Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Managing minutes best recipe for Blues' success

Team doesn't want to tax top-end players, need more balance from entire group

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues held an optional skate Wednesday at their practice facility, roughly 12 hours after a tough, physical and exhausting 3-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.

Among those not on the ice Wednesday was the Blues' top line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, and understandably so.

The game Tuesday had so many ups and downs to it, particularly in special teams' play, that the trio played a larger number of minutes than usual. Backes finished with 24 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time, Steen played 23:24 and Oshie finished with 22:45.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues captain David Backes (right) battles Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom on
Tuesday night. Backes has averaged 23-plus minutes the last three games.
In the last three games played over five days, Backes' ice time was 25:03, 21:57 and 24:47, Steen's was 23:49, 23:05 and 23:24 and Oshie's was 23:19, 18:45 and 22:45. It's something coach Ken Hitchcock stressed a level of concern with on Wednesday.

"It's OK now and then, but I think over an 82-game season, to expect 25 minutes it's going to be taxing on our bodies," Backes said. "We're a team that's built on depth and our strength is being able to roll four lines and I think getting back to that is our ideal situation.

"The coaching staff acknowledged that. I think we as a line have said that we can get more quality minutes if we can get that number right around the 20 mark, I think, is ideal. If it's a little more one night and a little less another night, that's great. It comes down to doing what it takes to win games and if that's 25 minutes, we've got a couple days to recover here."

The Blues were able to get away with taxing their top line Tuesday because they don't play again until Friday, which means two off days and of course, rest.

"At the end of the night, the tanks were empty," Backes said. "It wasn't pretty for the second period where it was frustrating at times and we're having to kind of chase our tails. ... In the end, I was toast last night. When I laid in bed, normally I stir for a while and watch some TV. I was lights out. That's the aftermath, but I think when you end up with the (winning) result ... Hitch knew we had two days off and he could throw the brakes on for a day or two. He said if this is what it takes to win the game, then we're willing to do that."

But Hitchcock admitted that the numbers need to change.

"I said to the players today, for the way we're built, I'm playing my top line too much," Hitchcock said. "I'm playing my top line too much because we're in a position where we've got a matchup ... I don't know the best way to describe it. We're playing guys too much because we're getting an inconsistent level of puck management and it's kind of taken us from highs and lows in games. First period (Tuesday), excellent. Second period, we're mismanaging the puck all over the place and then we grab it again in the third.

"We have to find a way to be consistent throughout our lineup, manage the game the right way so we can build good minutes. We're going in fits and starts the last couple games. Even in the game we won in Nashville, if you look at the last three games, we're giving up way too many scoring chances based on us having the puck rather than what the other team is doing, knocking us out of the box and stuff. It's an area we addressed today with the players and we want to see get better. We just have to become better at managing the puck if we want to get to the next level."

And managing the puck better means getting the Blues' four lines back to playing more consistent minutes and having more players involved.

"I'm looking more at the back-end," Hitchcock said. "We're much better if our third and fourth lines are playing between nine and 14 minutes. We're not there. Some of it is injuries during the game, but we're not there. We're not there because it's disjointed from a special teams standpoint, it's disjointed from a play standpoint. We've got to get back to that rhythm we had before.

"We're very effective when we're able to get into as many shifts as we can rolling four (lines). We build really good energy in our game and we build speed in our game. What I've noticed in the last couple games is we don't have the speed and tempo to our game we had before. I know we've won them, but it's the coach's job to do the worrying. I don't look at the record. I look at the way we're playing this early in the season and we need to get back into where we play with much more tempo and much more speed."

So the likes of Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Derek Roy, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka and whoever's on the fourth line, including Ryan Reaves, Brenden Morrow and Adam Cracknell -- who were there last night -- need to fill the voids.

"When we're playing and managing the puck well -- all the lines -- then it's easy to roll them," Schwartz said. "When we get into penalty trouble, that limits other guys' ice time as well. I think yesterday, we were killing quite a bit in the second (period) and that kind of kills momentum for the other lines. I think it's a little bit of penalties and it's a little bit of managing the puck well. If lines are turning pucks over, then it's probably harder for Hitch to put them out there in certain situations."

And when the Blues are able to roll four lines, "I think guys are more energized," Schwartz said. "You're rolling the lines so everyone gets into it. That makes the bench a little better, guys are a little more excited. When everyone's chipping in, that's definitely going to lead to some more success."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (left) battles Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom
in the Blues' 3-2 victory Tuesday night at Scottrade Center.
But when the game's on the line and the Blues need two points, "A close game like that, we're getting a lot of ice time, but I think if you ask either one of these guys if we have a choice in a key moment of the game to be in the ice or on the bench, we'd definitely want to be on the ice," Oshie said. "I think if we shorten up our shift length early in the game, we'll have a little bit more gas at the end, but I don't think we were necessarily that gassed at the end. I think going forward in games where you get down to a back-to-back or a long stretch of games, those kinds of minutes are going to hurt us in the long run.

"I have trust in our other lines to go in there and step into some bigger roles and play some key minutes for us as well. ... We have to get other guys to play those big minutes, but if it comes down to it and we've got to go on the ice and if guys aren't performing, then we'll go out there."

Hitchcock wants his top unit guys back into the 18-20 minute range for the long-term success the team can have moving forward. However, he knew pushing the button could be done Tuesday.

"We aren't built when our top guys play 23, 24 minutes," Hitchcock said. "We're not built that way. It doesn't allow us to perform right.

"We could afford to do it (Tuesday), but I think we're a team that needs to include everybody. We've got people on the bench that need to play because they contribute and they're not playing. ... Our best games have been when we've had few power plays and extended 5-on-5 minutes. That's when our best games are going to be. That's the way we want to play."

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