Monday, September 29, 2014

Blues sticking with old reliable

After considering tinkering with his D-pairs following 
Gunnarsson trade, Hitchcock to stick with Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues traded for Carl Gunnarsson at the 2014 NHL Draft, it gave coach Ken Hitchcock a chance to ponder a tweak or two to his defensive unit.

A staple since the Blues paired them together, Hitchcock seriously considered splitting up his top D-pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo (middle) and Jay Bouwmeester (19) celebrate a
goal with teammate David Backes last season.

Bringing in a guy like Gunnarsson, who the Blues consider a top-four defenseman and someone who played that role on a Toronto team that did not perform up to par on many nights last season, gave the Blues options. Why not play two guys that averaged nearly 25 minutes per game on two different pairings instead of loading up at the top?

But with Gunnarsson still recovering from off-season hip surgery, Hitchcock scrapped the plan of using Gunnarsson with Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester with Kevin Shattenkirk.

How about going back to old reliable?


"We wanted Gunnarsson to play there with Petro in camp," Hitchcock said. "That was the plan all the way along, but Gunnarsson wasn't cleared to play. ... We just went back with this. This is a pair that we know and trust. 

"(Gunnarsson's) a top-four defenseman, so wherever he plays, he's a top four guy. He's going to play somewhere in that top four. He played the first half of (last) year with (Cody) Franson, which was second pair and then he played first pair, which was 35-40 games, he played first-line pair with (Dion) Phaneuf and they had a big responsibilities because they had to play against the other team's top players every night. So he's been used to those type of minutes."

With Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, if Hitchcock didn't realize that the two were made for one another on the ice with the Blues, then he should have gotten a good idea while overseas half way across the world in Russia, when Canada didn't mess with chemistry and played the two as unit on the gold medal-winning team at the Sochi Olympics.

That on-ice chemistry was also fueled by a strong off-ice relationship. 

"The hockey side of things comes more once you get into camp," Pietrangelo said. "We kind of transition our mindsets into hockey. Obviously we got to do Olympic stuff with each other. We've become pretty good friends off the ice obviously with the experience at the Olympics. Our families really got to know each other through that. 

"Any time you have chemistry off the ice, it can carry back onto the ice. It's certainly going to help. We have a pretty good relationship. We're pretty open-minded if somebody else wants to give the other guy advice. I think that just goes along with us being pros and respecting the other guy's ability and mindset. 'Bouw's got a great knowledge of the game and he's a lot older than I am. If I can take something from him, and he's got to ask me questions, we're open-minded and we're certainly able to work off each other."

But going back to Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester was only natural for Hitchcock and the Blues. Both are minute-munchers, both play steady defense, both can contribute offense and most importantly, both know the other better than they tend to know themselves at times.

"In the short time, a year-and-a-half or whatever, we've been through a lot," Bouwmeester said. "We're lucky to go to the (Sochi) Olympics and played together there. We've had a lot of experiences in a short time, so that always brings you closer, too. 

"I think we view the game and try to play it similar. That's why it was a pretty easy transition." 

"We think the game the same, but we also think the game a lot differently," Pietrangelo said. "We certainly like to do different things. So many different things can happen during the game. As soon as you think you know a guy's tendencies, something's going to change. Even back into camp, it took a couple drills to get back into the swing of things with 'Bouw.' But we look like we haven't missed a beat and are right back into it."

Which is exactly what the Blues banked on. A lot of teams wouldn't be able to overcome such a challenge, but for the Blues, that security blanket was a nice fall-back option.

"Obviously with 'Gunnar' coming off the injury, we've got to give him some time to get ready," said Pietrangelo, who was eighth in the NHL a season ago with an average of time on ice of 25:21 per game. "But getting back into camp with 'Bouw,' we certainly looked like we didn't miss a beat. We feel pretty confident out there together right now. I know the coaching staff wants to try some things maybe with other guys, which is fine with us. I think putting 'Gunnar' in too, it gives us even more balance in the top six there and even with all seven guys that we're going to carry. Ultimately, I'm sure 'Bouw' would say the same thing, and that is that we love playing with each other. We played every shift together last year, but we're always open for whatever's best for this team."

Bouwmeester, who averaged 24:02 per game last season, said the fit seemed automatic from the moment the Blues traded for him.

"Since I've been here, we've just been together," Bouwmeester said. "Obviously you got used to each other. ... There's time throughout the year when things get mixed up and for whatever reason, guys get hurt, sometimes they're just looking for a different look. It's really not a big deal. I think everyone's played with everyone at some point. If that's what they decide to do, then we just do what we're told.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Whether Alex Pietrangelo (27) or Jay Bouwmeester (19) are in on
the offense, the other is usually not too far behind.

"It's a familiarity, and you just read each other good. We've been fortunate that things have worked out that way. But you adapt. I think the biggest difference is with Roman not being here, we've got more left-handed shots. Petro and Shatty are the only right-handed guys whereas before, we had a lefty and a righty together. We'll see how that all plays out."

Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, should they keep their role as the top defensive pairing heading into the new season, will continue to strive to be the best the Blues can throw at the opposition. If they do, it bodes well for the guys they will have playing behind them. And it gives the team valued balance.

"You always want to be good defensively as best as you can," Bouwmeester said. "The role that you're going to play, you're going to play against some pretty good players. ... I think (we) can provide some more offense and it's sort of situational when you get the opportunities, you've got to bear down. You just want to play an overall game. It's a long season and if you can just limit yourself to the ups and the downs and stay on an even-keel and be consistent and then peaking towards the end of the year, I think that always feels good."

* NOTES -- The Blues announced on Sunday that they signed defenseman Dmitrii Sergeev to a three-year entry-level contract.

Sergeev, an 18-year-old undrafted free agent, originally joined the Blues for the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, where he earned an invitation to training camp on an amateur tryout basis.

Sergeev, from Chelyabinsk, Russia, appeared in 49 regular season games with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League last season and posted nine points (two goals, seven assists) and 22 penalty minutes. Following his stint at Blues training camp, Sergeev was assigned back to Kitchener, where he has appeared in two games.

* After signing a two-year, $4.7 million contract Saturday, left wing Jaden Schwartz will debut for the Blues on the ice Monday when the Blues return to practice at Scottrade Center after an off-day Sunday.

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