Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Injury-free, playing confident, Brewer having most consistent season as a pro

Defenseman providing leadership, solid
veteran experience to young defensive corps

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Since the day he was acquired for Chris Pronger in one of the most controversial deals in Blues history, Eric Brewer has seemed to be fighting an uphill battle no matter what he's been able to do on the ice.

Maybe Brewer will never live up to the trade that also brought defensemen Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch on Aug. 2, 2005, but it's never stopped the Vernon, British Columbia native from trying.

Through all the boos and occasional cheers, Brewer has been quiet and reserved in the public eye. Nothing seems to rattle his psyche.

Maybe that's why finally in his sixth season as a Blue, Brewer may finally be living up to the potential St. Louis thought it was getting when the Blues acquired Brewer in 2005.

Brewer, who has eight points (five goals) in 35 games and is tied with David Backes atop the plus-minus stats at plus-10 as the Blues get ready to face the Chicago Blackhawks at 7 p.m. today (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), is quietly putting together arguably his best season as a pro.

Few have doubted his ability. Sometimes, it's taken awhile to see the full potential.

Brewer, 31, is making plays, playing with confidence and doing so with assertiveness. Those have been elements missing from his arsenal in seasons past at times.

And most importantly, he's injury-free.

"When your body's not feeling right like it has in years past, it's hard to skate to the spots you want to, it's hard to get into the battles and battle the way you'd want to," Blues coach Davis Payne said of his captain. "It's difficult when your body's not letting you. All of the sudden, you find him in a healthy situation and he's playing good hockey for us."

Brewer will be the last guy to boast about his effectiveness. He's humble in his own right. All he cares about is coming to the rink, making himself a better player and focusing on helping his team win.

"It's OK. It's a constant work," said Brewer, when asked if he's playing his best. "I never look at it that way. Just going out there and doing my thing.

"I don't feel any less confident than I have in other times. I'm seeing the play and trying to make some reads and seeing where it takes us. I really don't look at is this my best, is this whatever ... I go with 'did it work well, what do I need to improve in,' that's how I see it."

A large portion of Blues fans have never allowed Brewer to live freely. He'd been a target for boo-birds at nearly every touch of the puck, whether making a good play or whether it resulted in a mistake.

This was Pronger's replacement. Brewer could have been shipped to St. Louis wrapped in the form of Bobby Orr and still would have been received the same.

Brewer's career with the Blues has been marred by inconsistent play, largely due to some serious injuries. His first season, missed 50 games with two separate shoulder injuries, the ladder being a separated left shoulder.

After a pair of injury-free seasons, one in which brought a new four-year, $17-million deal.

Then came more injury problems, including shoulder surgery suffered on opening night in 2007 despite playing through the season with pain. He missed all but 21 games in 2008-09 and 23 more a season ago with a serious herniated disk issue in his back that turned out to be a sciatic nerve issue. There was talk of his career being over.

"It certainly makes a difference," Brewer said of being injury-free. "But if you're going to dress, you have no excuses. That's what it is."

But now virtually healthy for the first time since he slipped on the Blue Note, Brewer -- in the final year of his contract -- has also gained the respect of his teammates and become a mentor to a talented cast of young d-men.

"He's been awesome. He's a great leader," Blues defensive prospect Ian Cole said recently. "Awesome guy as far as learning the game. I know people have been getting on him -- so I hear -- but he's a great player. He's been awesome teaching me how to be an NHL player. I can't say enough about how awesome he's been, such a great mentor as far as that goes."

To which Brewer replied, "Sometimes I feel like a nagging parent. I feel like sometimes I almost need to be quiet. The guys are really receptive ... I'm not one to nitpick. It's more just on-the-fly adjustment during the game or in a practice. I'm more a guy of, 'We need to address this, and if I'm off-base, then fine. If I'm not, this is what we're going to do.' ... It's just us working together and me having a little bit more experience in some situations with some players that maybe don't."

For the first time in six years, when Eric Brewer is announced as a starter or when scoring a goal or picking up an assist, there are more cheers to go along with his name. It's been a long time coming. The cheers are large in number these days.

"He's skating, he's defending, he's reading, he's communicating, he's shooting the puck, he's doing a lot of the right things," Payne said of Brewer. "I think this is exactly why we felt that he was a guy that can come back and continue to provide leadership for our young d-corps and for everything we're going through. We need that type of play from him. He's giving it.

"There's not a lot that surprises him. ... When he's up and moving his feet, his gap is closed, he's able to use a long stick, he's able to use his reach and influence plays, stepping into confrontations with his body. Perhaps we wouldn't have seen that a year ago, but here's a healthy guy. He's able to skate like he's used to, whether that's in separation with a puck, whether that's in defensive responsibilities, whether that's getting up ice, he's playing a firm game. He's playing a game that we've seen. He's another guy -- as required -- has stepped up for our team."

Stepped up not only on the ice but off of it and in the locker room as well.

"I don't think it's really difficult. Whether you have it or you don't have the 'C,' I'm still going to do what I do and I'm comfortable saying what needs to be said," Brewer said. "I've always liked to be in the mix and kind of sort out what needs to be sorted out and be one of the guys."

With veterans Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo along with rising youngsters Roman Polak, Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo, Brewer may be cast in one of the best Blues' defensive corps in the last decade.

"Everybody recognizes the need to do their job," Brewer said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be fantastic. You just have to play solid and be reliable. That always makes a difference, especially when you're playing so many games. It's easy for it to snowball one way or the other. We'd like it to go in a positive way, obviously.

"I definitely think we have a good group of guys. We have a good mix of personalities and players. It's pretty close, if it's not."

So the next time Brewer is seen at the rink pay attention to what he is doing when he's at his best.

"Just skating well, not giving up a lot, get some shots through, up the ice a little bit making some aggressive plays," Brewer said.

Simple but for the Blues these days, extremely effective.

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