (Alex Pietrangelo with Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk with Leopold). During the winning streak, although the ice time has dropped because Hitchcock is balancing all six guys on his blue line, Pietrangelo is a plus-6 and Shattenkirk is plus-3. But they don't seem to mind. The team is winning. Why would they?

"It's veteran guys that can help stabilize the group back there," Pietrangelo said. "Their play speaks for itself. They've been through so much already. Obviously Bouw, we're trying to get him into the playoffs for the first time. They fit in well. Bouw is a puck-moving guy. I like playing with a puck-moving guy. Leo, again, their play on the ice speaks for itself, but off the ice, it's guys that come in the room and fit in right away. It's like they've played here for the last four or five years. They're such good guys it brings the room closer together."

Shattenkirk agreed.

"I think it’s provided, one, a lot of experience," Shattenkirk said. "We just knew that those guys would be able to come in and adjust with the type of mature players they are. There was a little bit of growing and figuring out the system, but they're just professionals. They're exactly what we needed. We just needed a couple of guys to complement and so far they've been doing a great job. I love playing with Leo."

Bouwmeester was the big-name splash the Blues traded for of the two, but ask Hitchcock, and there's not one that's valuable more than the other.

"(Bouwmeester) gets a lot of the name recognition, but Leopold has added a ton to us," Hitchcock said. "Just veteran competitive composure in high-traffic situations. We had a tendency to shovel the puck and make it someone else's problem under pressure. We don't do that any more. We move the puck, we move our feet. We do the right things under pressure."

What's been the secret?

"We're keeping it pretty simple," Leopold said. "Our forwards are doing a pretty good job of working hard for us, too.

"If we can get to pucks first, normally if we can get the first touch, get the puck moving north, that's the whole goal of the thing. With Shatty and I, we’re getting better game by game and it seems to work. Bouw, he’s just playing 25 minutes, Petro is, too, and it's a good fit. Going forward here, we just have to keep doing what we're doing, keep it simple and allow our forwards to do what they do up top. It's a simple game when you're doing things right and everybody is on the same page, everybody is on board."

Bouwmeester said trades are an adjustment for everyone, but it's important not to change too much.


(Getty Images)
Jordan Leopold (33) is averaging 17 minutes a game playing
alongside Kevin Shattenkirk and is even in plus-minus.
"I think you just stick with what works for you," said Bouwmeester, who has played in 754 games with no playoff experience. "Everyone goes through ups and downs and tough times. I haven't been here all year but I think the (four) games I've played ... it seems like the guys in here are real good. Everyone is upbeat and likes to have fun. I think that helps, too. You don't need to dwell on things. The team is doing well. That's everyone's main focus."

Before the trades, the Blues were teetering between eighth and ninth place in the Western Conference standings. This winning streak has them at 22-14-2, good for 46 points which is tied with the Minnesota Wild (tonight's opponent) for sixth place, one point behind fifth-place San Jose and two points behind fourth-place Los Angeles.

The Blues will look to continue their climb when they face the Wild (22-15-2). The Blues began this streak in Minnesota April 1, winning 4-1.

"We're obviously having a good little run since they've been here," Elliott said of Bouwmeester and Leopold. "It's definitely fun to see."

Doug Armstrong was the architech behind the moves. It seems to be his calling card since taking over as general manager. So far, both moves could prove pivotal depending 1) the Blues make the playoffs and 2) how far they go.

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