Blues coach likes his flexibility

News-DemocratAugust 5, 2013 

Don't blame St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock for changing his mind a lot this season, because the myriad options for his top three forward lines are extremely interesting and entertaining.

With the addition of big Swedish winger Magnus Paajarvi in a trade with Edmonton for David Perron, the Blues added speed and skill and got a little bit younger.

Paajarvi has signed a two-year, $2.4 million contract that left restricted free agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo as the Blues' final remaining offseason negotiation challenge.

The signing of Paajarvi pushed the Blues' 2013-14 payroll to just under $57 million with Pietrangelo's large contract still to fit under the NHL salary cap of $64.3 million.

Hitchcock said he tends to view forward lines as twosomes with floating partners. When he talked about them earlier this summer, his top three lines included the pairings of David Backes and Alexander Steen, Paajarvi and Patrik Berglund and newcomer Derek Roy with Chris Stewart.

"We're comfortable with twosomes wanting to see threesomes," Hitchcock said. "We've got combinations that we want to see, then it's where does (T.J.) Oshie fit, where does (Vladimir) Tarasenko fit, where does (Jaden) Schwartz fit. We've got some twosomes that we're going to focus on and then see where it fits from there."

With newcomer Maxim Lapierre centering the fourth line, other potential centers could include Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka.

"We've got flexibility all through our lineup," Hitchcock said. "We've got a lot of guys that can play center and a lot of guys that can pay wing."

Hitchcock has also floated the idea of using Backes on the wing occasionally. Backes began his career as a right winger and has enjoyed some success there, including with Team USA at the previous Winter Olympics.

"With Steen and Backes, there's going to be an interchange," Hitchcock said, adding that Steen is better at faceoffs on the left side and Backes on the right. "It doesn't matter for me who starts as the center, but I think you're going to see more interchange with those two guys playing together than ever before. I think we want to continue down the path of those two playing together. We have flexibility where we can go three big centers and one smaller guy or we can go two and two depending on who we play."

The Blues have been busy this summer, with the latest major move signing veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to a five-year extension worth $27 million. Earlier they gave defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk a four-year, $17 million extension and while also signing defenseman Jordan Leopold (two years, $4.5 million) and wingers Berglund (one year, $3.25 million) and Stewart (two years, $8.3 million). The two new free agent acquisitions were centers Derek Roy (one year, $4 million) and Maxim Lapierre (two years, $2.2 million).

"We've done a lot of good stuff here," Hitchcock said. "There's a lot of buildup to where we're at right now and I think with the changes Doug's made we've got a really good team coming back. With the guys that we've re-signed and we've added, we're deep. All you're looking for at the start of the season is to know you've got a legitimate chance and then let the process begin."

With Perron now in Edmonton, Hitchcock said he sees expanded roles for both Tarasenko and Schwartz.

"We think we've got two players in Schwartz and Tarasenko who, given those minutes, can really do a lot of damage," Hitchcock said.

Paajarvi had nine goals and 16 points in 42 games with Edmonton last season. The former first-round pick (10th overall in 2009) has shown flashes, but has yet to capture the kind of consistency that leads to high scoring totals. However, he's only 22.

"Paajarvi has had some history with Patrik Berglund," Armstrong said. "I like his size and skating and I have to believe --and my hope is -- there's a huge hunger there for him to start to define his career."

Hitchcock said he sees the same thing, a young forward just coming into his own in the NHL.

"He looks like a player that's just starting to take his career seriously," Hitchcock said. "He's getting back from relying on just athletic ability and now he's starting to play with an identity.

"Magnus is just starting to understand what it takes to play as a good player in the NHL. I think he's just starting to become real serious about his craft and that's a good thing for us."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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