Hockey fever is alive and well in St. Louis but it’s not ticket sales and attendance that proves it as much as a recent trend in canine names. Hundreds of dogs around the St. Louis area have been named "Oshie" in honor of the Blues rookie forward T.J. Oshie.
“It’s a little different,” said Oshie laughing. “But by the same respect, the fans are crazy there, in a good way. They supported us all last year even when we were in a slump and throughout the summer. Even when we had the rookie camp, they had to turn people away from the game because it was too packed. I mean fans there are just crazy and it’s fun to see the support.”
The support is there as it should be after the Blues stunned the hockey world with an impressive run late last season that saw them lose just nine games in a 42-game stretch to finish the season with a record of 41-31-10 and 92 points. The team made the playoffs for the first time in three years and as a result expectations for this season are high.
“It gave everyone belief that no matter what happens we can always come back,” said Oshie. “But we don’t want that to be the case this year. We want to get off to a better start, take it game by game, and hopefully in the end we’ll be in a little bit better position.”
“Definitely, our expectations are higher from us and from everybody,” said Blues General Manager Larry Pleau. “and the players themselves have to have higher expectations. I think that’s something that we have to learn to live with as a group — the younger kids, the middle-aged kids who really don’t have a lot of playoff experience because we missed three years in a row — that’s something they have to learn to grow with is that expectation on themselves to be better.”
And while expectations are high with the healthy return of proven players like veteran sniper Paul Kariya and defenseman Erik Johnson, the veterans are also looking to younger players, like Oshie, to take the next step in their development.
“Expectations are a lot higher,” said Blues forward Andy McDonald. “We had the best team in the NHL in the second half after Christmas [last season] so we kind of set the bar there and everyone’s counting on a big year especially with our younger players. It was a big year for them last year, not only did they play a lot of minutes in the regular season, but they got a taste of the playoffs.”
Thus far, it appears the young players are ready for the challenge.
"We like a few of our young kids like Oshie and [Patrik] Berglund and Erik Johnson (who missed a lot of last year),” said Pleau, “So we feel like we have a good group — a good mixture of young kids and middle aged players and some good veterans to lead.”
For Oshie, Pleau believes the year will be a challenge to continue to develop with higher expectations.
“He’s another one of our young kids who has a lot of talent,” said Pleau, “And he’s going to have to learn how to play with those expectations again. As a young player, that’s not easy once you reach that level, you have to keep to that level and keep going higher.”
Last season, the 22-year-old scored 14 goals and 39 points in 57 games.
Thus far, through six games this season, Oshie has notched one goal and three points, including a goal and an assist in the Blues 5-0 win over Anaheim. The goal was Oshie’s first of the season.
“It feels good,” said the Mt. Vernon, Washington native, laughing. “but it feels like it’s been awhile since I’ve scored so it’s good to get that one out of the way. Not the prettiest one off of my skate, but I’ll take it.”
Blues Head Coach Andy Murray noted Oshie’s game that night.
“I thought this was TJ’s best game of the year," Murry said. "I think up until this point he’d agree that his performance wasn’t what he wanted or what we wanted.”
With the injury to Alex Steen, Oshie has been playing on a line with Jay McClement and BJ Crombeen.
Despite a somewhat slow start, many feel this could be a breakout year for the 5’11, 194-pound forward. And if it is a breakout year, Oshie believes it will be due to the team’s veteran leadership.
“Our veterans are very good at leading us,” said Oshie. “showing us what we need to do, getting on us when we need it and patting us on the back when we need it.”
Notes: The Blues fourth overall pick in 2008, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, remains with the team and has played in just one game. Pietrangelo played in eight games for the Blues last season before the team opted to send him back to the OHL (Niagara). Whether or not Pietrangelo remains with the big club remains to be seen.
“He’s still with us right now,” said Pleau. “but we haven’t decided what we’re going to do. He’s played the one game and we like him a lot.”
And as for what Pietrangelo needs to do to crack the line-up as a regular, Pleau said, “Well, it’s just a matter of do we feel he’s going to fit into our lineup at this time. A kid like that just has to learn to play hard all the time, get used to the speed of the game, get used to looking at different situations and it’s just a matter of whether we can fit him in or not and we haven’t made that decision yet.”