Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Solid game has Brewer floating under radar

Defenseman has overcome two back surgeries, criticism of
Blues fans to play best hockey since arrival in St. Louis

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When a fan favorite is suddenly dealt away, the immediate response is backlash for the player/players coming back in return.

Then-Blues owner Bill Laurie decided that the best way to market his franchise he put it up for sale after the lockout of 2004-05 would be to do so without any large and/or heavy contracts on the books. At least that was his excuse.

So when Chris Pronger was traded to Edmonton in 2005, the Blues got a trio of players back in return, and defenseman Eric Brewer was the centerpiece of that deal.

It's safe to say Brewer, 30, has not been a fan favorite since his arrival here five years ago.

And the Blues captain's erratic play during his up-and-down career has often made his a target of Blues fans of all ages.

The ridicule has often surrounded around the fact that he's no Chris Pronger, doesn't talk like Chris Pronger, doesn't walk like Chris Pronger and he never will be like him.

"Brew deals with a lot that people don't know. ... He's really been a guy that's held this team together," Blues defenseman and teammate Barret Jackman said. "He just keeps playing the way that everybody knows that he can. ... He was someone that was dealt for (Pronger), but Brew is his own player. He's not going to try and fill Pronger's shoes nor does he have to."

People questioned when Brewer was named captain in 2008.

And then when Brewer was sacked last season because of sciatic nerve damage in his back, there were even rumblings that his career might be in jeopardy, which to some Blues fans was music to their ears.

But Brewer fought back and got back into the lineup on a regular basis, and although his ascension was slowed at the outset, the defenseman has been quietly putting together a solid campaign this season.

Why has it been good? Because fans are not talking about him. But Brewer has never been one to care what people think of him.

"He's one of those guys that doesn't care what outside people think," Jackman said. "He's going to play his game. As long as he's contributing to the team and he's respected by the rest players .. which he is 100 percent in the dressing room, he's happy with that. He's a team guy. He's not a guy that needs to have headlines that say he's the best player on our team. He's just going to go out there and play and earn respect from his teammates."

Brewer has six goals and five assists in 39 games this season, but it's no coincidence that he's playing arguably his best hockey in his fifth full season in St. Louis.

He's finally found a niche with a defensive partner in Erik Johnson and the duo have formed a solid 1-2 punch on the Blues' blue line.

For probably the first time since his arrival here, Brewer is playing at a high and respectable level.

"It was a long time off," Brewer said of his back woes. "That's one way to look at it, but looking at it another way, I've been able to play some games and have a stretch of games. Me and EJ have played a large chunk of games now, and that helps out the both of us. He was out last year, I was out last year. That helps.

"I don't think that it wasn't that I felt off in the beginning. I just needed to play better. I felt good when I got here, and I felt good throughout."

It's evident playing with Johnson, a US Olympian, has helped the Vernon, British Columbia native. He's played with poise, has been solid in his own end and pinches in offensively and has contributed in ways people haven't seen here.

"I like that there's more assertiveness over the last 10 or 12 games," said Blues coach Davis Payne. "I like that he's reading plays and taking and using his size and strength to separate and to gain pucks back and to close up gaps. It could be confidence, it could be getting comfortable. I've been through back issues myself. It takes a while to really feel just what your level of engagement can be.

"... The assertiveness of his play is the one thing that from a defensive perspective, gaps are tighter, more physical, better in front of our net and from a puck-moving position, his feet are starting to move. You're starting to see him up ice, he can stride it up when the opportunity's there. We're seeing that full compliment of his game. He becomes the player we all know he's capable of."

Perhaps Brewer's decreased ice time has actually helped his game jump up the charts.

While playing for Andy Murray, Brewer was regularly playing between 24-27 minutes a game. But since Payne's arrival on Jan. 2, Brewer has averaged a little more than 18 minutes per game.

Coincidence? Probably.

"He's playing really well," Jackman said of Brewer. "You look at different kind of points. You look at success of the team, you look at the ups and downs we've been through since he's been here. He's obviously played very well. It's hard to compare, but everyone's definitely pleased with the way he's playing.

"I think he's skating very well. It's tough for him with the two back surgeries. Just the way he missed a lot of workout time and a lot of skating time, he's really been a workhorse for us, consistent every night, playing well offensively and really eating up minutes defensively. He's a leader of our team and he really shows it in a night-to-night basis."

Brewer began skating with Mike Weaver upon his return as well as Alex Pietrangelo, but there was chemistry beginning to develop between Brewer and Johnson when they began skating together, enough so that Payne would pair them up and they've remained together since.

One is a talker, one is quiet and reserved, but they've jelled in ways that nobody expected.

"I think the biggest thing is probably me and EJ have played for a stretch of games ... honestly," Brewer said. "That's made a big difference. There hasn't been a ton of change. I think Davis and Andy have very similar styles. Our day-to-day program hasn't changed. Obviously, their personalities are different, practices are a little bit different.

"We've adjusted a few things in the offensive zone and it's kind of changed some looks for the forwards, and as such, the (defensemen) have a few different reads. I can't say if that directly has helped ... I can't say if that's been a major difference, but it's certainly helped. I've tried not to overanalyze things just because there's so many games and you can get caught up on too much.

"... He has typically been very quiet. I think that's been good for both of us. It's actually been very enjoyable. It's been good to kind of see some reflection in myself when I was that age. I certainly was not at his level at that age, but it's been good. I've enjoyed it."

It's evident that the Brewer bashers have backed off, simply because his play has improved with each game. But Brewer, who still has another year remaining on a four-year contract extension he signed in February of 2006, feels like his game can be even better.

"I don't think I ever feel like I'm on top of my game, to be honest with you," he said. "I think you're always looking at ways to improve it and deal with the situations that come about and do the things that the coaches ask us to do."

"It took a little time," Payne said. "Not to specifically point out one occasion, but there was a point there where we sat down and discussed the things about what we felt he was capable of bringing and he's done a great job in recognizing that and adding pieces on top of pieces as he gains that confidence. Now I think you're seeing some real effective play."


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