Hitchcock, Blues ready to unveil season;
Morrow learning; Sobotka gaining prominent roles
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues are two days away from dropping the puck on the 2013-14 season against the Nashville Predators.
And it's down to anxiety that sets in for those that have to wait.
The NHL season kicked off Tuesday night with three games, but the Blues and Predators, Central Division foes who will drop the puck at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to accommodate the Cardinals' home playoff game, will get in a couple more days of work and preparation and then unveil what they have been working hard for since training camp opened.
For the Blues, coach Ken Hitchcock likes what he's seeing.
"We've still got more work to do, but today was a real good day," Hitchcock said after Tuesday's practice at Scottrade Center. "They were rested. We took two of the last three days off, so guys really had a lot of jump today.
"The first half of practice was about as good as it gets for us right now. I liked the energy. I liked the enthusiasm. I'm sire everybody's talking about the same stuff. We seem to be really in sync with each other and wanting to play games."
The Blues, who open with five straight at home to begin the season, are attracting plenty of attention off the ice as a favorite to not only win a tough division that includes the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks but also win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
"I like the way we're trending," Hitchcock said. "We still have another practice to get ready for, but I really like the way we're trending. We're managing the puck better. We still don't have enough speed through the neutral zone, but it's getting better and better every day. For some guys, it's a big adjustment to be able to play with some kind of tempo through the neutral zone.
"We're trying to get up to an area of our game where we think we can accomplish more off the rush by being stronger off the puck and playing with more speed."
* Morrow learning, adjusting -- Veteran Brenden Morrow, signed a week ago as an unrestricted free agent to a one-year, $1.5-million contract, continues to get acclimated with his new teammates.
The 34-year-old Morrow, who looks like will open the season skating on left wing with Derek Roy -- a teammate in Dallas last season -- as well as Chris Stewart, is also earning time with a third power play unit that also contains Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka.
"I think he's comfortable with our team anyway," Hitchcock said of Morrow. "There's a maturity level where I think he's comfortable with us. I don't think that's going to be an issue with him. When you've got a veteran guy like Derek with him, they don't even have to practice ... just talk through things and they'll be fine.
"It's like anything else, with older players it's always the hands that have to catch up to the feet. He's able to keep up mobility-wise, and now he's just got to get his hands up to speed where he's confident with the puck."
* Continued talk of depth -- The Blues' success will stem largely to an implemented plan of utilizing the depth of running four lines.
Of course, the big gunners will see a good portion of the ice time, but third- and fourth-line players will play an important role, particularly on penalty killing and defensive faceoff situations late in games.
"We have depth," Hitchcock said. "Everybody talks like they have a four-line team until they drop the puck. Then you'll see if you're a four-line team. We have the ability to play people deep, we play people on our fourth line in special teams situations, which is going to allow us to have more energy up front on our top nine.
"Yeah, I like where we're at. I like our depth. I think we're going to really need it. I think we learned something last year that those guys have to contribute more than just fourth-line minutes. They've got to help in other areas, and that's why you look today in practice, you look in the games, you're going to see Sobotka and (Maxim) Lapierre out there killing a lot of penalties and they're going to get a lot of minutes doing that. You see Sobe, who plays on the power play, he's going to get minutes there, too. I like where it's at."
* Multi-tasking Sobotka -- Sobotka is expected to start on left wing playing on the fourth line with Lapierre and Ryan Reaves, but one of Hitchcock's favorite players on the team will not only play a defensive role, kill penalties, take draws and forecheck like crazy, Sobotka will also get the opportunity to supply offense.
Sobotka's best NHL season was his first with the Blues in 2010-11, when he tallied 29 points in 65 games but when given an offensive role last season playing for Slavia Praha of the Czech Republic league during the lockout, Sobotka had 10 goals and 25 points in 27 games.
"He's a guy that's shown the ability to score everywhere but the NHL," Hitchcock said of Sobotka. "He gets chances, he's got puck patience, he's shown in Europe especially and in World Championships and stuff like that ... he's shown the ability.
"We're going to give him that opportunity this year on some of the power play stuff."
* Hitch's "workers" -- With a 23-man roster that averages at 6-foot-1 and 208.4 pounds, the Blues feel like they have plenty of beef all around the lineup, especially up front. But Hitchcock prefers to refer to them as something other than a group of power forwards.
"Workers," Hitchcock said. "Power forward is a guy that's going to get you 30 (goals) and he can also knock the opposition right out of the box. We've got workers right now, and we want to make power forwards out of some of our workers.
"I think we're capable. I think there's guys capable of scoring 20, 25, 30 goals here who if we get them to play with a higher level of finish and tenacity around the net, I think we're going to be in good shape."
* Earning the A's -- Hitchcock wouldn't confirm the names of the alternate captains when asked Tuesday, but did say that there are a group of six "leaders" on the team and that "we'll probably use five to start with and see from there," Hitchcock said.
Obviously David Backes will wear the captain's 'C' and Hitchcock has mentioned that the leadership group also consists of Barret Jackman, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk as well as Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund. It's also possible Morrow, a part captain with the Stars and Roy could be added to this mix. But the Blues will alternate the 'A' players with home and away games again, like they have in the past.