The All-Star game approaches as the St. Louis Blues start to figure themselves out.
I think it’s important to start by discussing the line combinations. In previous articles I’ve discussed the team’s inability to find the perfect line combination and overall playing style. It seems as though the team has found the solution for the lines. They began to find this combination when GM Doug Armstrong decided to bring up Dmitrij Jaskin. The 21 year old winger had been up and down from the minors numerous times, but this time Jaskin took his opportunity and ran with it. Playing impressive hockey, Army was nearly forced to keep the kid up here for good. With an unfortunate injury to Chris Porter, Hitchcock experimented by putting Patrik Berglund and Jaskin on the wings around Paul Stastny. Stastny, who was still searching for consistency in the lineup, played surprisingly well in this new line. Jaskin is a talented kid who is capable of leading a team in both shots and hits. His size clears space for Stastny to make plays in the middle. Highly criticized Patrik Berglund seems to be benefiting from the line as well.
The jelling of the Jaskin-Stastny-Berglund line, along with the successful reunification of the classic Steen-Backes-Oshie line up top, cemented the Blues line pairs. Chris Butler continues to win more playing time in the third defensive pair over Ian Cole. This leaves Joakim Lindstrom and Ian Cole as healthy scratches most evenings. Here’s a look at the line combination that has jelled so well for the Blues:
Steen – Backes – Oshie
Schwartz – Lehtera – Tarasenko
Jaskin – Stastny – Berglund
Ott – Lapierre – Reaves
Bouwmeester – Pietrangelo
Shattenkirk – Gunnarsson
Jackman – Butler
SCRATCHES: Cole, Lindstrom, Brodeur
The top line’s production has taken pressure off of the STL line who had carried the team early in the year. Stastny’s line has also played well, demanding respect from opposing defenses. This gives the Blues three dangerous lines, each playing different styles. The fourth line is one of toughest lines in hockey with three guys who check well and hold their own when the gloves are dropped. It’s also important to look at the healthy scratches as they may be the wiggle-room the Blues can use in trade talks.
Lindstrom didn’t impress coaches early in the season, leading to him sitting a vast majority of the team’s later games. He’s a valuable player, but just not to the Blues. Hitchcock frequently tells the media that Lindstrom practices very well; however, he has not seen an increase in playing time. Cole may also be a trade piece as Butler has outplayed him this season; Lindbohm is in the AHL with the ability to be the team’s seventh defenseman at a cheaper price. Unfortunately for the Blues, Lindstrom and Cole have minimal trade value; however, they may be let go in some way to clear up cap space for a bigger contract.
St. Louis has heard less trade rumors recently. Now there is question whether the Blues need a big name forward (as discussed earlier), a role playing forward, or perhaps a physical defenseman. Any of these changes would require a big change in the roster with the Blues tight cap situation.
This update would not be complete without discussion of the Martin Brodeur situation. The Blues brought in the Hall of Fame goaltender when Brian Elliott went down with a knee injury. Marty played well when given starting opportunities with the Blues. Recently the team announced the legend was given a week away from the team to decide what he wants to do with his future. Brodeur has seen less playing time as Elliott has returned from his injury. Hitchcock has aired his support for Brodeur, calling his presence invaluable to the team. I personally hope the veteran decides to hang around the team for the rest of the year, whether it’s as a player or even a player coach. He could come in use once again if the Blues faced another injury. Even if he doesn’t suit up, his presence would be extremely beneficial for the Blues who have many players without vast playoff experience. The Blues want him back; the question is whether or not Brodeur wants to try to find a place to play more often. It appears as though his options with other clubs are limited.
I’d like to end the mid-season review with some praise for Jaden Schwartz. Tarasenko grabs the headlines with his flashy goals and incredible stats; however, Schwartz deserves much more credit than he receives. The team’s stats with Schwartz out of the line-up are noticeably worse. The young winger simply understands the way the game should be played and elevates the play of those around him. He’s a talented guy who could be seen as the future of the franchise along with Jake Allen.
All in all, the Blues have done well taking advantage of their current seven game homestand. After struggling for a stretch, the team finds itself behind the Blackhawks and Predators in the ultra-competitive Central Division. Winnipeg isn’t far behind the Blues, while Minnesota is on a slide. Colorado and Dallas have had disappointing seasons thus far and would require a great run to find their way back in contention. The season is nowhere from over and I expect player changes before the playoffs begin, but I like where the team is right now. It’s time for the Blues to dig in their heels and just make sure they get into the dance.
UPDATE: Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne has sprained his knee and will be out 3-5 weeks. This is an opportunity for the Blues to make up some ground as Rinne is the backbone of this Nashville team. The Preds will be challenged to keep up their incredible pace without their star goalie.