Oshie having career-best year for Blues

ST. LOUIS – T.J. Oshie pushed open a large door to begin his walk to leave the Scottrade Center, and praise for the fan favorite began at first glace after he emerged from a hallway.

One voice yelled, “T.J.!” A woman nearby said, “Oh my God, we’ve been waiting for you!”

A little more than an hour had passed since the St. Louis Blues beat the Minnesota Wild 3-2 in a shootout Saturday night when the Blues winger approached the small group of supporters in a corridor after a performance that added to his growing stardom. For him, it had been an efficient night, earning his 16th assist on a goal by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo in the second period.

Oshie stopped to pose for pictures with the fans while wearing a sharp gray suit. The sight has become his routine. His swift style excites St. Louis’ fan base, and his play has led to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock calling him nothing short of “a force.”

Yet another season has given the fourth-year player more perspective as he tries to shape an identity. He is one of the Blues’ brightest young talents, but he shrugs off individual gains in favor of mentioning his team’s turnaround since Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne on Nov. 6. By his own admission, he’s played with additional confidence since the move – a decision that has produced 20 victories in 31 games to make the Blues a Western Conference contender.

Now, as St. Louis approaches the All-Star break, Oshie is eager to see his own game grow in trying to help his franchise reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. And to him, this season feels different in a positive way with the Blues chasing the Vancouver Canucks for the Western Conference lead.

“I think the biggest difference is just the team – the group as a whole,” Oshie said as he walked away from the Blues locker room. “It’s easy to play when you’re playing with guys who are going, and everyone buys in every night. … It’s another year of maturity. It’s another year of confidence. It was a tough start, but I think my confidence built more and more.”

As a result, Oshie’s comfort in his role has led to some of the Blues’ best production this season. After Saturday, he is second on the team in points (29) and assists (16). Only center and captain David Backes (32 points and 18 assists) has more.

Those numbers show that Oshie is well on his way to making this the best season of his young career, and it comes at a time when he must impress management. His previous career-high marks came in the 2009-10 campaign when he had 48 points and 30 assists.

“He’s a force every shift,” Hitchcock said. “He’s just a dynamic 200-foot player right now. Him and (winger David) Perron … are determined, 200-foot players who are good with the puck, good without the puck. They just really love to play the game. They are fun to coach.

“They’re competitive guys, and I think they’re channeling that competitive level in the right direction. It’s making them very successful. It’s really helping us.”

In helping the Blues this season, Oshie had to mature to meet demands that came with a new contract. Last June, the Blues signed him to a one-year, $2.35 million deal – a move general manager Doug Armstrong said occurred because the young player’s energy and versatility make him an important piece of the franchise’s plan.

But the contract came after a difficult season for the rising talent that led to durability and maturity concerns. Oshie missed 31 games from November to January because of a broken left ankle that required surgery. In addition, he was suspended for two games last March for an unexcused missed practice.

“He had a couple injuries last year that maybe held him back a bit, but he’s still a dominant player,” Pietrangelo said. “I think this year being able to stay healthy the whole year, he is able to show what he’s capable of.”

For his part, Oshie understands the expectations that follow him as he tries to make the transition from the 24th overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft to someone the Blues can consider a centerpiece of their future.

Over the summer, he dedicated himself to improved conditioning habits. He also worked with the Blues coaching staff to strengthen his offensive skills in an effort to prove to the only organization he’s known as an NHL player that he deserves a long-term commitment.

“He’s got more experience this year,” Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak said. “Last season, the (ankle) injury early in the season really stopped him. I’m sure it was tough for him to come back after an injury like that being out for two or three months. It’s not easy to come back in this league, and I’m happy and glad to see that he’s doing well, and he has many goals and assists to come. … I’m sure it was tough for him, but he made it back, and he has been even better than last season.”

Because of the new contract, Oshie had to improve in his quest to establish himself within the NHL. There is a perception around the league that he’s still trying to form an identity as a player. Armstrong, Hitchcock and others see promise in the versatile talent who’s produced at least 34 points in each of his three previous seasons in St. Louis.

But they, like Oshie himself, know he must evolve to reach his potential.

Hitchcock’s addition has enhanced Oshie’s growth. Shortly after his arrival, the coach stressed to the 25-year-old Mount Vernon, Wash., native that he must trust his instincts. Hitchcock’s also allowed the young player to play through mistakes rather than ushering him to the bench.

Because of that trust, Oshie’s confidence has grown under the man who brought a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree to a franchise that has produced just one postseason appearance in the last six years.

“When I do make mistakes – instead of sitting on the bench – he puts me right back out there,” Oshie said before leaving for the night. “You go out there and have a good shift, and you forget about the mistake you just made.”

Such moments give the fan favorite positives to build upon while trying to find his way within the NHL. For him, another year has brought confidence.

Both Oshie and the Blues are better for it.