Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Blues getting bang for their buck with Sobotka

Versatile forward among many impressing Hitchcock with all-around play

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It was during Ken Hitchcock's first game as coach of the Blues, two days after taking over for the fired Davis Payne. It's natural for the players wanting to make a good impression for their new coach.

Show the coach all-out hustle, responsibility with the puck, skate like the wind, play on both sides of the puck with purpose, and in Hitchcock's words, play a 200-foot game.

For Vladimir Sobotka, check all of the above. But it was in that first game under Hitchcock on Nov. 8 against the Chicago Blackhawks that Sobotka was going to be a signature Hitchcock player.
(Getty Images)
At 5-10, 198 pounds, Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka (17) continues to
play bigger than his size. Here he is in a game against Florida earlier
this season.

It was a play with 7 minutes 24 seconds left in the second period that signifies to many people around here that the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Sobotka is from top to bottom, one of the toughest small guys in the game.

It was a David vs. Goliath collision that saw Sobotka and the massive 6-8, 270-pound John Scott of Chicago about to see their worlds collide near center ice.

"I saw (Scott) coming," Sobotka recalled Wednesday. "He probably didn't know that I was ready for him. I just was kind of waiting for him. He was coming first to hit me and I saw him."

Like a runaway 18-wheeler getting ready to slam into a miniature tank.


The jolt rocked the sellout crowd at Scottrade Center but not for the reasons one might think. It wasn't David that rocked Goliath's world but vice versa. Kind of like a crumpled skyscraper withering in its own destruction.

"I got ready ... and he went down," Sobotka said. "It's great when you get a big guy like Scott on the ice. People clapped and cheered and were like, 'Wow, he's strong.' It gets me going. It got me more confidence."

This is Sobotka in a nutshell, but in Hitchcock's eyes, many players have impressed in the 14 games since he took over. But Sobotka has done so in typical underestimated fashion. Being underestimated has been his NHL world.

It's the kind of player that Sobotka is: not too flashy but in the end, the results the Blues are looking for are typically visible.

"I know this is bad to say this, but I didn't remember him as a Blue," Hitchcock said, recalling Sobotka before he got here. "I remember him as a Boston player. He was a fourth-line center on the ice."

Hitchcock knew of the Trebic, Czech Republic native in world competition, but he's getting a firsthand look at what the 24-year-old can do. And Hitchcock's quickly finding out No. 17 in the Bluenote is his kind of player.

"He's smart, he's got the foot speed to play 200 feet," Hitchcock said of Sobotka. "You get three or four of those guys that can play 200 feet, you're in good shape."

Sobotka, who began the season playing anywhere from the second to fourth lines on left wing, doesn't mind playing on the outside, but Hitchcock has moved him into the middle. He was there centering Matt D'Agostini and Jamie Langenbrunner against Detroit Tuesday.

The results were adament: he's staying put.

"Playing him on the wing is a waste. He's too far away from the play," Hitchcock said. "I think Sobotka is a center iceman. Bad coaching put him on left wing. When the coach came here and put him on left wing, that's bad coaching. He's got way more speed at center ice, he hits holes, he creates problems on matchups for people, he's more effective offensively as a center iceman. He needs to play in that position."

Sobotka made his other teammates better on whatever line he was playing on, whether it was creating space for offensive players, killing penalties, blocking shots or winning key face-offs. He's been over 50 percent in all but six games this season in the circle and 54.1 percent on the season.

"For me, I like everything about our game right now," said Sobotka, who feels like he's playing the best hockey of his career after signing a three-year, $3.9 million contract last summer. "We've worked hard and we skate hard and that's what we need every day.

"I'm just trying to do my best on the ice. That's probably why I'm getting more ice time almost every game."

But Sobotka, a center by trade, isn't opposed to the switch to the middle simply because of his ability to have the puck, be able to protect it and winning draws.

"Face-offs. I miss the face-offs because I know I can win some, especially on the penalty kill," Sobotka said. "At center, I can play more with the puck. I like to get more pucks and make more plays and get that speed game going.

"I started liking it on the left wing, but it doesn't matter."

Sobotka's numbers don't reflect what he can do with the puck. He has 10 points (eight assists) in 25 games this season, but he does have two assists that turned out to be overtime game-winners, including one to D'Agostini Oct. 21 against Carolina and another to Alex Pietrangelo Nov. 23 in Pittsburgh.

"He's patient with the puck, which makes him good," D'Agostini said of Sobotka. "He waits for that spot to open up. He's a good playmaker. He works hard, he's sound positionally, he's pretty rounded as a player. We love having him.

"To be whatever he is -- 5-1, 5-2 -- and to do what he does in this league, that's pretty impressive."
(Getty Images)
Vladimir Sobotka (17) celebrates a Blues goal with Kevin Shattenkirk in a
game against Chicago last month. Sobotka scored the first Blues goal
under Ken Hitchcock in Hitchcock's first game coaching St. Louis.

D'Agostini was joking about the size, but Sobotka certainly plays a lot larger than his smaller frame looks.

Don't judge a book by its cover certainly applies here.

"He's very balanced, and I think that's really important in this league ... to be not just strong but balanced on your skates," D'Agostini said. "You can tell he's got great balance because he's knocking guys down, and he can have good corner balance with guys twice his size."

As players continue to try to take on the little guy built like a compact tank, Sobotka continues to thrive in Hitchcock's system. The young guy buying into the old-school style of coaching.

It's working thus far.

"I think it's about work ethic," Sobotka said. "We're going to put the puck deep, go chase it and hold onto the puck in the offensive zone. Put the puck in the net when we have the chances.

"It's a great group of guys and we've got something good going now. I think we can keep going with this. I like it."

* NOTES -- The Blues assigned winger Evgeny Grachev to Peoria Wednesday. Grachev, who had two assists in 17 games with the Blues, was injured after taking a puck near his left eye on Nov. 27. He was activated from injured reserve on Tuesday but was hard-pressed to get a spot back in the lineup.

Peoria will begin a stretch of three games in three days beginning Friday and instead of sitting, the Blues would rather have the 21-year-old Grachev playing games.

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