Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Flexibility allowing Hitchcock to move forwards around

Blues haven't gone back to line that brought them 
offensive success early in season to offer balance throughout

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Ken Hitchcock needed offense early in the season, the Blues' coach was able to rely on a top line that featured Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie.

The trio was producing points at a career pace, and the chemistry developed among the three is as good as any in the league.

But injuries forced some changes and movement was inevitable. In recent weeks as both Backes and Steen have returned from injury, Hitchcock has chosen to keep only two of the three together.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Jaden Schwartz (9) and David Backes (42) celebrate
with teammate Alexander Steen after a goal.

Steen and Backes remain together, but Oshie is providing key play on another line with the Swedish connection of Patrik Berglund and Magnus Paajarvi.

Jaden Schwartz has given strong play with Backes and Steen, and the flexibility that Oshie provides is giving Hitchcock plenty of options.

"Oshie can play left, center, right," Hitchcock said. "He can play in a checking role, he can play in an offensive role. Oshie's the guy that provides us with flexibility. Jaden's still learning to play the whole thing. ... It's a very unique line because it's a line that has skill, but its major attribute is its work ethic. When the line is really successful, they are a constant threat to create the 2-on-1 game.

"Depending on the game, depending on the score, that's the flexibility that we work with. We did it in the island (against the New York Islanders), we did it a couple shifts against the (New York) Rangers. I think you're going to see constant movement there all year. I really liked Berglund's line (Tuesday). Berglund's line was excellent yesterday. It's the whole line. When you play with that type of tempo and that type of speed and you're willing to take the puck to the net like they were yesterday, it's a really effective line. I really liked the line yesterday, but there comes a time in the game where if they're getting played with weight and size, then probably Oshie goes in there (with Steen and Backes). But it's going to be based on feel and changing it up sometimes. It's going to be Oshie and Schwartz that change. Schwartz might play with Sobe and Vlad (Vladimir Sobotka and Vladimir Tarasenko), he might play with Bergy. But there's going to be some flexibility there."

Steen is still working on getting back to the pace of production that was coming seemingly every game before suffering the concussion and most recently, a lower-body injury that he's been able to play through. After scoring his team-leading 27th goal in a 3-0 win Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, Steen collected his seventh point (three goals) in the past five games.

"To be honest, I'm expecting more of myself," Steen said. "I think there's a few notches to get to where I was. I'm trying, but I still feel like there's a couple more notches in my game."

The Blues' ability to move parts they consider interchangeable makes player movement easy to do. And by moving Schwartz into a top-line role for the time being allows the Blues (36-11-5) to keep a well-balanced lineup each game.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock calls T.J. Oshie (pictured) the
team's player that provides flexibility.

"On this team though, you're bound to play with different guys at different times," Schwartz said. "I think I've played with everyone on our team this year at some point, but definitely playing with those two guys right now, it's a lot of fun but (Hitchcock) can switch that up as quickly as he put it together. I want to make sure I'm doing my job. I played with them last year, so I'm pretty familiar with them.

"It's nice playing with the same linemates, getting more familiar with them, but at the same time when things aren't working, switching it up can sometimes spark a team. Whoever I'm playing with, I don't want to change how I'm playing. There's a lot of good players on this team and they're fun to play with. At the end of the day, I don't think it really matters who I'm playing with. Or doesn't really change the way I want to play."

* NOTES -- With options at his disposal, there were grumblings among Blues fans as to why enforcer Ryan Reaves was a healthy scratch Tuesday against the Devils. And there was fuel to the fire added when the two teams engaged in some chippy play at times throughout the game, particularly with the Blues' Roman Polak and the Devils' Ryane Clowe, who got into a brief scuffle that saw Clowe land an uppercut to Polak quickly.

However, look for players to come in and out of the lineup from now until the Olympic break, including defenseman Jordan Leopold, who Hitchcock said will play at some point this weekend with back-to-back games at Carolina Friday and Nashville at home Saturday.

"There's going to be movement every game," Hitchcock said. "Unless it's based on poor play, other guys are going to sit out. Other guys are going to play and other guys are going to sit out. 

"Unless it's based on poor play, we're going to use everybody to the end of the break to keep everybody fresh. It's not going to make some players unhappy, but it's going to keep the team energized. Revo's going to get right back in, Leo's going to get right back in, other guys are going to sit out. We've got five games in nine days, which is a lot of hockey, and we're going to try and bring as much energy and good play as we can. ... Any of these guys that hit the wall, we want them to press the reset button and get playing again."

Both goalies will split the weekend games, with Jaroslav Halak playing against the Hurricanes and Brian Elliott getting the nod at home against the Predators.

Halak is 7-1-1 in his past nine starts with a 1.77 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. He's won his past four starts and has a 1.23 GAA and .957 save percentage in those games.

No comments:

Post a Comment