The Kariya Konundrum
Well, not only did the Blues qualify for the playoffs, they actually managed to leapfrog all the way up into sixth place. Didn't see that one coming, did you?
So now we switch our focus and look ahead to the Blues' first round matchup, against the Vancouver Canucks. How the Blues attack the Canucks will, of course, be vital to their chances of winning, but the most important element to the Blues' game plan may not, in fact, have anything to do with Vancouver.I'll just put this right out there at the very beginning: the Blues can beat Vancouver. Would I be able to say that with such conviction if they were playing Detroit, or San Jose? No. But Vancouver, yeah, the Blues can beat them.
At the end of March, the Blues beat the Canucks at the Scottrade Center. In that game, T.J. Oshie officially became the new face of the Blues, when he faked out Roberto Luongo, the Canucks goalie, so badly that Luongo ended up flat on the ice before Oshie ever shot the puck. It was one of the best games of the year, and one of the real watershed contests for the season also, a moment when the city suddenly noticed that not only is this team pretty good, but some of the players here might be really good.
At the time of that contest, I took a look at Vancouver, and concluded that the two most important aspects to stopping the Canucks were one, to take the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, out of the equation as much as possible, and to only take high-quality shots against Luongo. Both of those things still apply, but with all respect to the Sedins, getting good looks against Luongo becomes much, much more important now. We all know that, for whatever reason, goalies typically become the driving force behind teams that make significant playoff runs; it's the same as the way pitching seems to dominate every October in baseball. Luongo, a future Hall of Famer in all likelihood, is just the sort of net-minder that can carry a team on his ridiculously oversized shoulder pads, deep into the playoffs.
Even with Luongo, though, the most important thing the Blues have to figure out may not actually be related to the Canucks at all.
Paul Kariya, out since last November with a hip injury that eventually required surgery, is very close to returning to the Blues. He has been skating, has been cleared by doctors, and has shown every indication of being ready for a return to action.
Now, at first blush, this seems like a great development. Kariya is a great, great player. He's been an all star several times over. In his career, he has better than a point per game. (946 points in 914 games.) He is a creative, disruptive force in the middle of the ice. So what's the problem, you ask?
The problem isn't whether or not Kariya makes the Blues a better team. If he's the player he always has been, then he absolutely does. The problem comes when you start trying to figure out where to play him.
The Blues have been the hottest team in hockey for pretty much all of 2009. They have had the single hottest line in all of hockey for the better part of two months, that of Oshie, Perron and Berglund. What's going to happen when the Blues start moving pieces around to get Kariya back into the middle of things?
Chemistry is a very, very delicate thing in hockey, based on an elaborate interplay of factors that are much harder to see than in most other sports. A simple substitution of one player whose hand speed is a little bit different than someone else's can knock the whole thing out of whack, send passes whizzing by sticks into the corner, rather than creating breakaway goal chances. Am I concerned that Paul Kariya is going to hurt the team by playing badly? Not in the least. Kariya is a tremendous player who can only make the squad better, on paper at least.
But again, what happens when you start yanking on those pulleys and levers, inserting Paul Kariya in the midst of what is currently a remarkably well-tuned engine? Which line do you stick him on? How much playing time is his surgically repaired lower half (as they like to say in hockey), going to be able to handle? Is his speed fully returned, or is he going to be operating at less than full capacity, from a skating standpoint?
In the end, it's likely that a guy like a B.J. Crombeen will likely be the odd man out, and that certainly won't be the end of the world. However, the question of where to play Kariya is still a thorny one. The Blues' top line of Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald, and Brad Boyes has been terrific this season, with Boyes leading the team in total points. When healthy, Kariya likely fits somewhere on that line. Of course, one of the three already there gets bumped; the question is who.
Even if one of the top three is bumped, the Blues second line is that of the kids, Perron, Oshie, and Berglund. As I said earlier, this has been the best line in hockey for most of the last couple months; can you really justify breaking up this group?
The best solution, at least in the immediate future, may be to ease Kariya back into playing time a bit more gradually, by using him on the power play and occasionally substiuting him in to one of the existing lines as a pair of fresh legs. He certainly won't get a full complement of playing time that way, but could still make an immediate impact on a team that has had power play issues at times this season.
However Andy Murray ends up working Kariya back into the personnel rotation, it will be great to have him back. But even so, Kariya returning may have presented the Blues and their coach with the most interesting problem of the season, and how deep they play into the postseason may very well hinge on what solution they come up with.