We move on from what is probably the Blues biggest strength (the blue line) to a severely banged up forward corps. And what it was at full-strength was kind of a debate among everyone to begin with. While most of the mass media in hockey slobbers over Alex Steen, David Backes, and T.J. Oshie, we have screamed at the top of our lungs about their faults and weaknesses. Through injury or whatever else, those have started to show. And while everyone loves to talk about GRITSANDPAPERHEARTFAAARRRRT on the bottom six, even if it’s healthy it looks pretty bereft of anything useful. Which really came to the fore in the season’s last month when the top six stopped scoring and absolutely no one was there to pick up the slack. So let’s dig in, shall we?
1st Line: Alex Steen-David Backes-Jaden Schwartz
At least, this was the look for most of the season when everyone was healthy. And you’re going to see this a lot as we move forward here, but health is a real issue. Backes missed the last couple of games after taking a shot off his foot and he wasn’t at practice today. They say he’s going to play, but what’s pretty clear is that he’s not going to be 100%. And Backes didn’t move all that well to begin with. When out there he can be a hellacious checking center who makes life rough in your crease, especially on the power play. But as we’ve stated over and over for years now, this stuff gets lost in his constant desire to show what a big CAPTAIN he has in his pants. Dumb penalties, constant yapping, cheapshots behind the play, punches through linesmen after whistles, Backes seemingly can’t help himself when it comes to losing focus. There’s no reason to think that won’t be the case this series if he suits up. The Hawks have to take advantage when he does.
Market correction eventually did come to Alex Steen, as he wasn’t going to shoot 20% all season even without his injuries. He ended up at 15%, which is still 5% over his career average. What that meant was he had 9 goals in the second half of the year as opposed to the 24 he had in the first. That doesn’t mean Steen isn’t a useful player, because he very much is. I bet most Blues fans would like to transfer at least some of his brain into Backes to calm his shit down. Steen is excellent at both ends of the ice, and just does what he’s supposed to most of the time. Give him time and he’s got a pretty good shot, but he’s not the type who’s going to create his own space. He’s also been banged up recently, though he’ll be available.
Schwartz to me is the x-factor, because he’s the one Blue on the top six (especially if Tarasenko doesn’t play) who can create. As I wrote in the print edition of the CI in March, Schwartz is something of a template for TiVo Targaryen. Both were undersized centers before reaching the NHL, and Schwartz has shifted out to wing early in his NHL career. Plus plus hands and vision, and he’s become a two-way enough player that he is used on the kill. Can make life hell on the PP too from the half-wall. If he has a big series suddenly things look a lot rockier. If the Hawks keep him quiet, then it’s hard to see how the Blues won’t continue to struggle to score.
This is the line that Hitch uses to combat the other teams’ top lines, and you know for Games 1 and 2 they’ll be trotted out against Toews. But unless Versteeg (in today’s set up) continues to be galactically stupid, you have to imagine that worst case scenario is Toews and Saad play this line to a standstill. Which means the rest will have to pick up the scoring for St. Louis, and that’s just something that hasn’t happened.
2nd Line – T.J. Oshie-Steve Ott-Vladimir Sobotka
This was the look at the end of the season before everyone got hurt, so this is what I’m going with for now. Availability is a question, as Oshie was knocked senseless by Minnesota’s Mike Rupp, but he was at practice today and all reports are he’s good to go. Maybe he’s got Shaw-Syndrome, where he doesn’t actually have a brain to bruise. Oshie milked a great shootout performance in Sochi for all it was worth, which covered up the fact he did utter dick when actual hockey was being played. That didn’t change all that much when get got back to the Blues. He had seven goals since the break, which doesn’t sound that bad until you consider that three of them came in one game. Oshie is another bowling ball who doesn’t create his own shot much and as long as you move the puck before he can get to you below the goal-line, you basically have erased his offensive game. And seeing as how a stiff breeze might put him back in the dark room…
I can’t for the life of me figure out why Steve Ott has replaced Sobotka at center. Sobotka wins draws, is sound defensively, and can chip in a goal here and there as well as be a bitch to play against. Ott used to be these things, except he’s about half the skater he used to be. Agitators do not age well. Ott will do his best to drive the Hawks nuts, but seeing as how he’ll struggle to catch them he screams “liability” in this series. Since being paired with Ott, Sobotka has really upped the asshole tendencies in his game, and he’s another who can get too focused on that and lose what he does that actually helps the Blues win.
These guys aren’t used in a primary offensive or defensive role, and with Ott they actually get the ice turned around on them more than they do it to the opponents. If Patrik Berglund is healthy he might replace Ott here, but we’ll get to him in Part 2. With the way Quenneville looks to be spreading out his scoring (according to practice today) this feels like something he would really want to take advantage of, especially as Keith could leave Sobotka or Ott scorched in his wake and Seabrook has the size to deal with Oshie.
I’ll be back this afternoon to clean up the rest.