One of the Blues’ most notable assets heading into the 2013-14 season is the team’s overall depth.
In training camp, the Blues had 15 forwards on one-way NHL contracts and were forced to send a capable contributor, Chris Porter, to a minor-league affiliate. The club’s seventh defenseman, Ian Cole, was a first-round pick in 2007. Their third goalie, Jake Allen, was on the NHL’s all-rookie roster last season.
But depth in the NHL, while an asset, is like a savings account — it’s there for cushion, but you’d rather not have to dig into it regularly.
“I don’t think you want to start absorbing a bunch of injuries just to test it out,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.
The Blues’ 100 percent health lasted almost a month into the regular season, but they will be testing their depth tonight when they host the Winnipeg Jets at 7 at Scottrade Center.
Veterans Barret Jackman and Brenden Morrow sat out with minor bumps a little more than a week ago, but the injury bug became more serious Saturday when forwards Chris Stewart and Magnus Paajarvi left the team’s 6-1 win over Nashville early with undisclosed upper-body ailments.
The updates on both players Monday were better than expected: Stewart returned to practice and is expected to play tonight; Paajarvi won’t suit up against the Jets, but after an early report that his injury was pretty significant, he’s listed as day-to-day.
“Stewy feels fine, no issues, ready to go,” Hitchcock said.
Stewart was injured in the second period against Nashville, when Predators forward Patric Hornqvist pushed him into the end wall, leading to a minor boarding penalty. Stewart lay on the ice, receiving attention from the Blues’ medical staff, before being led to the club’s locker room. He actually returned later in the second period and took umbrage with Hornqvist, earning 14 minutes in penalties that included cross-checking, roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.
Blues captain David Backes said he was surprised Stewart came back before leaving the game for good.
“For his little cameo there?” Backes said, laughing. “I was (surprised). But there was a little caution later, making sure he was all right. We saw him back on the ice today, and that was a good sign.”
Paajarvi was injured on a hit in the first period against Nashville. According to the play-by-play report from the official score-sheet, the Predators’ Victor Bartley hit Paajarvi midway though the period, and despite playing another shift or two, Paajarvi did not return for the second stanza.
The new prognosis was good considering that after Saturday’s game, Hitchcock labeled the injury as significant.
“It’s not that serious,” Hitchcock said after further evaluation Monday. “Hopefully he’s back up and running in a couple of days.”
With Paajarvi out, Maxim Lapierre suspended for one more game and Jackman leaving practice early Monday with a lower-body injury, the Blues will be tapping into their depth.
Adam Cracknell will make his second appearance of the season, and while Jackman is expected to play tonight, Cole will be on standby.
Cracknell will center Brenden Morrow and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line. In his only other appearance this season, he had four shots on goal and three hits in a 4-3 shootout loss at Winnipeg on Oct. 18.
“I thought I played well,” Cracknell said. “Timing was a little off. It had been a while since I played. I was trying to get up to the speed. They’re an exciting team to play against and they have a lot of speed. We generated a few chances and unfortunately the bounce didn’t go our way.”
Hitchcock rated highly Cracknell’s performance against the Jets.
“Adam is a really smart guy,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a real pro, and he can come in and fit in, and we know he’s going to help us. The game he played in Winnipeg, he was one of our better players in Winnipeg. So, I don’t think it’s going to change. He’s a good player for us right now.”
The Blues believe they will have Jackman in the lineup tonight, despite seeing the defenseman walk off the ice early Monday with trainer Ray Barile.
“He had kind of a scheduled short practice,” Hitchcock said. “He blocked a shot, and we wanted to get him up and running for a little bit. He’ll be good to go (Tuesday).”
But if not, Cole will be ready.
“‘Jax’ is one of those guys that is really irreplaceable, what he brings to the team,” Cole said. “For me, when I step in, I just try to bring what he brings. That’s what (Blues general manager Doug Armstrong) wanted to do ... he wanted to have quite a bit of continuity. Everybody knows that if we lose one guy, one guy steps in. If we lose that guy, somebody else steps in that’s more than capable.”