Shattenkirk could return Saturday; Gunnarsson close;
Elliott's the starter; Lindbohm's reassignment; Jaskin's lesson
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues are on the verge of getting All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk back in their lineup.
If all goes according to plan on Friday when the Blues have a full-scale practice and Shattenkirk -- who's missed 53 days with an abdominal injury sustained Feb. 1 against Washington that required surgery -- comes out of it cleanly, expect him to make his return to the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"Tomorrow's a big day, a big benchmark to see where I am," Shattenkirk said after Thursday's optional practice at the Ice Zone. "That's the plan and has been all week, just to kind of feel it out tomorrow and go from there.
"... Today went well. I think the plan coming into this week was to use these three days and skate with the team fully and see how it feels. Today went well. Tomorrow will be a full team practice, get some physicality in there and battle drills in the corner and that'll be the final test. It's getting down to the point where it's almost just going to get better when you start playing and work on it a little more and get in those game situations because they're so hard to replicate."
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
The Blues are about to add All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (front)
to their lineup after seven-plus weeks out because of an abdominal injury.
Shattenkirk, who was in talks for the Norris Trophy when his injury occurred, has 40 points in 49 games. The Blues have gone 14-8-3 in the 25 game since Shattenkirk went down.
"He's passed all the tests," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "We gave him a very aggressive cardio test (Wednesday) that he passed, so he's gotten through the conditioning side of things. Now it's full contact and full absorption of a practice (Friday). If that's the test he passes, then we'll expect him to play Saturday. But he's got to pass that test (Friday). He's going to get checked hard (Friday), he's going to get forechecked hard. He's going to have to do some battle drills in team situations and if he gets to that next phase, then that's the final test and he should be ready to go.
"I don't think anybody's going to hit him hard ... he hasn't had a practice yet where he's had to participate with nine other people on the ice. He hasn't done that yet. He's done a lot of optionals, he's done a lot of individual work, he's done a lot of small ice games, but he hasn't done it here there's a whole group of people, so we want to see how he does it with traffic and everything like that and sorts it out. If he looks like he's up to speed thinking-wise and everything, which we're assuming he's going to pass that next test and he's comfortable there, then we'll move him forward and play him. If not, then we'll wait a game or two and see where we go. We're looking at before the end of the regular season, we've got about four or five more practices and this is one of them and if he looks good, then we'll play him and if not, we'll wait a couple more practices."
Shattenkirk has been able to travel and take part in on-ice activities with the Blues; he was with the team on the recent six-game trip. He really ramped up his skating regimen prior to the Blues' game against Detroit on Sunday with a heavy session along with associate coach Brad Shaw. Then Shattenkirk took part in all activities at the morning skate prior to playing Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
"He worked me good in Detroit," Shattenkirk said laughing of Shaw. "They worked us pretty good in Pittsburgh, too. It's good though. You can't keep your stamina and conditioning up for games and on the ice without skating. You can do all the bike riding you want, but it's not the same. It was kind of time to start pushing it there and get back to game shape."
When Shattenkirk does come back, the Blues won't give him his full scale of work he was getting pre-injury. That will come gradually in days, if not games.
"He's obviously going to play a lot of the power play," Hitchcock said of Shattenkirk. "We've spent a lot of time individually working on stuff with him, we've had group activities with him on that. We've done a lot of in-zone work with him. He's going to get that.
"I would say the only thing that would be probably brought back a little bit would be penalty-killing. With (Zbynek) Michalek here, he can take some of his minutes. That's probably the cutback. I think within two games, hopefully he's up to speed where he's in the 20-minute range. That's where we're going to need him. We need him getting as much ice time as we can because he's such a good threat transition-wise for us."
One good way of perhaps protecting Shattenkirk's minutes is by implementing 11 forwards and seven defensemen in games, which is something Hitchcock said he'll consider.
"That's obviously their decision," Shattenkirk said. "I'll be the first to tell you I'm not going to be playing 24 minutes like I was before. I'm not there yet. That's hard to do, especially at this point of the season. I'm going to have to build up to that and hopefully get there a couple games before playoffs. There's so many different ways to protect me, and it's not just about protecting me and making sue there's seven 'D' for me, but if we play 60 and I'm not capable of playing big minutes, then that puts a lot of stress and pressure on the other guys and at this point in the season, they don't really need that. It's time to win games, but at the same time, preserve ourselves and keep ourselves healthy going into the playoffs."
For Shattenkirk's recovery, he's been able to pick the brains of players who have dealt with this injury, or something of similar nature.
"I know (Tampa Bay Lighting defenseman) Matt Carle had just come back from it," Shattenkirk said. "He's been back for a few games now. I know their massage guy down there from the summer. He works at our gym. Just been kind of keeping in contact with him, telling him the process that I've been going through.
"A lot of the things and setbacks that happened to me happened to (Carle). Just to know that he was back and playing, it keeps you confident throughout the whole process knowing that it's all part of it. It's been good to use somebody as an example and obviously the guys that we have here that have been through it before keeping my mind at ease. The first time I had my scar tissue release, (Blues head athletic trainer) Ray Barile was the first guy to say, 'Don't worry. Take a day. It'll settle down, but it's going to happen again.' It's nice to have a good support group around you to keep yourself comfortable."
Shattenkirk's only setbacks have been those releases of scar tissue, which can scare anyone that's not familiar with them. But the progression from injury to healing has been smoother than anticipated.
"It hasn't been overly painful," Shattenkirk said. "The best part about this injury I think is that it's been an active recovery. I haven't had to sit around for weeks at a time and then just try to go again. A couple hours after the surgery I was moving around. They want you to keep those muscles active. It's been good in that sense that it's kept me active and I've been able to go on the trips with the guys and it's broken it up a little bit. There's moments where it's been more frustrating than painful where you feel good walking around during the day and you think you could play that night and then you go out onto the ice and skate and it's not there. That was the frustrating part, but that's where the trainers come in and tell you to be patient and it'll be fine."
Now the torque, the pushing off and the natural flow of skating has kicked in nicely recently.
"It's been good," Shattenkirk said. "It's progressed a lot probably over the last 10 days or so. I've started to feel that power coming back and coming out of turns being able to accelerate and have a couple quick strides out of it has been the one area that initially was just not there. Now it feels better and better every day."
Shattenkirk's teammates are glad to have him on the cusp of returning.
"Down to what he does on the ice and then what he does off the ice, the type of personality that he has, he brings everybody together and has always got a joke or two and he's always got that right thing to say at the right moment," Blues goalie Brian Elliott said of Shattenkirk. "He truly is leader on our team.
"We call him "DJ Shattdeuces" because he gets the music going before the game, too. There's a lot to be said for stuff like that."
* Gunnarsson close -- Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson also was one of 10 skaters and two goalies on the ice Thursday.
Gunnarsson, who has missed the past two games with an upper-body injury, has skated for a couple days without any reservations. He also has a good chance to return Saturday against the Blue Jackets.
"I haven't talked to Ray yet," Hitchcock said of Barile. "This is the second day he's been on the ice, so I'm hoping that he's ready to go. We're assuming that, but he came through the pregame skate phase last time fine, so this is another 48 hours later. We're hoping that he's 100 percent. We think he is anyways. If he's ready to go, then we'll get him right back in playing with Petro (Alex Pietrangelo) again."
* Lindbohm down -- Defenseman Petteri Lindbohm's reassignment to the Chicago Wolves is anything but a demotion.
It comes down to a numbers game with Shattenkirk and Gunnarsson on the verge of returning to the lineup, it would have given the Blues nine healthy defensemen for six spots in the lineup on a regular basis.
And even though Lindbohm has been a bright spot since the 2012 sixth-round pick has been in the lineup, it was no guarantee he'd play every game, the organization decided it's best to play with the Wolves every night.
"The Wolves are in the same situation," Hitchcock said. "They're important games right now. They've made a big push here the last couple games to get into the playoffs. They're kind of locked in here for one of the last two spots. If (LIndbohm's) going to go there and play 20-25 minutes, that's good for us because if he's going to just sit here and practice this time of year, these are the most important times from a learning curve for a younger player because every game's like a playoff game. For him to have to go down there and play really significant games, especially (since) they've got a doubleheader against Milwaukee, that's a really tough opponent. Let's get him playing; let's get him playing every night."
* Jaskin's lesson -- The last time HItchcock sat forward Dmitrij Jaskin down, it was with the same intent: reset and get back at it.
Jaskin, who was a healthy scratch against the Penguins, will return to the lineup Saturday. But after going 10 games without a point, Hitchcock felt Jaskin could use a mental and physical break to get reset for the stretch run.
"He comes out for the same reasons. He comes out two or three times because he's lacked energy," Hitchcock said of Jaskin. "There comes a point with a younger player where you're working against yourselves. We've found that with him, rather than asking him to plow through it ... the toughest thing for a young player is to learn to play at 80 percent. That's what we wanted him to learn, but he seems to be at 100 or not much, and when he plays, he can really play. But when we start to ask him to play at 70 percent, he still has to have the ability mentally to play and he seems to want to push it to where he's actually doing damage to him and the line. So we've opted to rest him, pull him out, catch his breath and put him back in and we seem to get a good two or three weeks out of him. It's not uncommon for younger players to know one-speed: full-out. Being able to manage the other speed is what happens with just games and maturity. Rather than fight it, we've had extra people, we've pulled them out, put other guys in and give them a chance to rest and recoup and then get going again."
* No goalie controversy here -- Despite playing the past two games and playing real well in them, backup goalie Jake Allen will be back on the bench when the Blues host Columbus.
That's because Elliott, who was pulled from his last start Saturday in a 6-3 loss to Minnesota, will be back in the net against the Blue Jackets.
It may have come as a surprise to many, but Hitchcock said coming back with Allen against the Penguins was more a reward for the fine play of Allen in Detroit against the Red Wings.
"'Ells' is the starter. Jake got rewarded for an exceptional performance and we go right back with 'Ells,'" Hitchcock said. "'Ells' is playing. He'll play the majority of the games leading up to the playoffs here. We're on the course that we set two months ago when we made the decision that 'Ells' was going to be the guy and we're not changing that course. But there comes times during the year where, man, when you see your backup really play exceptionally well, you've got to give him the carrot there. That's what we did. We wanted to reward what we thought was a helluva performance against Detroit, (which) had a lot of quality chances in the third period. He stood tall and got us a point. And we just felt like, 'What the heck? Let's reward something like that.'"
With Elliott typically taking a back seat the past couple seasons when it comes down to the playoffs in favor of Jaroslav Halak and last season, Ryan Miller, it was important for Hitchcock to reassure Elliott he's still the go-to guy.
"Yeah we did; we wanted to ... sometimes you have to nurture that relationship," Hitchcock said. "We said it to him. Quite frankly, it happened to Ells too when he was backing up Jaro. 'Ells' had some great performances and we rewarded that, too. I would say it happens three or four times a year. We just felt like this was one chance for a guy like Jake ... not many teams have as good a backup goalie as we do, and we wanted to reward a helluva performance.
"Obviously if (Elliott) doesn't play well at all, then we've got to reassess it like any team does. Right now, he's showing no signs of letting up and we want to give him the right type of games and the right type of focus and the right type of practice. We're trying to get a balance with what Jim (Corsi) wants, what we need competitively-wise and what we need wins-wise. He's going to play these important games and hopefully get us ready."
Elliott and Allen have been close and continue to be close. One supports the other, whoever's in goal and they talk on a daily basis about the game.
"Like we always say, 'It's whoever gets the call, you want to do the best you can and be that rock,'" Elliott said. "We got a huge two points in Pittsburgh. The old Penguins got some points on the board, which was awesome for them and a great spot for them to kind of make their mark as a Blue. Obviously Jake getting the win back there was huge for us. Now we focus on this last little segment and here we go.
"We talk about game situations, what happens and even in practice, how you approach the drill. Sometimes you laugh it off, sometimes you need to blow some steam off to just to get a sounding board. We've had that type of relationship that we can do that.
Elliott, who was pulled after allowing four goals on 16 shots against the Wild, has moved past a game in which several goals were fluky.
"The Minnesota game, you can't really hang your hat on those type of goals," Elliott said. "You've got to kind of just brush them off because you know those aren't going to happen all the time (but) you do want to get back in there and feel pucks and make some saves and be the guy for the guys. Like we always say, next opportunity, we'll be ready."
"The past four years here, when Jaro was here and 'Millsie' and now Jake, we've really hung our hat on that work in practice and coming in an optional skate and really trying to get your game to where you want it to be and every shot, you really try to save. Take no shots off, and that kind of translates to the game. He's no different. He's been a workhorse all season long. we just talked about it, that we can't really believe that the season's coming to an end, but then again, the real reason starts pretty soon."
* Benefits of 11 forwards, 7 defensemen -- The Blues have implemented it before; they faced it against the Penguins on Tuesday. It meant seeing Sidney Crosby that much more.
But with the Blues on the verge of getting Shattenkirk back, one area they can help alleviate the defenseman's time on ice is giving them an extra d-man to absorb some of those minutes. But it also is a benefit for some of the forwards that can give the Blues extra time attacking in the offensive zone.
"It means you get a good player out there more often," Hitchcock said. "If you give (Vladimir) Tarasenko or (Jaden) Schwartz three or four more minutes a game, man, that's three or four more minutes that you've got a chance to score goals. I don't think it's something you can dismiss. Every coach is a little bit paranoid that you get a guy nicked up and you're down playing three lines early in a game, which is not great, but man, we've played some of our best hockey playing 11 and seven. That's what happened against Pittsburgh. All of the sudden, Crosby's coming out on every second line. That was a real issue for us matchup-wise."
Will Hitchcock go with the 11/7 mentality?
"I don't know yet. It depends on my mood after tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "I'm not sure yet. We'll see."