ST. LOUIS — I can recall each and every general manager of the St. Louis Blues — from Lynn Patrick to Scotty Bowman to Sid Abel to Larry Pleau to the current GM, Doug Armstrong — saying the same thing: “No team ever has enough good defensemen.”
And each year, an injury would pop up — Barret Jackman or Glen Featherstone or Matt Walker or Bryce Salvador or Christian Backman — and soon enough it was proven once again that no team ever has enough good defensemen.
Especially when it’s your top defenseman who gets hurt. The next-man-up theory sounds good, but a No. 1 defenseman can’t be replaced by your No. 4 guy. Or lower.
“Defenders are at a premium,” Armstrong says. “Everyone wants them. Good defensemen can do it all.”
A good defense can mask many problems a team has.
“A good defense can overcome when your team isn’t scoring at the pace you want it to,” he says. “A good defense can get the puck up the ice to create more offense.”
Over the years, most NHL teams have gone by the theory that if they have four good defensemen — two of whom can move the puck and create offense — they are ahead of the game. Not anymore.
“In the last decade that philosophy has changed,” Armstrong says. “You probably want to have four puck-movers, four skaters. It’s almost reversed from the theory that four defensemen can handle it all — two good defensemen and two puck-movers.”
Wondering why the Blues have gotten off to a good start? A strong blue line is part of the reason. The Blues have six quality defensemen — Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jordan Leopold, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. These six have stayed healthy and provide the right mix of puck-carrying offense (Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, Shattenkirk and Leopold) and shutdown defense (Jackman and Polak).
Consider the Blues’ record since this group came together late last season. The Blues acquired Leopold from Buffalo on March 30 and two days later added Bouwmeester from Calgary. In the 14 games last season that this group of six defensemen was together, the Blues had an 11-3 record and a 1.64 goals-against average. This season, following a 3-2 victory over Winnipeg on Tuesday night, they had a 7-1-2 record and a 2.50 goals-against mark. That’s a lot of success over 24 games.
“We have great balance,” coach Ken Hitchcock says. “We have strength to play in all situations — five who can kill penalties, four who can play on the power play on a regular basis. And we have three pairs who can play against top players.
“In my opinion, we have seven smart defensemen (including Ian Cole, a healthy scratch in all but one game so far this season). Seven players who can read the game well.”
Gone are the days when standout defensemen Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger could control each game. Even MacInnis, a Hockey Hall of Famer, says he and Pronger wouldn’t have the same effect on the defense today.
“I’m not sure there’s another team with the mixture of guys we have where you’ve got Petro and Shatty and Bouw, the offensive guys, plus the defensive type of guys like Polak and Jackman and Ian Cole,” MacInnis says. “Army’s done a great job of putting them together. His fingerprints are all over this defense.”
The game is too demanding to get by without all six defensemen contributing heavily. The game is too fast. Everyone from one to six is getting quality minutes.
“You used to be able to get away with two guys playing 28 to 30 minutes,” MacInnis says, his voice trailing off.
And Armstrong has tied up this strength for now and in the future.
Shattenkirk is signed for four years. Pietroangelo is signed for seven. Bouweester, six.
After obtaining the left-handed-shooting Leopold from Buffalo in March, Armstrong thought his work rebuilding the Blues’ defense was done.
“We ended up getting Leopold and then … we thought our defense was fixed with Kris Russell and Ian Cole,” Armstrong recalls. “But it sort of happens once you get one defenseman … another one magically comes available.”
Suddenly, Calgary GM Jay Feaster wanted to know if the Blues were still interested in Bouwmeester. The operative word was “still” because Armstrong had been pursuing Bouwmeester for quite a while.
“We were after him for 18 months,” Armstrong says. “We were always looking for that left-handed shot guy. We started at the draft a year ago, but we couldn’t do it.”
It certainly has been worth the effort. After all, no team has enough good defensemen.
You can email Larry Wigge at firstname.lastname@example.org.