Doom and gloom has taken a hold on Blues Nation as of late. Fan favorite Vladdy Sobotka has fled for the KHL, and fan least-favorite Steve Ott was re-signed. Many hardcore Blues fans have said that Sobotka was overrated. That he was all gumption and no function. He played with a fire, and no one can deny that. He was small in stature but played with the physicality of a man twice his size. Sobotka spent much of his time centering the second line. He was the grit in the middle of the talented Frank Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Everyone is comparing the departed Sobotka to the returning Ott, but I ask for a pause. I don't believe Ott will be replacing Sobotka. His position on the second line will likely be taken by Paul Stastny. I say this under the assumption that the first line of Steen Backes Oshie will remain unchanged. So how will next season compare to this past season? Advanced stats have taken over hockey. Fans are screaming corsi this, fenwick that. Those stats are all well and good. I will agree that they paint a picture that other stats simply do not. However, I see production as production. Here is a picture of their production.
Vladdy Sobotka -
Games Played: 61
Paul Stastny -
Games Played: 71
In 10 more games, Stastny produces 16 more goals and 11 more assists. With the Avs also being in the central division, Stastny did this against the same competition as Sobotka. I could be mistaken, but I also believe Stastny ran the second line primarily for the Avs. (It is nearly impossible to find a database for line combinations from past season, if anyone has it, please link me in the comments) This means the comparison is even more accurate between Sobotka and Stastny. I would even go out on a limb and say that Sobotka had the advantage of a more talented line around him.
So where would that have left Sobotka had he stayed? He would be anchoring the 3rd line. A line that would likely include some pairing of Magnus Paajarvi, Patrik Berglund, or Steve Ott himself. That lineup doesn't strike fear into the hearts of anyone. Sobotka's gumption wouldn't have made that line any better. He simply isn't a scoring or an assist machine, he just plays tough. For as soft as he plays at times, Berglund is a bigger threat on the 3rd line because he has the ability to score. He may even be moved to wing as Armstrong recently commented. What a line like this needs is someone that is an assist machine. Someone who will put his teammates who are not scoring monsters on their own in a position to put the puck in the net. If only we had someone like that. Oh wait. Enter Jori Lehtera. I understand that he played in the KHL, which is a step below the NHL, but let's look at his stats.
Jori Lehtera -
Games Played: 48
He also posted 6 assists in 10 playoff games that are not depicted in the above stats. He was just shy of a point a game, with the majority of those points being assists. If you simply google his name and look at videos of him playing you'll see his talent at feeding the puck. So Berglund could move to wing, where his physical deficiency would be less obvious, and his ability to put the puck in the net would be amplified. Then he could be paired with a center who specializes at putting his teammates in a position to score. Now if only we had a young pup to put across from him who has raw talent that needs seasoned. Oh wait, we have 2. Ty Rattie and Dimitri Jaskin. I will admit I was wholeheartedly unimpressed with Rattie this season, especially seeing him live and in person against the Red Wings. Both players have raw scoring ability, but need to develop their game. Putting them on a line with a big bodied scoring threat like Berglund, and an assist machine like Lehtera give this line potential. Nothing says it will work, but the ceiling is much higher than most other pairings. So that leaves us with our 4th and final line. Would Sobotka have been vital here either? The pairing that looks most likely sees Ott moved back to wing and paired with Ryan Reaves. This line is a wrecking crew. They smash defensemen every time they go to the boards for a puck. Sobotka plays tough, and he would be at home on this line. With his departure, its likely that the incumbent will keep his position here, leaving Maxim Lapierre at home in the middle. Would Sobotka do a better job? Yes, I will admit, I think he would. Would his contribution on the 4th line have won us more games or scored us more points? I think that's a reach. I can't imagine a player who was marginal when surrounded by one of the best second lines in the league would suddenly breakout when paired with a couple of goons.
Now I understand that this entire article is opinion based. I also understand that I don't have any magical insight into the line parings that Hitch will cook up. That being said, I think Sobotka was simply a victim of the roster upgrade. His departure and Steve Ott's re-signing came in such close proximity that they would obviously be compared, but maybe not rightfully so. Sobotka found himself tumbling down the lines quickly and was left with no true home. For those of you who feel we have lost such an asset, I ask you this: Where would he have played, and how much of a difference would he have made there? Do you recall those few games this season when Backes played wing? He stunk. He's a Selke quality center, and played on one of the best lines in hockey when paired with Steen and Oshie. I can't imagine the team playing it's captain on a line other than the top line. The division runs through Chicago, so it runs through their captain, Toews. Backes on Toews is the best chance the Blues have of winning those matchups. Then there's the second line, you can't tell me we spent all that money on Stastny to play him on the 3rd. So Sobotka has already fallen out of the top half of our lines. I'm not sure other teams find themselves in a situation where losing a 3rd or 4th liner suddenly becomes a reason to throw their hands up in agony. All in all, we look stronger heading into next season than we did at the end of this one.