Blues use schedule break for bonding and retooling lines

News-DemocratOctober 25, 2013 

— After four days of fishing trips, golfing excursions and other bonding experiences in Charleston, S.C. -- sandwiched around practices, of course -- the St. Louis Blues are ready to resume their NHL schedule.

A rare six-day break between games provided the opportunity and the Blues took full advantage, allowing players to find things to do on their own when not at the rink.

The Blues (5-1-1) return to action Friday at home against Vancouver.

Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk passed on captain David Backes' deep-sea fishing trip and instead went with a group to play golf at the famed Ocean Course at nearby Kiawah Island.

Rated as one of the top courses in the country, it hosted the 2012 PGA Championship.

"That was fantastic," said Shattenkirk, who shot 40 on the front nine on the way to an 88. "I'm not sure if I'll get an opportunity to do that again, it was fortunate that we were able to get out there. I'm thankful (broadcaster Darren Pang) put in a call for us and got us out there, but it was a lot of fun.

"It was a beast. You miss one shot there and you're out of it. It's tough."

Other players went fishing or took in movies while the team also held its annual "Rookie Dinner."

Winger Adam Cracknell was among those picking up the check for what typically is a fairly expensive spread.

"I got hit pretty hard," Cracknell said. "I had the biggest steak on the menu because I was paying for it. That place probably had one of the best steaks I've ever had.

"A lot of guys had a good time, there were a lot of laughs and there's a lot of good characters on the team, jokes were told. It was just a great time."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said the trip provided some rare free time while also giving them a chance to get to know each other a little better.

"The players never get an opportunity to spend any time with themselves, everything is structured," Hitchcock said. "It's interesting to see different dynamics unfold. Some of the combinations that you see at the end of an excursion like this kind of surprise you at times, but it starts to make sense after a while."

The Blues also used the trip to fine-tune their game and returned to St. Louis with some new line combinations and defense pairings.

While the extremely potent top line of David Backes with Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie remains together, other lines have been revamped.

Derek Roy is centering a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Magnus Paajarvi, with Patrik Berglund between Chris Stewart and Jaden Schwartz.

Vladimir Sobotka is on the fourth line with Brenden Morrow and Ryan Reaves. Center Maxim Lapierre is still sitting out a five-game suspension for his hit from behind on San Jose's Day Boyle,

"The potential chemistry on all those lines is real good, now we've got to put it in place," Hitchcock said. "I don't think we can evaluate under the weekend's over. We'll see if this is a help or whatever.

"It was OK the way before, but it wasn't getting any better. This is a real opportunity to see if we grow the chemistry even deeper."

The top line has accounted for 14 of the team's 27 goals, including seven by Steen and six by Backes. That equals Backes' total in 48 games last season.

"I'm looking for people to play better," Hitchcock said. "I'm looking for people to have a bigger impact on our game, so we're giving them an opportunity and we want to see people grab the ball."

Hitchcock was asked about moving Stewart from his previous line with Roy. Stewart, the team's top goal-scorer last season, has no goals and two assists in seven games.

"I don't think they need to get Stewie going," Hitchcock said of Stewart's new linemates. "Stewie's just got to get back to his identity, what he does as a player, how he has success as measured by how many one-on-ones you win.

"He's got two guys who are really working and I think it fits well on paper. It fits really well with the way he plays --and we want to see that line have real success."

Schwartz feels the line could be a strong one.

"We want to get a good down-low game going and they're two big bodies, so hopefully we can create some chances and get some momentum going," Schwartz said.

The second two defense pairings changed as well, with Barret Jackman playing with Shattenkirk and Roman Polak with Jordan Leopold.

"There's a lot of guys on good teams that don't get a chance to play because someone else took their spot," Hitchcock said. "Internal competition, as difficult as it is for players, is important on your team if you want to get better."

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

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