By LOUIE KORAC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He'll quietly go about his business off the ice, but when it comes time to strap the laces and hit the ice, both teammates and the opposition know when they come across Vladimir Sobotka.
The Blues multi-purpose, all-versatile forward will be rewarded by coach Ken Hitchcock tonight by playing up on a line with Magnus Paajarvi and Vladimir Tarasenko. That means Derek Roy will slide down and play between Brenden Morrow and Ryan Reaves.
Sobotka, who scored in the third period to tie Friday night's 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, logged 16 minutes, 14 seconds of ice time and won six of seven faceoffs. As has been the case since he was acquired from the Boston Bruins in 2010 for prospect David Warsofsky, Sobotka has been used in a multitude of fashions, except on defense and in goal ... although Sobotka admitted Saturday morning before the Blues (5-1-2) take on the Nashville Predators (6-4-1) tonight at Bridgestone Arena that he in fact began his playing days as a d-man.
"I'm not going to change my game at all," said Sobotka, who has five points in eight games. "I'm going to try to do the same stuff that I've been doing since the first game.
"I'm trying to hold onto the puck in the corner and make a play and be more stronger on those board battles."
Hitchcock called Sobotka the best player on the ice for both teams Friday, and said the time is now to get the Trebic, Czech Republic native a more prominent role.
"Enough is enough," Hitchcock said. "He was the best player on the ice for both teams. That's why he's moving up the ladder today.
"I can pop him in and out anywhere, and it's really effective. I just need him up the ladder more here. He's earned the right. That's the internal competition of your team. He's earned the right to play up the ladder right off the bat rather than the score. If he's a guy that plays 18-20 minutes tonight, then he's earned it quite frankly. He's got speed, he's got tenacity ... this is the best he's played for a long time. This is the best he's played since I've had him here anyways."
Hitchcock said he would have played Sobotka 60 minutes -- well, 65 Friday -- if he had to. That's how good he's been. but in typical Sobotka fashion, it's a team concept first with him.
"That feels great, but we didn't win last night," Sobotka said. "... I felt good, but we lost. It didn't feel that good, but I felt comfortable on the ice making plays. That's my game, play hard and win the board battles. It's real important."
And with Sobotka's versatility to play any of the forward positions, Hitchcock is in a good spot where he can use him at any time and in any position whenever he needs it.
"He's such a versatile guy," Hitchcock said. "How many guys can you throw out there at center, left or right wing in the same period and he doesn't miss a beat? Pretty intelligent player. I think he's one of the most underrated players in the league. What's coming forward now is his puck patience and his ability to hang onto the puck and make plays in the offensive zone is really improving right now."
Sobotka is not one to complain about playing on the fourth line. He takes it as a challenge.
"If I start on the fourth line, I'll say (to myself), 'You have to earn those minutes on the ice and play good to hopefully get on the second line or third line,'" Sobotka said. "It doesn't really matter. I'm playing 16-17 minutes every night. I don't feel like I'm playing (on) the fourth line.
"This year, I played right wing, center, left wing ... I'm all over the place. I feel really comfortable with that. I play with all the lines, all the players since I've been in St. Louis. I feel comfortable with that. ... It's probably in me to be, how do you guys call it here, a versatile player."
And probably what's gone unnoticed is Sobotka's ability to win faceoffs, which he said is something he's put a lot of focus on.
After winning 86 percent of his draws Friday, Sobotka has now won 47 of 66 draws, good for 71.2 percent. Sobotka credits a workout drill involving a stick-like rope that helps with his hand coordination.
"I've been really working on that all summer, doing some drills for faceoffs," Sobotka said. "It's working out really well for me right now."
Indeed it is, and in a contract year nonetheless. The Blues need to be looking to lock up Sobotka as soon as possible, as his stock continues to rise by the second.
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Roy recalls his first NHL game. It came Dec. 13, 2003 with the Buffalo Sabres, who were playing in Minnesota that night. Ten years later, as is the case with most NHL players who reach certain milestones, it's all about being fortunate and relatively injury-free.
"I had to travel to Minnesota and I got there late (flight)," said Roy, who will play in his 600th game tonight. "It was one of those long days. I think I ate Subway before the game because I had nothing else to eat. It was a tough one and I think we ended up losing actually. ... Just to get that first game, I think my first shift, I had a real good chance. That would have been a real good story.
"I don't have a good story about my first game. I think we lost 2-1. I played a decent amount (17:08), but it was just exciting to play that first game."
Roy's 600th game comes playing for his fourth NHL team, with previous stops in Dallas and Vancouver as well before signing with the Blues in the summer.
"It's a lot of years in this league, a lot of battles," Roy said. "I've had to fight through a lot of things and injuries and everything that comes with it."
Roy, who has two goals and six points in eight games but none in the last two, understands playing between two bigger bodies like Morrow and Reaves tonight makes him the playmaker.
"We started off the game last game with different players and ended up with different," Roy said. "You've just got to work hard, especially with those guys on my line. Just try and work as hard as I can and make plays."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Magnus Paajarvi-Vladimir Sobotka-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jordan Leopold-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will start in goal after stopping 21 shots Friday; Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Adam Cracknell and Ian Cole. Maxim Lapierre remains suspended and will miss tonight as well as Tuesday before being eligible to return Nov. 1.
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The Predators, who are 5-1-1 in their last seven after starting 1-3-0, will roll out the following probable lineup:
Colin Wilson-Mike Fisher-Patric Hornqvist
Gabriel Bourque-Matt Cullen-Craig Smith
Filip Forsberg-David Legwand-Nick Spaling
Matt Hendricks-Paul Gaustad-Eric Nystrom
Seth Jones-Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm-Kevin Klein
Victor Bartley-Ryan Ellis
Carter Hutton starts in goal; Magnus Hellberg is the backup.
Healthy scratches are Viktor Stalberg and Rich Clune. Injuries include Roman Josi (concussion) and Pekka Rinne (hip), who is out a minimum of four weeks after surgery to clean out an infection in his hip.