ST. LOUIS — When St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock decides his team needs a jolt, he calls on his king of versatility, forward Vladimir Sobotka.
“Vlady does it all,” Hitchcock says. “Sobotka doesn’t get caught up in who he’s playing with. He doesn’t label or define himself as any type of player. He just plays hockey.
“We use him like a sixth man in basketball.”
Which means that sometimes he’s on the fourth line, his usual spot. Sometimes he’s higher. Sometimes he plays the wing, other times center. Sometimes he gets moved from line to line and position to position in the same game. He is the ultimate utilityman — and one of the most important players in the Blues’ lineup.
“I’ll use him up and down the lineup,” Hitchcock says. “At center. On left wing. Whenever and wherever he is needed.
“Speed is the key factor. He is a guy that we use everywhere and anywhere.”
Consider the Blues’ last two games, against Vancouver last Friday and at Nashville on Saturday.
Against the Canucks, Sobotka started on the fourth line at center with Ryan Reaves and Magnus Paajarvi. Needing a spark in a close game, Hitchcock moved the Czech Republic native to his second line, playing between Brenden Morrow and Chris Stewart. Early in the third period he was on the ice with Stewart and Alexander Steen when he responded with a short rebound goal to tie the game at 2-2. It was his sixth third-period goal over this season and last, representing 60 percent of his total (10 total goals) in that time.
Hitchcock called Sobotka the best player on the ice for both teams Friday and used him between Paajarvi and Vladimir Tarasenko against Nashville on Saturday … for a while, anyway.
With Paajarvi and Stewart both injured, the Blues were down to 10 forwards. Suddenly, Sobotka found himself rotating lines and playing both center and left wing. Midway through the second period he had a two-on-one breakaway with Jaden Schwartz. Sobotka fed a beautiful pass to Schwartz, who scored for a 3-0 lead en route to a 6-1 victory.
Sobotka’s versatility is evident in other parts of the game as well.
“He kills penalties and also works on the third unit on the power play,” Hitchcock says. “He takes important faceoffs.”
In fact, among players with at least 50 draws this season, Sobotka leads the NHL with a 69.2 faceoff percentage (54 wins in 78 attempts).
His skills have many fans wondering aloud whether Sobotka, 26, should be used on a first- or second-line basis. Hitchcock hears those pleas but is not inclined to give the 5-foot-10, 197-pounder that much ice time.
“Playing little guys 20 minutes a game, that’s too much,” he says. “You can’t play a smaller player to death. At the end of a game smaller players get worn out. They get caught trying to cheat.”
Sobotka wouldn’t mind playing on a top line.
“I don’t feel like I’m a fourth-liner,” he says. “I’m not going to change my game at all. I just try to bring my best every game and it seems like it’s working out for me right now. I’m trying to hold onto the puck in the corner and make a play and be stronger on those board battles.”
One aspect of the Sobotka story bears special resonance this week as the St. Louis Cardinals battle the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
Sobotka used to play for the Bruins, and depending on whom you talk to, Boston used him as a scapegoat in their 2010 Game 7 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers — a semifinal series they once led three games to none.
Some hold Sobotka responsible for a penalty for too many men on the ice in that decisive game. A check of the tape shows the guilty party was David Krejci, but Sobotka won’t discuss it.
After those playoffs, Sobotka got a ticket to St. Louis as the result of a draft-day trade for defenseman David Warsofsky, a 2008 fourth-round pick, who now is making a living in Providence of the American Hockey League.
“It was my first trade and I didn’t expect that,” Sobotka says. “It was a good thing I was traded … but it was still very hard for me.”
But things have worked out fine for the Blues — and Sobotka.
“I feel like I am useful for the team here,” Sobotka says. “And I didn’t feel that in Boston.”
Considering the many ways in which Hitchcock deploys him, “useful” describes Sobotka quite well.
You can email Larry Wigge at email@example.com.