Thursday, January 1, 2015


Stastny gets turn with Lehtera/Tarasenko; Schwartz, 
Gunnarsson nearing return; Fraser, McCarthy recalled

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Ken Hitchcock comes into a new day and line combinations tend to have a different look to them, more times than not, the proverbial line when asked about them are, "I wouldn't read too much into that."

Well on Thursday, the first day of 2015, even the veteran Blues coach sang a bit of a different tune when asked about the lines, specifically Paul Stastny centering Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko at the St. Louis Outlet Mall prior to departing for a three-game west coast swing that begins Friday against the Anaheim Ducks.

"You can read into a few of them, especially the (David) Backes line stays the same," Hitchcock said of Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie.

And the Stastny line?

"We're looking at that," Hitchcock said. "This is the first time we've ever played them together and it looked good today. We're probably a few days away from Jaden (Schwartz) joining us on a full-time basis, so might give it an opportunity for a game or two for us to look at that. It gives us a very big third line. We're certainly intrigued by what we saw. We need more endurance from (Dmitrij) Jaskin and (Ryan) Reaves together. We'll look at how we play that. We have some flexibility."

For Stastny, the Blues' biggest free agent signing of the season, points have not come in the form that Blues fans quite expected thus far.

But in Stastny's defense, he started strong, then had a setback when he sat out eight games with a shoulder injury and had to try and find his game again. When that didn't happen immediately, he was shuffled from line to line and picking up new linemates along the way as the Blues continue to search for the right fit.

With Schwartz out the past six games, Lehtera and Tarasenko have been using a different linemate for what seems like each game and getting the play-making Stastny there beginning Friday could be a temporary buffer until Schwartz's return.

"Another new line for me," Stastny, who has seven goals and 16 points in 29 games, joked. "I've played with a lot of different guys. When I play with those guys, when we're at practice and when we've had different shifts out there, it's easy because they play that same kind of give and go game that I like to play. They play a fast game, but if there's nothing, they kind of switch lanes just to create time and space, so it's nice to have that.

"I've thought a lot of things. That's how it is sometimes. You try different things. Sometimes things are working and you've just got to leave that. When things aren't going well, you tend to kind of switch things up. At the end of the year, we're going to find the best combinations we can and find the best solution for the team to be clocking and where we want to be when the end of the season comes."

Hitchcock has moved players from center to wing and vice versa before, so trying Lehtera at left wing isn't out of the ordinary, especially since the Finnish-born forward has experience there. And trying Stastny at center is something that's crossed the coaching staff's mind.

"We've thought about it kind of on the road more because we don't have the matchup," Hitchcock said. "Since Jaden has gone down, the line hasn't been as controlling as it was before. We need to give it some support, some help. We know Lehtera has played a lot of left wing, so he's capable of playing over there. We wanted to practice it and look at it right now."

Stastny said that persistent changing has been an adjustment.

"It's different, but what are you going to do," he said. "You can't get too frustrated about it. You focus about what you can control. Things that are out of your control, you take those negative thoughts out of there and just kind of focus on yourself, try to help your team out and try to help your linemates out and who you're playing with."

These were the practice lines:

Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Jori Lehtera-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko

Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-Ryan Reaves

Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Joakim Lindstrom

Extras: Jaden Schwartz-Colin Fraser-John McCarthy

* Schwartz, Gunnarsson nearing return -- Schwartz took part in the practice Thursday, first skating and taking shots on goalies for the first time with teammates since sustaining a broken foot Dec. 16 while blocking a shot by the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty.

Schwartz, who is third on the team with 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 31 games, then practiced in full for roughly 30 minutes before departing the ice.

"It was really good," Hitchcock said of Schwartz's practice. "He went an hour. He went out early with the goalies and just shot pucks and skated, felt good. Then he stayed for the first 20-something minutes of practice, did fine on that stuff. We'll see. If he feels good getting off the plane and has a good skate tomorrow, then he goes into that day-to-day mode. We're hoping he's really turned the corner and he's getting closer to getting ready to play.

"He's just moved from week-to-week to day-to-day now. It could be one day, two days, three days, five days, who knows. But he's literally day-to-day now."

As for Gunnarsson, who hasn't played since sustaining a concussion on Dec. 6 (10 games) against the New York Islanders, he was a full participant in practice and is on the verge of rejoining the lineup.

"This was what, the second practice now? Third maybe," Gunnarsson said. "Yeah, feels a little bit better. ...  I was trying to push it a little bit today. Step by step. We'll see how it is after a long flight here.

"... It's the first time (for a concussion). It's tough to deal with when you haven't been through it before. Even then, it's all different. ... I don't want to say what kind of symptoms I had, but it was probably ... I've heard about guys having worse than I did, but then it's a matter of getting rid of the symptoms and feeling good."

The Blues are carrying only six defensemen, which can be a little risky especially going on a trip. But they feel comfortable enough not to recall someone (Petteri Lindbohm) from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League because they're confident enough to believe Gunnarsson is ready to rejoin any day now.

"He practiced full today, so this is three in a row," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson, who has played in only 20 games this season. "We're going to talk to him today and see if he's ready to play. We'll see. He's had no complications, no setbacks at all and this is seven to eight days of no setbacks. He's acting and behaving just like a player now."

* Fraser, McCarthy recalled -- With Chris Porter (ankle/foot) out a minimum of 6-8 weeks, the Blues opted for players with NHL experience to get the recall from the Wolves to complete the active roster at 23 before heading to Anaheim.

That's why Colin Fraser and John McCarthy were recalled on Wednesday.

Fraser, 29, has dressed in 32 games for the Wolves this season and posted 12 points (seven goals, five assists). McCarthy, 28, has appeared in 22 games for the Wolves this season and has seven points (four goals, three assists)

Fraser is a three-time Stanley Cup champion (Kings twice and Chicago Blackhawks), while McCarthy has experience in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks.

"Everyone wants to play in the NHL," Fraser said. "It's good to have that opportunity again. The American League's been good. Just play my game, just try to play the same way. You stick with what got you in the NHL in the first place. Hopefully you can get back. Here I am, back for now, and just try to make something of it.

"Honestly, I don't really think about it. I just think it's just playing hockey. It sounds cliche, but ... is it in the back of your mind, yeah. You're always hopeful, but at the same time, you can't play and hope to get the call-up. You just play the best you can and hopefully you get rewarded. Hard work and playing the right way gets rewarded. Me and Johnny Mac are back here hopefully ready to prove ourselves again. We've both played enough games in the NHL to know what the league's about."

The Blues had received progress reports on players with the Wolves and both Fraser and McCarthy were at the top of the list.

"I just try to be dependable, play both ends of the ice and take care of my own end and then contribute offensively when I can. ... I had kind of a slow start. Recently, I kind of got my game going a little bit. It's nice to get a call-up. We'll see what happens.

"In San Jose, I was always up and down. I kind of know how it works now. It's a little less nerve-wracking now I guess."

Blues fans have wondered why someone like Ty Rattie didn't get the recall, or hasn't gotten a sniff to join the NHL yet. His time is coming, just not right now.

"When you lose energy players, this gives us a chance to look at these guys," Hitchcock said. "Whether they play or not, I don't know. But we need to look at these guys to see ... we brought Jaskin in, that's a different story. We brought (in) Jaskin, he's got to play. When the decision was made after watching 'Jask' to play him and put (Magnus) Paajarvi on waivers, that was a defined decision that Doug (Armstrong) made. But we also need to look at these guys. 

"Porter's out for 6-8 weeks, somewhere in there. We've got to look at these guys to see what we have. Whether we get three or four looks at practice and they got to go back or whether they get a game in, and then we (have to make a decision), we need to know what we have organizationally. That's why they were brought in. They were brought in as depth players for us, so we need to look at these guys right now.  We have the time, we have the space to look at them and see what we've got."

* Road woes -- Hitchcock reasoned recently that if a team can play .500 or better on the road with the degree of difficulty winning in another team's building, chances are that team will have success and find themselves in the playoffs.

The Blues are in that category at 9-8-2 away from Scottrade Center, but since winning three straight away from home to end November, they are 2-5-1 in their last eight.

"Too much variance in our game," Hitchcock said. "There's way too much variance. We play one way. We're built to play a certain way and not based on the opposition. We don't need to change based on the opposition. There are little adjustments you can make in game, but we're built to play a certain way and when we play that way, we're very effective. Now the opposition has something to do with that, and one of the problems that we've got into is we've decided at times to change the way we want to play when we don't need to. We just need to amp up the determination to continue to play our game. 

"Sometimes it's easy to play or feel like it's easy to play your game and sometimes it's harder, but it doesn't need to change. There's too much variance in our ability to keep our game in order. We've been built this way for four years since I was here, even before I got here, you could see it being built. We've had a first half of some really up and down variances in our game, so it's led to some real peaks and valleys in the actual game itself where we've looked awesome at times, and then we've looked really average at times."

In those eight games on the road in December, the Blues allowed 31 goals, or an alarming 3.88 goals per game.

"We have a way to play," Hitchcock said. "It's very successful, but sometimes we have a tendency to try and play around the competition rather than through the competition. That's where we get ourselves in all kinds of trouble. It's not just our best players, it's our team. You're right, your best players have to be your best players, but they also have to lead the charge in playing the right way. 

"We've had way, way too much variance in the way we play. We're not good at taking body blows. We're much better at (administering) body blows. That's our game. Our game is body blow, body blow, body blow, on our toes, on our toes, on our toes and then eventually the other team has a decision to make. Well, there's way too much absorbing going on for my liking -- way too much absorbing. I don't like that. I don't like it when we're a counter-punch team. We're not built that way. There's other teams that are built that way, but that's not us. We've got to get back to that level. We show flashes and look excellent, but the interesting part is that when we get on that counter-punch game, not only do we not score, we kind of lose our structure, too. So both ends are suffering. When we play on our toes and stay on our toes, we score, we defend well. We're built to defend in the offensive zone. That's where we're built to defend, and we're just too much counter-punch, too much in our own zone. It doesn't bode well."

* Goalie update -- Hitchcock said that Martin Brodeur, who earned the 125th shutout of his NHL career with a 16-save effort Monday against Colorado, will get the start in goal against the Ducks. 

Brodeur, 42, has not allowed a goal in the past 87:54 and will hope to help the Blues snap an eight-game losing streak at Honda Center dating back to Oct. 17, 2009.

The plan, according to Hitchcock, is for Brian Elliott, who has a 44-save performance in his first game back from a knee sprain sustained Nov. 25 against Ottawa, to play Saturday in San Jose against the Sharks.

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