A good minimalist will always tell you that “less is more.” A good hockey coach can’t always be a minimalist.
When the Blues beat the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, the David Backes line carried more than its fair share of the weight. Backes played 24 minutes 47 seconds, which included 3:32 of penalty-killing time.
His linemates were almost as active. Alexander Steen put in 23:24 overall, which included more than three minutes of PK work and included a game-winning goal with 59 second to play. The third member of the trio, T.J. Oshie, played 22:45.
Lately, that’s nothing new. In a 3-2 loss to Vancouver last week, Backes played over 25 minutes and his sidekicks were both over 23. When it comes to who the Blues might want on the ice at any given time, those three of have become the “Three Must-keteers.”
And as effervescent Blues broadcaster Darren Pang might say, ‘‘Why wouldn’t you” play them a lot. They rank 1-2-3 in scoring on the team. Steen got his league-leading 11th goal on Tuesday, and has 16 points. He has scored a game-winner in the final minutes twice this season.
Backes has six goals and 11 points, while Oshie has two goals and eight assists. So maybe more is more?
BLUES CHAT: RUTHERFORD AT 11 AM
Not exactly. The Blues had an optional skate on Wednesday, which allowed their top line and minutes-burdened defensemen like Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester some rest. They have that luxury in October, during which they have played 10 games, the lightest schedule in the NHL.
But that is about to change. In November, the Blues will play 15 games, beginning with back-to-back starts Friday and Saturday against Florida and Tampa. This isn’t Hidalgo. Hitchcock can’t keep riding his horses until they collapse, and he knows that. He knows minimalism sometimes applies to hockey.
“I said to the players today, I’m playing my top line too much, for the way we’re built,” Hitchcock said.
“I’m playing my top line too much because we’re getting an inconsistent level of puck management, and it’s kind of taking us through highs and lows in games — first period excellent, second period mismanaging the puck all over the place, then we grab it again in the third.
“We have to find a way to be consistent throughout our lineup, manage the game the right way so we can build good minutes. We’re going in fits and starts.”
Depth and balance are supposed to be part and parcel with the Blues, ingredients that wear opponents down, assets that make a Stanley Cup possible. But lately, the program has been on tilt. In contrast to the Backes Bunch minutes, Brenden Morrow played 8:05 on Tuesday, Derek Roy played 11:24, Ryan Reaves played 5:57.
“We’re much better if our third and fourth lines are playing anywhere between nine and 14 minutes,” Hitchcock added.
You’ll get no argument from Backes. His line’s minutes are hard minutes, bruising, blocking, battling minutes. When the Blues spend too much time in the penalty box, as they did on Tuesday, those minutes become even more demanding. Any player worth his salt wants to play a lot. But the schedule lasts 82 games and then comes playoffs. Excessive minutes in October carry residual costs in April.
“I was toast last night when I laid in bed,” Backes said. “Normally I stir for a while and watch some TV, but I was lights out. That’s the aftermath.
“But I think when you end up with that result … Hitch knew we had the two days off and he could throw the breaks on for a day or two. He said, ‘If this is what it takes to win the game, then we’re willing to do that.’”
Among NHL centers, Backes ranks 11th in average ice time with 20:49 per game. Pittsburgh’s Sydney Crosby has a leading workload of 22:52 per game. Over the past three games, Backes has averaged almost 24 minutes, and his linemates are in the same ballpark.
“It’s OK now and then,” he added, “but I think over an 82-game season, to expect 25 minutes is going to be taxing on our bodies. We’re a team that is built on depth and our strength is being able to roll four lines. Getting back to that is our ideal situation.”
That’s where a busy schedule comes in. That’s where the Blues are hoping a maximal rule might apply, i.e. more is less. The disjointed schedule in October has made it difficult for the Blues to find their rhythm, or so one might theorize.
There is an ebb and flow routine to a hockey season, a practice-one-day-play-the-next pulse that players get accustomed to. The cycle helps a team establish chemistry and identity, promotes a consistent level of play. At least, that’s what Hitchcock is hoping.
He proposes the busier his team gets, the more consistent it will play, the more symmetrical the minutes will become.
“We’re going to get a look at how our team plays with a little bit of tiredness in it,” Hitchcock said. “I think quite frankly we’re going to play better. I don’t know, these stops and starts and long breaks in the season … I think it takes more out of you stopping and starting than it does just getting into a rhythm.
“You play best when you’re bruise on bruise, then you don’t feel it that much.”
This isn’t about minutes for the sake of minutes, or rolling lines for the sake of rolling. The Blues are off to a 7-1-2 start, no complaints. But they began the season with two games in three nights and by the time they play the Panthers on Friday, they well have played just eight more times in 27 nights.
They have lost touch with the model, a model that keeps them playing 5-on-5 most of the time and takes advantage of their power-play skill, a model built on high energy and puck management, a model that calls for full participation.
“We’re very effective when we’re able to get into as many shifts as we can, rolling four,” Hitchcock said. “We build really good energy in our game, we build really good speed in our game. What I’ve noticed in the last couple of games is that we don’t have the speed and tempo in our game that we had before.
“What we deserve credit for is we’ve had some of these games and we’ve gathered them back in and played the right way when it’s been on the line. But I think what all of us are starting to recognize is the temperature of the season is going up, not down.”