On Thursday afternoon many St. Louis Blues fans shared joy in the announced return of Vladimir Sobotka. The enigmatic player that left the organization three years ago to play in the KHL was returning to the Blues for the playoffs with a freshly inked three-year contract. In many ways this announcement reminds me of a reunion tour by a band.
All season long one of the biggest complaints about the Blues was their lack of identity. But since the move to Mike Yeo as head coach the team seems to have found themselves, going 13-2-2 in their last 17 games. They are playing with more energy, thanks in large part to the emergence of several young players like Ivan Barbashev, and have developed a chemistry that appeared to be lacking earlier in the season.
So what happens when you insert a new member onto the team, or welcome back a former player in a band? Will the team miss a beat? Will it disrupt the energy and flow that the team has worked 80 games to build?
Sobotka disappeared for three years (which is a long time considering the average playing career for an NHL player is 5.5 years). He comes back with great anticipation by fans who have been clamoring for his return during the entirety of that span. Fans remember the days of Sobotka in many ways we remember our favorite bands, only the hits (the good times) and we tend to base our judgement on those feelings. But what happens if our memories are not reality?
Take for example a band such as Guns N’ Roses reuniting. We all remember November Rain, Welcome To The Jungle, Mr. Brownstone. We remember the attitude and swagger that Axl Rose brought to the stage. We remember the energy the band had when rocking arenas. But what happens when they come back after years away, and the chemistry is no longer there. They are a bit older. They are a bit slower. They still want to rock the fans but they are just slightly off?
The Blues have under one week left in the regular season when the “real season” starts for the NHL, the Stanley Cup playoffs. How will bringing Sobotka back at this point in the season affect the team? Will Sobotka still be the type of player the Blues and their fans remember or should I say think they remember?
Let’s take a look back on Sobotka’s time in the NHL, a bit of a refresher if you will. He was a high energy player with a career high of nine goals in his seven NHL seasons. He is now a 29-year old third liner that hasn’t played in the league in three years. However, the biggest thing he brought to the team during his career was his ability to win face-offs, winning at a 62-percent clip in his last season in the NHL (which would rank him tied for first in the league this year).
Yes the loss of Paul Stastny looms large for the Blues, losing their top face-off player, and most talented center. And his “week-to-week” injury seems to be taking longer than expected. So conceivably Sobotka will fill a large void left by Stastny in the face-off circle, and even when Stastny returns it will solidify an area of the game for the Blues they would like improve, currently ranking 12th in the NHL in face-off percentage.
But I am left again wondering about the unknown. Do people realistically expect Sobotka to just pick up where he left off in his NHL career? And even if he hasn’t missed a beat, does bringing a third-line player with 35 career goals really improve the team that much? For me I feel that the risk outweighs the possible reward. Bringing in an unknown player with limited upside this late in the stage to a team that finally seems to have found their way is a dangerous game to play.
I think fans remember the energy that Sobotka played with and have gotten caught up in the nostalgia of that time. If you remember during his tenure with the Blues this was during a time when many Blues players were underperforming. In the four years they missed the playoffs once , were eliminated in the first-round twice, and swept by the #8 seed L.A. Kings in the second round. Fans were going through a frustrating time, watching the underperformance of players like Chris Stewart, Patrick Berglund, and T.J. Oshie. They were caught up in the game in and game out energy and effort by Sobotka, that is what they remember. And it is those nostaligic replays that I feel has skewed the fans memories of Sobotka.
What is the one thing the fans and analysts have been asking for the Blues to do? Add offensive punch up the middle, instead the bring in yet another third line player. I was a fan of Sobotka on his first go-round with the Blues. And I don’t think his play will necessarily hurt the Blues. But is it really energy that the Blues need? Haven’t they found that under Yeo?
One thing Yeo has shown since he took over is that he is willing to give players a chance, young or old. He does not necessarily stick to the veterans or high-priced players. He has constantly allowed players like Barbashev, Dmitri Jaskin, Zach Sanford to show what they can do in various situations from regular ice time to power-play or short-handed units. But I am worried about where he goes in the lineup. Does he replace everyone’s favorite beating stick Jori Lehtera or will he take time from one of the younger players that have worked hard and responded to the confidence Yeo has shown in them?
We will see soon enough how the Sobotka reunion tour will play out. I hope to hear more Welcome to the Jungle than Bad Apples this playoff season. But as with many reunion tours, I am not expecting a whole lot.