Unfortunately for Blues fans, they find themselves in the same spot this season as they have in four of the previous five. They’re facing the reality of another season without playoffs and looking forward already to what may be different next season. As with every team missing the playoffs, this stretch of hockey has become the, “It’s a good opportunity for us to evaluate what we have in the organization,” time. The reality is that’s all you can do at this point.
While it can be helpful, I don’t believe you can tell what you truly have in the organization at this point because the pressure is off. You are not going into games where every win or loss can mean making or missing the playoffs. Handling that pressure game in game out truly defines the character of the players you have. On this current Blues team, only Jackman and McDonald have proven some playoff mettle, and only McDonald has won a cup. Nearly the entire team has something to prove when the heat is on. Hard work and dedication can assuredly be seen when a team is out of the playoffs, but how the pressure is handled making the playoffs tells you a lot more.
Proving that toughness needed to succeed physically and mentally in the NHL only comes with opportunity. Injuries to players present opportunities for other players to define themselves and prove they can play in the NHL when they may not have had that chance yet. For the Blues, two players jump off the page in this category. Matt D’Agostini and Adam Cracknell. Both situations are different and both have made the most of it.
D’Agostini was traded last season from Montreal and saw limited action with the Blues. This season, he has proven he can be an effective part of any of the top three lines as well as perform on special teams. The Blues sped up the maturation process of the organization by trading for him for Aaron Palushaj who is still honing skills in the AHL, and Dagostini is knocking on the door of a 40 point season. That can only be viewed as a huge success as it is his first real chance as a full time NHL’er in a major role.
Cracknell began the season in Peoria and did not get called up until a chance cam in January. Now on his 3rd call-up, he’s making the most of it. What he is doing is not easy and it makes standing out more impressive. Having been a player in the AHL playing around 15 minutes a game, he had to come to the NHL and find a way to get noticed playing a limited 7-8 minutes a game. Unlike others this season who have not been able to do it, Crachnell has. You notice him. He finds a way to be around the puck and make plays. He makes smart decisions when he has a chance, and has not looked out of place. More importantly, there always seems to be some level of drop-off in a young player’s play once up for a longer stretch of time. That has not happened to Cracknell. His play as a fourth line player over a stretch of games earned him a spot on the third line due to more injuries, and her has also seen shifts with the second line. He may be the best example this season of a young player taking advantage of the situation the Blues are in due to injuries.
When the pressure is off, some evaluating can be done, but it is by no means complete. All a player can do is play every shift like it matters most and hope they make an impression. Two different players began the season under two different circumstances. In the end, both D’Agostini and Cracknell took advantage of the opportunity facing them, and both have succeeded. The next question? Do they have yet another level to find in the NHL and how do they react when the pressure is on? The evaluating continues…