The St. Louis Blues are one of the elite teams in the NHL, but if you broke down their roster, player-by-player, you'd be hard-pressed to explain exactly why that is.
Yes, Alex Steen is in the midst of a breakout scoring season and if the MVP voting were to take place today, he would likely be included on a lot of ballots. Yes, Jaroslav Halak is occasionally capable of great moments in goal, as fans of the Montreal Canadiens could appreciate during their 2010 playoff run. Yes, Ken Hitchcock is an elite coach who always seems able to make a team greater than the sum of its individual parts.
But if you had to isolate one aspect of St. Louis's team play that makes the Blues go, it would be the defence pair of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, both of whom are candidates to play for Canada's 2014 men's Olympic hockey team and right now, seem likely to go as a duo.
Bouwmeester joined the Blues at the trading deadline last year in a trade with the Calgary Flames and was immediately paired with Pietrangelo. Both players, according to Hitchcock, had to give a little something in order to make the partnership work.
"Bo's a puck lugger and Petro's a puck lugger, so they had to learn to share," explained Hitchcock in an interview ahead of Thursday night's date with the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. "That's been a challenge for both of them and quite frankly, they've had success because they are sharing the puck.
"The second thing is their offensive production comes from diving in on the play, not from being on the blueline. Both guys are much more effective attacking like forwards. There's been an adjustment there too because there've been times when both guys have been going to the net at the same time. They've had to learn to read off each other and back each other up. So there's a really good adjustment these guys made in order to not play the same game. They've had to learn to play in balance with what the other guy needs and wants."
Bouwmeester had played 764 regular-season NHL games before getting his first taste of playoff action last year with the Blues, who lost a hard-fought opening-round series to the Los Angeles Kings, a team they simply do not match up well against. The NHL's off-season realignment likely helps them more than any other team, especially if there is no wild-card crossover, because it would postpone a potential playoff meeting with the Kings until the third round.
In the meantime, the Blues are trying to forge an identity of being a difficult team to play against. They are No. 2 in the NHL in power play and No. 13 in penalty killing and are getting unexpected offence from Bouwmeester, who never scored more than 29 points any of his three seasons with the Flames, but has 21 already this year in 29 games, tied for sixth among NHL defencemen.
But Hitchcock puts a higher value on a different stat – minutes played. In a career that began with the 2002-03 Florida Panthers, Bouwmeester is averaging above 25 minutes per night, meaning a succession of coaches have trusted him to play virtually every other shift of every game he's played since coming into the league.
Moreover, in the past eight seasons, the only year in which Bouwmeester didn't play a full schedule was last year, when he got into 33 games for Calgary and an additional 14 for St. Louis. In an era where injuries on the blueline can devastate team after team, Bouwmeester is the most durable defenceman of his generation.
"You've got to put value on minutes played because in this day and age, it's less about the points and more about the quality of the minutes," said Hitchcock. "Points come and go, but if you know you've got a 25-minute player, that's like gold."
Playing with Pietrangelo has been "a pretty easy transition," said the soft-spoken Bouwmeester. "He's really good defensively. If you don't see him play all the time that may be something people don't know about him. He skates and moves the puck well. When you play long enough with someone, you start to know their tendencies and where they're going to be in certain situations, so it's coming. For me, it's been good. It's been fun."
In their short time together, Hitchcock said he found Bouwmeester to be quite coachable.
"He's a lot like Joni Pitkanen - quiet, reflective and very thoughtful," said Hitchcock. "He remembers every shift. He thinks everything through. We play differently here. We make direct plays, rather than bang it around the boards. That's been the biggest adjustment Bo's had to learn here. He's still in the process of making that adjustment, but he's been really effective when he's able to do make direct plays with the puck. When we talk to him the next day, without even looking at the video, he'll know exactly what shift you're talking about. He'll be able to remember who was on the ice and where everybody was."
Bouwmeester played for Canada at the 2006 Olympics when he was just in his third year as a pro, a last-minute addition after Scott Niedermayer was forced to withdraw because of injury. He was not selected in 2010, the final spot essentially coming down to him or Brent Seabrook. That could be the choice again in 2014.
"I went in '06 as a late add-on and I was pretty young and it was a real good experience – and the last one I didn't go, so I've kind of been through both," said Bouwmeester. "I'm older now and at this point, if you get to go, great, then you're going to throw yourself into it. But you can't let it override what you're doing (in the NHL).
"It's a neat experience because it's the Olympics. It's not the World Cup or a tournament or something like that. You're part of a bigger picture. I have a lot of respect for a lot of those other athletes. When you see them there, that's the pinnacle of their sport. For them, it only happens every four years. For us, if you had to choose between an Olympic gold or a Stanley Cup, probably nine guys out of 10 would choose the Stanley Cup. But it's a total honor to be part of that bigger group. You're not just a part of a hockey team. You're part of the Olympic team."
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