Blues believe Goc will be a better fit with Ott, Reaves on fourth line
ST. LOUIS — The Blues’ new fourth-line center could help shore up some minor weaknesses heading into the second half.
Few would have faulted general manager Doug Armstrong for sticking with a roster that has produced 37 goals and earned 15 of 16 possible points in its last eight games. But the best leaders understand there’s always room for improvement, and a Tuesday night trade with Pittsburgh looks like a smart move with minimal risk.
What St. Louis lost in physicality and skating ability with Maxim Lapierre should be more than made up for by the intelligence and defensive presence of veteran Marcel Goc, a two-time Olympian with Germany. Armstrong says although the two players aren’t that different, Goc provides a better fit with physical fourth-line wingers Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves.
"Sometimes in the games we saw we were getting caught giving up odd-man rushes and I think it’s all three of the players — (Lapierre), Reaves and Ott — really like to get in on the forecheck," Armstrong says. "I think this is going to give us a lot of reliability from that center position."
That’s an appealing idea to both Ott and Reaves, even though they were shocked to hear about the departure of their linemate and close friend. Lapierre joined the Blues as a free agent prior to last season and quickly earned a reputation as a hard-nosed player ready to make the necessary sacrifices.
He occasionally added some offense as well, scoring nine goals a year ago and two in 46 games this season to go along with seven assists. Goc brings a little more firepower based on his career numbers and has three points in his last four games, but that’s not what interested the Blues when trade talks began before the All-Star break.
Pittsburgh’s penalty kill ranks fourth in the league at 87.1 percent, and no one played more on the PK than Goc, who averaged three minutes per game. He’ll slide into Lapierre’s role alongside Ott for the Blues’ penalty kill, which ranks 17th at 81.2 percent, though they’ve killed 32 of their opponents’ last 34 power plays.
"He’s a smart positional player and he’s good at killing penalties because of his smarts and his compete level at the puck," Hitchcock says of Goc. "It’s a different type of player than (Lapierre) was."
Goc also adds a different dynamic to the fourth line, which hardly contributed to St. Louis’ recent offensive explosion. Lapierre’s minus-1 rating in January was the second-worst on the team behind Ott, and none of the three forwards has scored a goal since Dec. 20.
Instead, they contributed mostly with their physical play, a critical role to keep opposing teams off balance. But Reaves and Ott know three aggressive forwards sometimes proved costly, leading to odd-man rushes the other way.
"(Lapierre)’s a really good energy player with tremendous speed and really likes to forecheck, so for guys like me and (Reaves) that like to go forecheck we had to read off each other a lot, make sure we’re not duplicating jobs," Ott says. "Goc … he kind of picks his spots in the right opportunities and he’s really on the defensive side of the puck to be really responsible for us."
Defense has been the most noticeable weakness for the Blues since Thanksgiving, so any help they get would be welcome. Armstrong also says less liability from the fourth line may allow it to play later in games and keep St. Louis’ top scorers fresher.
The two are virtually identical in terms of faceoff percentage and salary. Advanced stats give Goc a significant edge over Lapierre thanks largely to his superior puck possession, and Hitchcock says in case of injury, Goc could move up to the third line.
As with any trade for a winning team, upsetting the chemistry must be considered, and it’s something Armstrong says he doesn’t take lightly. But Goc has played in the playoffs with four different teams — never advancing past the second round — and Hitchcock says Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston’s system is about "90 percent" identical to St. Louis.
"I think it’s more getting up to speed emotionally," Hitchcock says. "Part of it’s on the new player coming in and the rest is how quickly can we get him integrated into the emotion of our group."
Goc will skate with the Blues for the first time Thursday, mere hours before they take on Nashville, one of his former clubs and the Central Division leaders. It won’t be an easy orientation as St. Louis starts a string of nine games in 15 days, including three of the first four against teams 10 points or more above .500.
At this time of year, the Blues need any extra edge they can get.