For the first five weeks of the season, the Blues have been searching for an identity. Vladimir Tarasenko, last year’s chief provider of goals, got off to a hot start in the category, but unsurprisingly hasn’t kept up his goal-a-game pace of the season’s opening week. He’s too talented to be held down for long, and his six goals still led the team coming into Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Sharks.
But Tarasenko is a known commodity; he scored 40 goals last year. Even with lulls along the way, it’s probable that he’ll end up in that ballpark this year. Beyond their Russian-born sniper, the Blues have wrestled with an inconsistent offensive attack.
Doug Armstrong’s biggest offseason acquisition was David Perron. Blues fans knew him well; he wore the Note from 2007-2013, scoring 84 goals in 340 games during his time in St. Louis. Armstrong’s answer to the losses of David Backes and Troy Brouwer felt underwhelming at the time, but it shed light on the direction of the franchise. Not only did the Blues plan to go younger and faster, they planned for that youth to take a starring role. That commitment has revealed bumps in the path.
“This is, quite frankly, what happens when you incorporate a lot of younger players into more predominant roles,” Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday on the season’s erratic start. “There’s a growth phase … You’re going to have to go through some really tough times with that.”
The Blues are leaning on different crop of players. Some, like Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko, burst onto the scene just last year, and are expected to continue progressing toward stardom. Others have been around a while, and with the changes to the roster, can no longer afford to simply progress toward stardom—the Blues need them to arrive upon it.
Jaden Schwartz leads that charge.
The 24-year old has been building his Blues legacy since St. Louis drafted him 14th overall in 2010. Missing time to injury last season, Schwartz scored just eight goals in 33 games. He compiled his career-high in both goals and assists the previous season, when he scored 28 with 35 assists. Schwartz may have been ready to take his next step last year, but injury prevented it. This time around, Schwartz is finding his role in stride.
Locked in a rematch of the Western Conference Finals with San Jose Thursday, the Blues found their goals in ways Armstrong had to appreciate.
His free agent signing, Perron had one of the goals, which ended up being the game-winner. Schwartz provided the other two from considerable range. He now boasts five goals in his last six games, deflecting praise to the overall effort of the offense.
“It always feels nicer,” Schwartz said of when the goals start to go in. “It’s guys in front doing a good job and taking the goalie’s eyes away that gives you the opportunity to pick a corner. When pucks are going in as a team, it’s just a little weight off your shoulders. Not relaxed, but you just get a better feel for the puck.”
Schwartz is up to six goals on the season, tying Tarasenko for the team-lead. Hitchcock describes his development offensively using direct and simplistic language, mirroring the simple, yet aggressive style of hockey he wants his players to reflect.
“He’s shooting the puck,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to the net. He’s around it; he’s attacking the net. He’s playing in north straight lines. Every time he does it, he has success. Every time he goes east-west, he doesn’t. He’s getting more and more determined to score.”
Schwartz’s growth is valued, and will certainly be a key factor if these new-look Blues are to carry out Armstrong’s vision accordingly. However, Hitchcock cites another development as the mallet responsible for hammering out the identity of his team.
“I think the way we’re playing our players and the way we’re distributing ice time is having an impact in our team play—It’s actually helping us forge an identity,” Hitchcock said. “Not the one that people thought, even myself a month ago, but it looks like that type of identity is starting to come into our hockey club, which for me is good.”
The interesting part? The identity the Blues have been longing for—at least according to Hitchcock—is coming together based on past ideals.
“More the way we used to be,” Hitchcock said of the Blues’ physical identity. “(Kyle) Brodziak’s line is helping us win hockey games and they’re getting ice time according to it. They’re playing the right way. They’re getting ice time and other people are being allotted less, and it’s helping us forge a really strong identity right now.”
So, despite seeing two of their biggest bruisers walk out the door—after all that talk about youth and speed and a new focus—the Blues plan to go forward identifying as a physically imposing team? Even if it means trotting out the fourth line more frequently to the detriment of the playing time of those younger players?
Though it seems counterproductive, Hitchcock delights in it. This alternate avenue to success can carry the Blues while their young players continue to flesh out growing pains. It doesn’t mean Hitchcock is divorcing himself from previously intended methods of production—it just means the Blues won't have to suffer as much in the standings while waiting for those growing pains to subside.
Copyright 2016 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.