Thursday, October 24, 2013


Players enjoyed break in Charleston; Hitchcock
making changes to lines; Tarasenko impressing

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues will go a full week without playing a game while the rest of the league is jumping ahead of them in games played.

So instead of just practicing and lounging around St. Louis that would have given players and coaches sort of another sense of a training camp feel, the team was able to get away for a few days for some rest, relaxation and of course workouts on the eastern coast of Charleston, S.C.

A little bit of everything was involved, from golfing to fishing, guys getting away to see a movie, shopping at some of Charleston's finest stores and good old fashioned team bonding.

As the Blues (5-1-1) get set to play in back-to-back games this weekend (Friday vs. Vancouver and Saturday at Nashville), they recalled a time spent together as one that was beneficial.

"It was good to get away for the week and spend some time together just to relax and have a few laughs, play a little bit of golf, get some dinners under the belt," forward Chris Stewart said. "We had the rookie dinner too, which was fun. It was a nice little break to get away as a team."

And what was the gist of the rookie dinner? Typically it involved some razzing and of course, the young ones picking up the check, which tends to be quite expensive at a swanky restaurant.

"What goes on there, stays there," Stewart said with a laugh. "You've got to ask Adam Cracknell. He's the rookie, not me."

Added Cracknell: "That place was probably one of the best steaks I've ever had. ... I got hit pretty hard, so I had the biggest steak I could find on the menu because I was paying for it.

"It was a good trip to go on. ... It was nice to get away. We don't get to go deep sea fishing or golfing on nice golf courses on the water. Any time you take advantage of that, it's good. We had team bonding, nice dinners, just see a part we might never see. It was a great town and it was just a good trip to get away."

Forward Jaden Schwartz, who took in some golf, shopped and took in a move, decided to stay away from the boats.

"I was gonna go, but I thought I might get seasick," Schwartz joked. "I decided to stay away.

"It was fun to get away for a bit rather than being here for a week. We did some things as a team. We still practiced, which was nice. We had some things to work on. But overall, it was a good trip. We had fun and we enjoyed the hospitality there."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock wanted his players to enjoy some time together without relying on a set schedule.

"The players never get an opportunity to spend any time with themselves," Hitchcock said. "Everything is structured. Their lives are structured, their travel's structured, their days are structured. Other than the hour-and-a-half or two hours we spend at the rink, their days weren't structured. They had time with each other, time to do things together without somebody organizing it.

"The team building they get is by being able to talk to each other and visit with each other and get to know each other. It's interesting to get to see different dynamics unfold. On the trip, what started out as people together ended up with different people together. It's fascinating to me how guys gravitate towards each other."

* Line changes -- In an attempt to jump-start some players into playing a more complete game, Hitchcock has juggled 3/4 of the Blues' lines.

The top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, which has accounted for 14 of the team's 26 goals, will remain in tact. But Thursday at practice, Derek Roy was flanked by Paajarvi and Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrik Berglund got a familiar face back in Stewart, along with Schwartz, and Brenden Morrow was skating with Vladimir Sobotka and Ryan Reaves.

The Blues have collected 11 of a possible 14 points and some may wonder why tinker with success, but it's not necessarily about balancing the scoring with Hitchcock.

"I'm not looking for more secondary scoring," Hitchcock said. "I'm looking to get better play from people. The scoring part will take care of itself if we play better, and I'm looking for people to play better. I'm looking for people to have a bigger impact in our game, so we're giving people an opportunity and we want to see people grab the ball."

Stewart, who has no goals, is one that comes to mind. He's had some scoring chances playing with Roy but has come up empty-handed. He had some of his greater success playing with guys like Berglund and Schwartz, guys who tend to cycle pucks and play a heavy game.

"We've got one line just absolutely dominating right now, which is great to have," Stewart said. "But as the season goes on, they're probably going to get a lot more attention to them. We're going to need some other guys to step up. ... We switched it up some up front, and I think it will be a good change.

"With Bergy, it's going to be a little more of a simpler game. Up and down might be a little better to my advantage, get into the corners, controlling the puck and using our big bodies. With Schwartzy there, he's a fast player who can really protect the puck and has probably one of the best cutbacks in the league. We've played together before. We've had some success. We'll good look at it tomorrow."

Stewart, who led the team with 18 goals last season, could benefit from a change.

"I don't think they need to get Stewy going. Stewy's just got to get back to identity," Hitchcock said. "What he does as a player, how he has success as a player is measured by how many one-on-one's you win.

"He's got two guys who are really working and I think it fits well on paper, it fits really well for the way he plays and plays well. We want to see that line have real success."

Schwartz said change might be good.

"Our first line's done a great job. They've obviously scored a lot of goals and have been playing great for us," Schwartz said. "If anything, it might be to try and get some secondary scoring from the other lines.

"We've won a couple games without scoring. We had chances, but we switched things up and we'll see how it goes. I'm excited to play with Bergy and Stewy. We want to get a good down-low game going. They're two big bodies. Hopefully we can create some chances and get momentum going."

Also on defense, Barret Jackman was skating with Kevin Shattenkirk and Jordan Leopold was skating with Roman Polak. They're a quartet that Hitchcock moved around quite a bit during training camp and the preseason.

"The potential chemistry on all those lines is real good, but now we've got to put them in place," Hitchcock said of all changes. "I don't think we can evaluate until the weekend's over. We'll see if this is a help or whatever. It was OK the way it was before, but it wasn't getting any better. This is a real opportunity to see if we can grow the chemistry even deeper. We'll see how these guys take advantage of it, but it's a real opportunity for a couple guys."

* Tarasenko trending up -- Tarasenko, in his second full NHL season, has four goals and is one of the players who seems to be catching everyone's eye as the young season progresses.

The 21-year-old Russian, one of two first-round picks by the Blues in 2010 (Schwartz was the other), seems to be figuring things out in the North American style of game after a rookie season that was marred by a concussion in Colorado.

"He's a fascinating guy because you see real individual improvement in the North American game," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who has five points in seven games. "I don't know that he's reached his potential as far as being an impact player, but you see him really making a strong adjustment as far as the North American, NHL game. You see things where (he's) a pleasant surprise with his pursuit on the puck, the tenacity in small spaces, his ability to kind of fight for space and not look for space, his quickness in areas to support people. He's doing less thinking and more read and reacting so things are coming more naturally for him now which I think is a real good sign.

"Whether it's a young player from Russia or a young player from North America, he's 21 years old and he's really learning to play the game at the NHL level in a fast way and I think there's some really good stuff that you're seeing every day. You see it in practice and you see it in the games. You see a real improvement in his adjustment now."

* Cracknell, Cole last to make lineup -- Both Cracknell and defenseman Ian Cole made their season debuts in the 4-3 shootout loss at Winnipeg and impressed Hitchcock.

Cracknell was tied for second on the team with four shots on goal in only 7 minutes, 28 seconds of ice time, while Cole had three shots in 15:26 of ice time.

"I liked both of them in Winnipeg. They're part of the mix now," Hitchcock said of Cracknell and Cole. "They're going to play again. Like I said before, we're a team of 23. Those guys have come in and done a really good job.

"I think two things are important. We've had a decent start, just don't assume that it's status quo. We're looking for chemistry and we're looking for chemistry from the 23, not from the 20 plus three. I don't think anybody should assume you're just gonna have a spot on the hockey club given to them. ... I've said this before, internal competition -- as difficult as it is for players -- is important in your team if you want to get better. The part that I'm impressed with is both Cole and Cracknell and Paajarvi -- they were three that were out to start with -- they've all come in and said, 'I want a spot,' which I think is great for our hockey club. Some guys might be nervous about it, some guys might be uncomfortable about it, but I think it's really good for your hockey team because it means that you've got to hold yourself accountable on a daily basis."

Cracknell was more down about being on the ice when the Jets, who trailed 3-1 with under seven minutes to play, scored to get back in the game before eventually tying it late.

"The timing was a little off. It's been a while since I played. Just trying to get up to speed," Cracknell said. "... We generated a few chances, but unfortunately the bounces didn't go our way.

"The second goal kind of stings a little bit. It goes off my foot and they score. Those are crucial points in the game. Even though it's game eight or nine, that mistake can't happen. Unfortunately it came back and bit us and we ended up losing the game."

* Plenty of rest -- The Blues would have loved to play right away after surrendering a point in a game they thought would send them off to South Carolina on a good note.

But in an unusual quirk in a schedule that will see the league take a three-week hiatus in February for the Winter Olympics, the Blues got to enjoy a rare week-long break so early into the season.

"It's not often you complain about not playing enough," Stewart said. "There's going to be 82 games this year and we used the rest to our benefit. Starting in November, it's going to be no joke. I think we're playing every other day for a long time. It's definitely nice to get the break and use the rest when you can."

Added Schwartz: "I don't know if it's good or bad. It's just different. The rest is nice, but at the same time, you go a week without a competitive game, it's a little bit different. But at the same time, we're not going to get a week off very often."

Hitchcock hopes when the puck drops against the Canucks that the Blues won't be back in a feeling out process like they were to begin the season.

"We've got to get some game time under our belts so we know what we have to work on," Hitchcock said. "I think all of us feel like the same issues when we played Nashville (Oct. 3) are going to be up again. It's how quickly we can recover.

"One of the biggest adjustments you have to make is how quickly you adjust defensively, not offensively. ... We need to get up to speed as fast as we can with that stuff because we're going to be playing teams that have played a lot of hockey and are in games-mode and competitive game modes, so we've got to get up to speed."

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