(HockeySTL)-- In a season where virtually no Blues player has gone untouched from head coach Ken Hitchcock’s line-tinkering, it is surprising that Hitchcock’s newest mix-up took so long to come to fruition.
Hitchcock has been experimenting with the Blues’ top line for the past two games, and the changes he made seem to be working out.
Hitchcock’s newest idea involves using both Alexander Steen and David Backes as centers, dependent upon which side of the ice the faceoff is taken.
When the Blues’ top line comes onto the ice, if the faceoff is on the right, the right-handed Backes will line up for the draw. If it is on the left, Steen will fill that role and Backes will play as a right winger for the remainder of that shift. It’s an idea that Hitchcock has been contemplating using for a while now.
“What’s happened in the previous time is that Backes has taken all of the faceoffs on the right,” said Hitchcock. “That’s not going to change. But he’s stayed at center. So for me, when Steen takes faceoffs on the left, I want him to stay at center. What’s happened in the past is he has gone to play wing.”
However small, it is undoubtedly a change in pace for the line of Jaden Schwartz, Backes, and Steen. But Hitchcock isn’t worried about there being any downsides to such a switch this late in the season. If anything, he expects the change to have a positive effect on the entire first line.
“I want these guys to be able to read off each other more,” said Hitchcock. “When Backes takes the faceoffs on the right, he will stay at center. When Steen takes the faceoffs on the left, he will at center. I want to see if they can read off each other that way.
“With three smart players like that, they should all be able to read who is low and who is responsible. “They are all responsible players.”
This method is a subtle one that a lot of NHL teams use, but it gives the Blues an even bigger advantage if it works out for the club. And so far it has.
In the two games in which the change has been in place, Steen and Backes have combined to win 52-percent of the draws that they have been involved in. Steen, who has experience playing center in the past, feels just as comfortable at that position as he does on the wing, despite playing on the side for most of the season.
“For Steen, he gets to control the tempo of the game more,” said Hitchcock. “He gets to play in the middle of the ice. He’s around the action. Alex’s greatest quality is his patience and this allows him to play with some patience.”
But the biggest plus for the Blues is that Backes gets to take some shifts on right wing, a position some around the NHL thought, and still think that he would have a greater impact in.
Backes has played right wing at times in his career. In fact, it was his main position when he was drafted by the Blues. However, he was moved to the center position by former head coach Andy Murray and has never been moved back to his original position. Hitchcock likes Backes at center, but what he likes even more is the chaos Backes can cause on the wing.
“The big plus is that Backes gets to be lead dog on the forecheck,” said Hitchcock. “If I was a defenseman, that wouldn’t be a lot of fun. He gets to play with more tempo and more speed. He gets to play with more physical play. He gets to play down low in the offensive zone so that is an advantage for David. “
But simply put, the change comes down to the obvious rationale that the Blues want to start with the puck more. Hitchcock already uses this technique on the penalty kill, and at times on the power play, but now he wants to make it consistent. The percentages don’t lie, and the mix-up presents a clear advantage to the Blues.
“We want to start with the puck,” Hitchcock said. “One guy is 75-percent from the right side, the other is 60-percent from the left. So, let’s start with the puck. That’s how we do it killing penalties, so we will just stay consistent with it.”
On Monday, the technique was seen used throughout the lineup as Derek Roy and Steve Ott were doing the same as Backes and Steen on the third line. As long as it’s working, the new mix-up will stay a part of the Blues’ strategy.
“I don’t want it to be so structured that you can’t adjust during the game when it does get a little bit out of sync,” said Hitchcock.