Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blues' Weaver continues to defy odds

Defenseman having banner season,
bringing consistency on every shift

ST. LOUIS -- Sunday at Scottrade Center, two players were converging on a puck that was played into the corner of the Blues' defensive zone. One player is listed at 6-foot-4, 245-pounds, the other is 5-9, 186.

Guess who won that battle?

One would think the match was no contest.

Well, that is correct. It was no contest.

But yes, the diminutive one, who happens to be the Blues' Mike Weaver, was able to have his way with much larger Edmonton forward Dustin Penner.

This is the life of Weaver, having to scratch, claw, fight and battle his way through life's challenges in the National Hockey League. His way of life as an eight-year veteran has been one on the go, and one of having to prove himself over and over again.

Weaver, who signed with the Blues prior to last season as an unrestricted free agent after playing the previous season in Vancouver, was added by Blues President John Davidson at the behest of former Blues coach Andy Murray. Murray, who had previous experience with Weaver in Los Angeles, was looking for Weaver to provide depth and veteran leadership.

Weaver played in 58 games a season ago with the Blues, a career-best. He won't overwhelm you with his offensive presence, attested by his seven-assist season. But the Blues thought highly enough of him because of intangibles often gone unnoticed, so they brought him back this season on a one-year deal.

After playing in his career-best 71st game in Tuesday night's 4-2 win over Chicago, it's quite evident that Weaver has been the steadiest and best defensive defenseman the Blues have put on the ice.

The guy that would last get recognition for points but first noticed as far as goals against, leads the team in the plus/minus category at plus-10.

His value, which may be undervalued around the league, doesn't go unnoticed with Blues coach Davis Payne and Weaver's teammates.

"If he flies under the radar, it's the radar that is measured in goals, assists, points, power play," Payne said. "But if it's a coach's radar, if it's a teammate's radar, if it's a battle-level radar, you're not missing it. He contributes, he sticks to the details, he executes systems and he battles extremely hard. He makes up for size with great angles (and) great anticipation. You look at the size battle he gave up to Dustin Penner but won that battle in his corner handily. He's a guy who finds a way and he's not being missed on our radar."

Weaver, whose career spans stints in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Vancouver and now St. Louis, has carried that rock-steady presence since his entry into the league in 2001.

He's the type of player that won't display the rocket one-timer from the blue line but will lay down and block a shot for you, sacrifice his body while mixing it up with opposing forwards, making those crisp plays out of his end and getting pucks out of dangerous areas.

Flashy? Not a chance. Consistent? You betcha.

"I've played the same way I've always played," Weaver said. "I haven't really changed. I've maybe gained a little bit of experience, but I really haven't changed too much. I've always kind of played an unnoticed role. I guess when your penalty killing gets up to the top of the league, the penalty killers get noticed a little more."

Weaver, 31, is a key contributor to the league's No. 1 penalty unit. The feat exemplifies what Weaver stands for.

"I absolutely love Weaves," Blues goalie Chris Mason said. "For what he does in his game and on the PK, the way he clears pucks out, he always makes great first passes, he sacrifices the body every game, it's awesome. Between he and (Alex) Steen, they've probably been the most consistent players all year. I just absolutely love playing behind Weaves. He's been underappreciated for a lot of his career, but I think this year, he's starting to get the recognition that he deserves. He's been an absolute treat to play with.

"He's had to earn his keep throughout his whole career. That's something that he's familiar with. He came in here, he never complained. He just kept putting his head down, kept putting his nose to the grindstone and working and working. When you put him in there, he plays solid."

Weaver, a Bramalea, Ontario native, won't be the guy that shows too much emotion vocally either. He will wear his emotions on his sleeve. His actions on the ice speak louder than words.

He has been paired for much of the season with fellow defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, the anti-Weaver with an offensive mind that balances out a consistent pairing.

"He's a real warrior out there," Colaiacovo said. "He does a lot of things well. Obviously, he's a great penalty killer and he's a real compliment to play with. I really enjoy playing with him.

"For a small guy, he does a lot of big things; blocks shots, plays tough, throws big hits and he's got that long reach, a small guy playing with a big stick."

Weaver, who scored his first three career goals with LA in 2006-07, recently netted his fourth career goal and first with the Blues in New York against the Rangers. It was his first goal in 185 games -- on the same night Paul Kariya potted goal No. 400 -- and one that his teammates have razzed him about since.

It's that kind of camaraderie that makes his teammates appreciate Weaver, and vice versa.

"It was great. It was kind of funny," Weaver said. "I saw the reaction of Colaiacovo after I scored on TV. His expression was like he was my dad right there. ... It was great. We had the puck in the dressing room. He said all he wanted was a picture of me and the puck."

Colaiacovo said when the shot from the right point got past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, he thought the moment was surreal.

"I've been bugging him all year, honest to God. It was a pretty good feeling, for me anyway," Colaiacovo said. "Obviously for him, he must have been ecstatic. Playing with him for most of last year and all of this year, for him to finally get one ... he's been bugged about it a lot. I've been teasing him about it a lot, and I always told him, 'We better not go our separate ways without you actually scoring one.' It was nice for him to get that, and hopefully there's many more for him to come. Hopefully, it's here and we can be here a long time together.

"He's a guy that some of the guys pick on all the time, but he just shrugs it off and just plays his heart out on the ice."

The new wave of hockey has created space for the defenseman that carries a lot of size both measuring in height and bulk. Weaver understands that his kind are a rare commodity, which is why he helps carry the torch for the little guy trying to make it in the league.

"The game's evolved and the game's changing," Weaver said. "The new rules are obviously affecting the GM's decisions now. You can't clutch and grab anymore, so as far as a big, tall defenseman that can't really skate, it's almost a thing of the past. You rely on your d-men to be a puck-moving, quick guy back there. He's a quarterback. He has to be quick. You can't cross-check in front of the net anymore ... it's all about the thinking game now. It's all about the position. If you're able to get pretty good position ... even though I'm 5-9, it's easy for me to box out a guy in front of the net when he's coming to the net. It's all about body position, it's all about being in the right place at the right time.

"I was talking to Mase the other day and on the ice, I always turn around and ask him, 'Can you see the puck after a shot?' He always says yes. I don't know if it's almost an advantage now to having a shorter defenseman in front of the net so you have one less guy for the goalie to look around. If you get two big bodies in front of the net, one being your guy and one being the defensive guy, it's got to be tough for the goalie to see that. ... The way the game's going, you're able to do more things than a taller defenseman."

That smaller-body position helped Weaver go a long way with the Oilers' Penner, who was outmatched in that particular sequence in the Blues' 2-1 victory Sunday.

"Going against Penner, it's all about positioning, it's all about getting just a step ahead of the guy," Weaver said. "You can stop any tall guy now. He almost has to push down on you. It's a little different."

Weaver certainly won't grow any more, so it's a case where he does what's necessary and what makes this hockey club go.

"It's one of those where he's figured out a way," Payne said. "He's figured out a way to make himself successful, he's figured out a way to contribute to the hockey team and he's done a great job with it."

When the season is over, Weaver will once again go into the summer with something to prove. It would be beneficial for the Blues to bring Weaver back into the fray, even though the franchise needs to see what it has with some of its young, talented defensive corps.

But one thing's for certain, if the Blues want to move forward, they know what they'll get with Weaver, and they know that he will hold the fort together at all times no matter what the circumstances.

"Every year, I've always had to sign a two-way (contract) and just live up to the challenge," Weaver said. "I was never really worried about not making a team. I know I'm pretty consistent back there and that's half the battle for a d-man, to be consistent and to be able to be relied on. I've built up a reputation of that. It's a challenge. I'd rather make it the hard way than the easy way. It feels a little bit better."

Weaver understands Blues management has a decision to make regarding his status, but he's made it clear St. Louis is a place he'd like to remain.

"My family loves it. I think the organization's great," Weaver said. "We got a good up-and-coming team. We'll just have to wait and see what happens in the off-season. It's one of those things where they have a lot of decisions to make. I guess it's a good situation to have. it's better to have more decisions to make than less. ... I'd be happy in St. Louis.

"I think they're going to do what's best for the organization. ... They know my game. They know how I play. They know me. At the end of the day, it's pretty much them saying, 'Hey, we want you back.'"

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