(HockeySTL)-- One of the brightest shining aspects of this year’s Blues team has been the line of Alexander Steen, David Backes, and T.J. Oshie. That line has rivaled the National Hockey League’s best and has, in many situations, come out on top. But now that bright spot is fading as the Blues look for consistency throughout their lineup.
When the Blues’ top line was rolling, the team was well off. The three players that make up the line have combined for 83 points, and have netted 37 of the Blues’ 95 goals this season. But through a recent rough stretch, or, as head coach Ken Hitchcock calls it, rough water, the line has lost much of its dominance.
“This is the rough water,” said Hitchcock. “I am going to go through it with them. We’ll see what goes at the end. The rough water is sometimes you’re trying to do too much yourself, or sometimes somebody’s trying to play a different style, but let them figure it out.”
Steen had 20 goals through the first 24 games of the season, Backes had six goals in his first ten games, and Oshie quickly took over as the Blues’ leading setup man. However, in the last four games, the Blues’ top players have been held to just seven points collectively. It appears as though they, along with the entire team, have hit a slump.
“I don’t think we have been playing at all good enough,” said Steen. It feels like we have been playing mediocre and we don’t like playing that way.”
The line, at times, has been dubbed as the NHL’s best. The chemistry between the players to start the season was impeccable. It drew praise from coaching staffs around the league. But it’s not just the skill of that line that made it so valuable; it is also the leadership of the players encompassing that line.
Backes, who is the captain of the team, is the leader of the top line, but Oshie and Steen are also highly regarded as leaders in the locker room and on the ice by teammates. The first line sets the standards for the other three, and when they hit a rough patch, the team will battle turmoil as well.
“I think it’s the same for everybody. Your best players have to be your best players,” said Hitchcock. “When they are, there is someone who follows. The onus for them is to be our best players and our hardest workers. Not just our top-skilled, but our hardest workers.”
Putting skill ahead of work has been an issue with the Blues in each of the last two seasons. The team, as whole, has had to look at itself in the mirror and re-examine its priorities several times. With the youth of the team being prominent, the team expects there to be downs. It’s during these down times that they rely on the leaders, three of which are found on the Blues’ number one line.
“The trust that I have in that line is immense,” said Hitchcock. “I trust those guys individually and I trust them collectively. Let them figure it out. They know how to play the right way. They know what it feels and looks like. We’ll ride it out with them.”
However, while the focus may be on the top players, Hitchcock is looking for others to step to the forefront while the club looks to better itself.
“It isn’t always going to be peaches and cream,” Hitchcock said. “What I would like to see a bit more is other people picking them up. More people coming from underneath and give us a real boost. It can’t be just one line. I’d like to see an internal push from underneath.”
“When (the top players) are playing the right way, I think you have no choice but to follow. But I also think it’s how close can you follow, too. Sometimes there’s an interchange and somebody else has to step up. I think that’s what builds a team.”
Some of the players that the Blues are looking towards to step up are found in large roles, but have failed to meet expectations so far. Ken Hitchcock calls the place the Blues are at “the tunnel” and to get out of the darkness that exists in that tunnel, leadership throughout the lineup must be found. It starts with the top line, but must trickle throughout the lineup. It’s not just the bad teams that struggle, but the good teams find the leadership to head the way out of the darkness and into the light.
“It’s a process,” Hitchcock called it. “This period of time is the dark time. There is no light at the start and there is no light at the end. You don’t want to give up points or play poor hockey when you are in the tunnel. We are in the tunnel now and how soon (we) come out of it is going to determine how much light (we’ve) got at the end.”