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Blues learning to live with 11 forwards, seven defensemen

Eleven and seven are both prime numbers, divisible only by themselves and one, which makes a lot of things about them awkward. It’s true in life in general, and it’s true when it comes to hockey.

For the vast majority of NHL games, teams suit up 12 forwards and six defensemen. That gives them four groups of three forwards and three groups of two defensemen. Everyone’s got a partner or two. Life is simple.

Every now and then, though, a hockey team will send out 11 forwards and seven defensemen. Sometimes there’s no alternative, like when a team loses a forward to an unexpected injury or illness right before a game and doesn’t have a chance, or cap space, to replace them. Sometimes it’s by choice: maybe it’s a rehabbing defenseman who looks ready to go but the team wants some coverage in case he’s not; maybe the coach just wants to bench a struggling forward and doesn’t have a healthy replacement.

But it’s never the norm. In almost all cases, everything goes back to normal as soon as possible.

That has not been the case with the Blues, for whom 11 and seven has become the norm. In each of their past five games, the Blues have had to use 11 forwards and seven defensemen because of a complicated manpower situation that is not yet over. They will probably have to do it for at least two more games, unless David Perron is ready to play on Tuesday. If he can’t play, the Blues will go 11-7 until Tyler Bozak emerges from COVID protocol, which will be no sooner than Friday. The Blues have already gone with 11 and seven more than they did all last season.

“We’ve gotten used to it,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said.

“It is what it is,” coach Craig Berube said, “so you have to deal with it, so that’s what we’ll do.”

The effects of going 11 and seven depend on where you sit. For forwards, it means more ice time. For defensemen, it means less. For Berube, who calls the offensive lines, and Mike Van Ryn, who calls the defense, it means constant juggling, figuring out which forward is ready to go out again with the two forwards or which defenseman to sit to work in the extra defenseman.

“It doesn’t complicate things up front,” Berube said. “We have forwards that want to play, can handle the minutes, so that’s not the problem. It gets complicated on the back end with juggling seven D. Mike does a good job with it.”

Just about every Blues forward has had their season high for minutes in the past five games (helped along by having two games go to shootouts) and those minutes can add up. In the game Thursday at Tampa Bay, four Blues forwards played over 22 minutes.

But the forwards don’t really mind that, even if it often means grabbing shifts with unfamiliar linemates. On Saturday at Florida, Ivan Barbashev was pulling shifts with his regular linemates, Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko, then going back for shifts with Logan Brown and Dakota Joshua. While Brown and Joshua usually had Barbashev filling out their line, at times they also had Robert Thomas, Ryan O’Reilly and Brandon Saad on the ice with them. None of them seemed to complain about going back out.

“I do believe that,” Berube said. “I rotate different guys, I go by what I’m seeing, just the line combinations. A forward is always jumping in for an extra shift, which they love.”

“You’ve always got to play with someone else,” Barbashev said, “but to be honest, it’s been fun. You can play back-to-back shifts and it’s very important for guys to stay in the game, especially when there is a penalty killing and power plays.”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to complain about ice time,” said O’Reilly, who had a shift that lasted 3:11 in the game at Tampa as he went from playing with his regular line, to the fourth line, and then to the power play. “We all want to be on the ice and with 11 forwards, it is what it is. We just have to be smart with it. It’s not extending (your shift), knowing you’re going to be back out there soon, being smart with it. It’s obviously tough with different line combinations, at times, but you’re getting on the ice, staying engaged more and guys don’t mind it at all.”

Often, the seventh defenseman becomes an afterthought. Robert Bortuzzo had 11:14 of ice time at Chicago, but about half of that came when he was moved to forward after the Blues went down to 10 forwards. At Tampa Bay on Thursday, Jake Walman was the seventh defenseman and played just 5:29. On Saturday at Florida, he ended up with 12:48 of ice time, largely because Scott Perunovich didn’t play over the final 12 minutes of regulation and overtime. In a game last season as the seventh defenseman, Walman played just 4:45.

Walman is one of the reasons the Blues have been in this situation. Since Perunovich was called up on Nov. 15, the team has carried two extra defensemen rather than one most teams do, because both Walman and Niko Mikkola would have to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL and the team feels another team would claim them. So the Blues have had only one extra forward, which worked fine until they got two forwards injured.

Now, the Blues are just trying to make the best of an odd-numbered situation.

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