The St. Louis Blues have depth and have shown it off this season. Having too many skilled players at every position to the point every game is a competition for playing time is a really nice problem for Coach Ken Hitchcock to have to worry about. With the additions of rookie forward Vladimir Tarasenko (91), seasoned veteran defenseman Wade Redden (6), and the recent Jake Allen (34) goaltending show, the Blues have run out of roster spots to put their extensive talent. It’s also been a fortunate situation considering the 9 point hole they dug themselves, created by the 5 game losing streak the Note recently started to overcome. For about two weeks, it was all bad press for St. Louis, so given the recent success, it would be nice to lighten the mood by looking at the guys who have been the glue holding this team together all season.
The Blues built an amazing team over the past few years in the wake of a near franchise collapse that stemmed from the 2005 lockout. Really, the current roster is a product of a storied club that could just never sprinted all the way through the finish line. The names that have graced the back of the sweaters in this town are very literally some of the best to ever play the game, and they highlight the rich history of the Blues as an organization. It’s a history of tradition and pride of all the Note represents. It’s been passed down year after year and it’s visible every night the boys take the ice. From Berenson, Hall and the rest of the inaugural class of ’67, to the brand new superstar in Tarasenko, it’s always meant something to be a part of the St. Louis Blues and these guys demonstrate it night after night through their tough, physical and skilled play. Please note that these aren’t necessarily in any particular order.
Alex Pietrangelo (27) and Kevin Shattenkirk (22) have both been up and coming for a while. Last year, they really took big steps and this year, though it’s a shortened season, it’s evident that they are pure and simple, a force on the ice, but they didn’t get there by chance. They have bettered their game by taking the advice of the senior staff they share the ice with. A key element in their development, while he’s not the oldest guy skating for the Blues, Barret Jackman (5), at 31 years old, is the last piece remaining of what was the late 90′s, early 00′s season’s, devastating defensive squad. Chris Progner and Al MacInnis, with his cannon-like slap shot (once recorded at 100.4 mph), were the ones teaching the young Jackman the nuances of the game, and Jackman soaked up their instruction and quickly became a force during the 2002-03 season, which was his first full 82 games in the Blue Note. Over the last few seasons, Jackman had been being criticized for his poor effort and play. Once a scrappy, physical player for his size who, the 2012 campaign, Jackman’s play has never been known for its consistency. His best year, 2006-07, Jackman earned 27 points (3 G, 24 A) and finished at +27 over 70 games played. Since then, he’s been at -12, -17, +3, +3, +20 and he’s currently +3. During last off-season, Jackman was awarded a monster 3 year, $9.5 million contract and for most of St. Louis, the signing didn’t sit well because he’d fallen off. Jackman didn’t get physical anymore. He wouldn’t play or take the body, and his defense was barely considered acceptable. The pinnacle moment disappointment with him from the fan standpoint, was reached during a 2012 game verses Anaheim when Jackman tied up with George Parros but refused to drop the gloves. As the refs got between them, Parros can be seen making faces at Jackman and flicking him in the face which only elicited a look of “whatever dude” from Jackman as a response.
Although the bulk of Blues fans were fed up with his carefree attitude and quiet play, someone in the front office saw something that no one else did in Jackman because he’s been great this year. Maybe it was the contract, or maybe he got a rush from that playoff run last year because something lit a fire under him. Jackman has 2 goals, 1 assist, and outside of that 5 game string of disasters, he’s been Mr. Reliable. His physicality has returned with a vengeance, he’s rushing to the aid of his players when they need it, and his willingness to drop the gloves is a breath of fresh, gym bag air this year that coaches and fans are glad to see.
Remember the movie Rudy? Strap some skates on him, give him a hockey stick and get him angry; you now have a guy with almost as much heart and drive as Vladimir Sobotka (17). . At only 5’10″, 198 lbs, his play makes him the biggest man on the ice every single night. To watch him play, it’s a mixture of Dallas Drake in his fearlessness — he’s not afraid of anybody, and I see flickers of Andy McDonald in his speed — the guy can fly. He shoots, he passes, he is unselfish, he takes the body, he fights (see Dominic Moore from 2012 playoffs against Sharks, except everyone remembers Braun being destroyed by Polak), his fore-checking rivals anyone in the league and he has been one of the biggest standouts of the 2013 season. Picked up by the Blues in 2010 from the Bruins, he became a staple on the fourth line and now, has impressed coach Ken Hitchcock so much that he’s been moved up to play with the skill lines. Sobotka is the spark plug that sits and waits to be unleashed. He’s that tough as nails pest that won’t go away in front of the opposition’s net and is certainly a gem for this club to say the least.
If I was to put together a phrase to describe T.J. Oshie (74), I would use “magic hockey ninja.” Every team hates to play that one guy on the opposing team who makes everyone miss. For every team that plays the Blues, Oshie is that guy. Not overwhelming fast, and unable to send a puck into the triple digits, Oshie has patience like none other and handles the puck like a conductor controls a symphony. His shootout attempts are entertaining to put it lightly.
A recent highlight reel of St. Louis Blues Hockey doesn’t exist that doesn’t have someone, somewhere getting burned by Oshie on a ridiculous toe-drag, between the legs, no look pass to another Note lurking in the weeds that no one else, but Oshie, actually saw waiting there. Teams send their entire lines at him and one-by-one, he either flat backs them, shakes them out of their skates or controls the puck along the boards shielding it from any chance of a single player stealing it, and he does it all looking effortless. He’s reached his breakout year I believe. He’s been amazing in the past, but this season he’s everywhere on the ice at the same time and his overall game is something special. He truly is the playmaker of this team. Undoubtedly and deservedly, he’s a fan favorite if not the fan favorite at the Scottrade Center.
Vladimir “babyface” Tarasenko (91) – at least that’s what he should be called because he’s a stone cold goal scorer, and the nickname is awesome. The kid was hyped to be the next class of Crosby and Ovechkin and through the first part of the season; he’s been crazy good — minus the 5 game hiatus the entire offense took. He’s going to be a prolific offensive weapon in the years to come after he really fine tunes his game. Last night, the 21 year old Russian rocket took a hit from a Canuck he didn’t like, so what did he do…? He jumped back up with urgency and returned a 215 lb favor directly. He’s solid skill paired with tremendous team play that will eventually evolve into a first line guy that serves one primary function — score goals. Tarasenko brings that element missing from the Blues for so long; a serious offensive weapon other teams will have no choice but to plan for, and even though he’s the rookie, his effect has already been felt in all of STL.
Speed kills… goal tenders, and Andy McDonald (10) is freaking fast. One of the oldest active players for the Blues at 35, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Roberto Luongo was embarassed last night by a nasty shot over his right shoulder sniped by McDonald. Andy embodies hard work and determination, and he consistently produces. If not with goals, then by grinding out offensive momentum down in those dirty corners against guys who tower over him. Never out worked, Andy turns would be icing situations into offensive zone pressure every game. As the salty veteran on such a youthful roster, he brings the leadership needed to guide this club in the right direction. Hopefully, that direction is toward Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Welcomed to St. Louis just 3 years ago, Chris Stewart (25) worked hard last off-season, dropping weight and getting stronger and faster. His effort during the lockout has paid dividends so far this year as he’s scoring, fighting and punishing other teams by playing the body hard. This is the best he’s ever looked for the Blues and no matter what line he’s on, there is constant, brutal pressure on the fore check and back check. His acceleration is visibly faster this year and it looks like he added another top end gear. His role on this team is diverse, but he plays it well and hard. Chris has always had a great shot but just seemed to be hesitant in putting it on in years past. This season, he’s found his stride and continues to go off game after game. If Stewart can maintain his intensity the rest of the year, the Blues stand to make a deep playoff run.
Maybe the most welcomed surprise if the year for the Blues is former Peoria goaltender, is current NHL hot topic and Blues starting goaltender Jake Allen (34). Not to say the year would be lost without him coming to the rescue of a coaching staff dealing with so many struggles (a starting goaltender with a strained groin in Jaroslav Halak (41), and Brian Elliott (1), the other part of the NHL’s most dangerous tandem in 2012, who is fighting with some mental demons), but it wasn’t looking promising. Allen has had 3 road starts as a pro and has recorded wins in each game. Winning in Detroit wasn’t enough as Allen went on to make what could be the save of the year in Calgary, and then iced the Canucks in a shoot out Sunday night. He’s been absolutely water tight only allowing 8 goals, in hostile territory, as a rookie. He’s been tested hard by the unforgiving, veteran top lines of each club including Datsyuk, Iginla and the hockey wizards From Vancouver, the Sedin twins, but has only given up goals that were saves Jonathan Quick couldn’t have made last year during his amazing Stanley Cup run.
Looking at the Blues 4th line, which history says is supposed to be the bruiser line, St. Louis rotates a group of physical, but very talented players. Ryan Reaves (75), who is the very effective, designated enforcer for the team, can actually play the game of hockey too. This year, the 4th line for St. Louis has seen a lot of action and Reaves has impressed with his hockey skills more than his fighting. He’s been seen making guys miss and battling hard for pucks in the corners. He hasn’t recorded any goals so far this season, but Reaves, who is listed at 6’1″ 229 lbs (he looks closer to 6’4″ 250 lbs.), has earned an assist and put 7 shots on goal. He is as physical as it comes in this game called hockey and there are plenty who can tell you about it. Reaves isn’t ever going to elevate to a true offensive threat, but being able to call on the 4th line to pressure the other team in their zone so your other lines can rest so often as the Blues do is a nice option to have. Below is some of his better known work from this year.
This list is completely subjective, and there are lots of impressive plays on the year by lots of guys who aren’t in this list. These are the guys who have stood out to me so far for their exceptional play this year. This team, when it’s on, is capable of beating anybody in the NHL. As for the season so far, I think that the 5 game rut they were stuck in is ultimately going to fuel them for a deep playoff run. They got a taste of where they don’t want to be and now know the level they need to be at to beat the best teams in the league. The way these guys are playing, there are no limits this year.