The St. Louis Blues received a makeover this past offseason, trading veteran defenseman Chris Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers, while fellow All-Star blueliner Al MacInnis retired. With such big departures to their blue line and team in general, it is no surprise that the Blues are off to a slow start. Through 11 games, the Blues have a record of 2-7-2. The openings on the roster have allowed prospects Jay McClement (C) and Jeff Woywitka (D) to crack the line-up.
McClement, a second round draft pick in 2001, has spent the past three seasons in the AHL and it seems that his offensive game is still developing. Last season during the lockout, McClement doubled his shots on goal from 91 to 174 over the previous season. More shots on goal translated into bigger numbers in the points column as he also doubled that total from 25 to 51 points over the previous year. McClement has been a regular in the Blues line-up thus far, averaging 13:49 in ice time a game.
“McClement has been playing quite a bit of late. He’s been playing 14, 13 minutes. That’s quite a bit for a young player. He’s a responsible player. He plays very well, uses his speed well and has played pretty good defensively so far,” said Blues Head Coach Mike Kitchen.
Woywitka also made the Blues opening day roster, though he had a short trip to Peoria in the meantime. The 6’2 inch, 209-pound blueliner was acquired in the trade that sent Chris Pronger to the Oilers. Like McClement, he has also spent the past three seasons in the AHL. Last season with the Edmonton Road Runners, Woywitka scored 6 goals and 26 points. According to the Blues scouting staff, Woywitka is “very talented” and will be “a real good defenseman” down the road, but this season he’ll need to capitalize on his chances to earn a regular spot in the line-up. An injury to veteran Christian Backman will mean more ice time for Woywitka, who has played five games so far.
“This gives him an opportunity to step in and play. We’re just looking for him to play a good, simple game and be sound defensively,” said Kitchen.
The reassignment of defenseman Andy Roach to Peoria on Oct. 31 will open up even more opportunity.
While the changes to the roster have affected the team, the rule changes may be having an even bigger impact. The NHL’s decision to implement a more offensive style of play has resulted in more penalties against the Blues. Players and coaches have been confused about some of the calls and everyone has had to make an adjustment.
“We’re hurting ourselves with penalties. The last couple of games we’ve had a couple of shots go in on us at untimely times. We had a great start tonight then we get in the box the rest of the period and we let [the opposing team] back in the game,” said McClement.
“It’s difficult,” added veteran Doug Weight. “We’ve been playing, being taught and harped on for the last 15 years to do these bad habits.”
“With the new rules it’s a big adjustment for everyone for refs, for players and coaches. There’s going to be calls that are missed and calls that are marginal but that’s what we’re trying to adjust to. It’s a difficult period right now and you’ve just got to hope you’re on the other side with more power plays than the opposition,” said Kitchen.
While the veteran players have been forced to make a big adjustment to their game, first year players, McClement and Woywitka have been forced to deal with playing in a faster league along with the rule changes.
“The first year in the league is difficult for players especially coming in with the new rules,” said Kitchen.
Both Woywitka and McClement look to be adjusting just fine. McClement has six points in his first 11 NHL games and Woywitka has been able to demonstrate a more offensive style of play.
“As a young player, especially as a young defenseman, so much activity that’s happening now with the no red line and you can’t hold onto players as much. You have to move your feet and I think it’s beneficial for a player like me being that I can skate good and use my skills to my advantage,” said Woywitka.
While some may think the crackdown on hooking and grabbing has eliminated the physicality of the game, Woywitka disagreed.
“I still think you can clear the front of the net out. I think it’s more or less in your own end you’ve got to keep your feet moving. You can’t hold guys but you can still hit. We can’t really lay our stick on the guy. We’ve got to move our feet and get body position. It’s all about positioning now.”
While both McClement and Woywitka are eager to help the Blues improve their record, Woywitka believes that the key to improving that record may not be through offense.
“We’re looking to keep improving as a team and keep working on our defensive game. The offensive chances are going to come. As you can see the scores are pretty high now. You’re going to get you’re scoring chances you’ve just got to make sure you play solid defense and just come together as a group.“
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