Thursday, March 2, 2017

Blues need Schwartz to find scoring touch

Pesky winger has just four goals in past 
36 games, scored in seven of past 45 games

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When his shot hit the underside of the cross bar, bounced straight down and away from the goal line, it was a fitting few seconds that told the story of Jaden Schwartz's past 36 games.

Schwartz is in a goal-scoring funk, and it's no secret it coincides with the Blues' recent four-game slide in which the team has scored a grand total of six games.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz moves the puck up ice in a recent game in
Toronto. Schwartz has scored just four goals the past 36 games.

And even though Schwartz, who the Blues signed to a five-year, $26.75 million contract this past off-season and locking up one of their core members through 2021, it signified a move that the Blues were making a commitment to one of their two 2010 first-round draft picks (Vladimir Tarasenko being the other).

Schwartz has scored 14 goals on the season in 58 games, but only four of them have come in the past 36, and if one includes the past 45 games, Schwartz has scored in seven of them, which equates to 15.5 percent of those games.

"There's obviously games where you're getting a lot of chances and others where you're not getting as many," said Schwartz, who is earning $5.25 million in salary this season and will make $5.5 million, $6.25 million, $5.75 million and $4 million moving forward. "If you're finding ways to create and you're in on other guys' goals, that's a good feeling. But obviously, when the puck's not going in, you're hitting sticks or posts. 

"It's obviously frustrating. Guys go through it at different times of the year, but you've just got to find a way to try and get better at it. You don't want to think about it too much and overthink it. I'll try and get out of it and start putting the puck in the net a little bit more and get that good feeling back."

In back-to-back seasons of 2013-14 and 2014-15, Schwartz scored a total of 53 goals in 155 games (25 and 28, respectively), and coming off those seasons, the Blues were banking on Schwartz to be at that consistent level moving forward. After all, he's only 24 years old.

But since his career-high 28 goals in 2014-15, Schwartz has just 22 (including eight in a season cut short to 33 games a season ago because of a gruesome ankle injury) in 91 games.

But maybe the last game, a 2-1 loss to Edmonton, gave a glimpse of just what Schwartz needs: quality scoring chances.

During this rut, there were minimal times where Schwartz was even a factor at scoring and not being in prime scoring areas. But Tuesday's loss provided scoring opportunities that simply didn't go in, and coach Mike Yeo hopes that's something Schwartz can build on.

"I had a lot of chances. I should have scored on a few," Schwartz said. "If those go in, it could have been a different outcome, so obviously it's frustrating. That's the way it goes sometimes, but sometimes when you're thinking about it too much, you find yourself waiting too long, guys end up getting in the lane. I think when you're just playing with your instincts and working and going out there and playing, that's when things usually happen. The last game was good, but you've got to find a way to put it in the back of the net."

And it all happened with the reunion of the "STL Line" with Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera, which has had ample amounts of success in the past.

"I think that he had a real good response last game," Yeo said of Schwartz. "We changed the lines and with that, he had four quality scoring chances the last game. For me as a coach, you obviously like to make a switch and then have the instant results, but as fr as I'm concerned, if he plays the game like that and continues to play like that, then the results will come. For me, it's a matter of staying with it. His work ethic has to be noticeable on a nightly basis because he drives our team when he does that and he creates offense for himself when he does that. He finds himself in great positions. Hitting the post on the one, being in all alone on their goalie in the third period. As far as I'm concerned, if he plays another game like that, then he'll get rewarded."

But Schwartz, who has 24 assists on the season, has attempted 121 shots, which is a little more than two per game. It doesn't sound like a lot, and those numbers can certainly improve, but as long as he's doing all the other things, like digging pucks off the walls, being defensively sound and constantly being a puck hound, it will resonate to other areas.

"I think other parts of the game have been good, whether it's been takeaways or forechecks or creating for other guys," Schwartz said. "I don't know how many assists or whatever you have in the last amount of games, but I feel like we're getting a lot of chances. Whether the pucks go in or not, I try not to gauge my game. Obviously it's a better feeling, you get a little bit more confidence when the puck's going in. I feel like other parts of the game have been pretty solid."

What Yeo felt like was perhaps a breakthrough Tuesday was Schwartz's ability to get shots quickly to the net rather than looking for what he termed "the perfect shot." And when one looks for the perfect shot, that's when they start squeezing sticks.

"That happens. Most players are streaky players and that's because they don't think about it," Yeo said. "The one conversation that we've had with 'Schwartzy' for me, the one where he hit the post is actually a great example of it, I felt for a period of time here -- and it happens to a lot of players -- when you don't score goals, quite often you start looking for the perfect shot. That one he hit the post (Tuesday) night, he just got it off quick. For me, a quick shot doesn't need to be a perfect shot. That's easier said than done. When you're scoring goals, you're feeling good. You want to just keep shooting pucks because it's been going in. When it hasn't been going in, you hang onto it a little longer and the next thing you know, the goalie's come out, he's challenged a little farther, guys are getting sticks on pucks and denying your shot attempt. He's just got to try and get as many shots as can and continue to play with that effort and that tenacity that he had last game."

Being bounced around from line to line has had an affect on Schwartz's game, too. Whether he's playing with Paul Stastny and Alexander Steen, or on Patrik Berglund's line with David Perron or whoever has been on the right side to at times playing with Lehtera and Tarasenko with limited success this season, Yeo seems to be -- for the time being -- intent on keeping that trio together to give all of them a spark since they've obviously shown a penchant for chemistry in the past.

"We had a good game last game," Schwartz said. "That's (the coaches) job. You look at whether it's me, 'Stas' and Steen playing good but we were losing games, so we had to switch that up and then me and 'Bergy' were going good together and losing games, so you've got to switch that and other guys the same way. Obviously we're going to do our part just to stay together and help the team win, but it's not our decision at the end of the day. Obviously we have chemistry from playing with each other the last couple years. We kind of know where each other are.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues are looking for more celebrations from Jaden Schwartz (left)
like this one when he scored twice against Montreal on Dec. 6.

"... I don't really think about that. I've got to do my job no matter who I'm playing with. Obviously when you look at the lines this year, you've got chemistry with guys but you're losing games and you've got to find ways to switch it. That's the coach's decision. Our job is to win games. Even if you are clicking and you're losing, you've got to switch things up to win games. You have a lot of different linemates throughout the season. It's not something I'm not used to, but I've got to just stick to my game no matter who I'm playing with."

Starting on Friday against the Jets would be a good place to start, not only for Schwartz but for the Blues, who are trying to end a four-game losing streak.

"There's ups and downs during the year," said Schwartz, whose 38 points are third on the team this season behind Tarasenko (56) and Steen (39). "Obviously everyone wants to be at their best on a consistent level throughout the season, but it hasn't happened. There's been dips in our game, but I think it's more of a team game than anything. ... We've just got to learn from what's gone on and you try to put it together for these 20 games, go on a good run here, and once playoffs start, we're going to do everything we can to get into the playoffs. Once we get there, it's anyone's game. That's got to be our focus."

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