Guts, Not Fists, Are The Key
Butcher, Stevens Make Mark In St. Louis
How valuable are physical, heady, wily and indefatigable defenseman? Ask the St. Louis Blues. General manager Ron Caron spent heavily to get free agent Scott Stevens from the Washington Capitals in the off-season and Garth Butcher from the Vancouver Canucks at the trading deadline. The total bill: Up to five first-round draft picks, a $5.1-million commitment to Stevens and four solid NHL players - Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning, Sergio Momesso and Robert Dirk- to get Butcher. (Caron also got center Dan Quinn as Butcher's tagalong from the Canucks.)
But the results have justified the staggering cost. With Stevens and the aptly named Butcher taking turns policing their zone with a vicious zeal, the Blues finished the season with 105 points and then rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings in their Norris Division semifinal. So the second-guessing of the Butcher trade has subsided somewhat in the Gateway City. "He's just what we needed," Stevens says. "He works hard, he gets in people's faces and he's good at killing penalties." No wonder Blues' coach Brian Sutter wanted Butcher all season. "We may not have won the last playoff without him," Sutter says. "He is going to compete every shift. I played against him for a lot of years. You know the people who compete, plain and simple. Some people compete once in a while and some people compete all the time. With him on the ice, we can put any of our people against any of their people and it won't matter."
While Stevens' value was well established when he was acquired by the Blues - he made the NHL's first all-star team in 1988 - Butcher seemed to be an under appreciated performer for the Canucks. "If you're a defensive-type player and you're down a goal or two every game, it's hard for that type of player to look good," Butcher says. "It's the offensive players which gel teams back into games. When you're leading or even in a game, that's when defense seems more important. And that's why Stevens and Butcher stood out against the Red Wings. Butcher worked over Steve Yzerman and Bob Probert while Stevens made Sergei Fedorov his favorite target.
All three vanished offensively as the Blues won the last three games of the series 6-1, 3-0 and 3-2. "They made their presence felt," says Yzerman, who was further slowed after Blues' winger Dave Lowry took him down late in Game 4, injuring his right knee. "We finished every check; you have to take the body in these games," Stevens says. "The more physical you play at the start of the series, the better chance to have to wear the other team down by the end of the series," Butcher says. "They got under the other team's skin," says Blues' defenseman Glen Featherstone. "Yzerman took a shot at Butcher. When you have a player of that caliber taking shots that way..." Butcher did more than help win a series. He helped solidify a defense which was showing signs of strain before the trade deadline. Stevens seemed to be wearing down. Paul Cavallini appeared to be losing his confidence, Harold Snepsts was getting older and Jeff Brown was hobbling around with ankle injuries. Butcher absorbed a huge workload for the Blues and also added toughness, always a plus for post-season play. "It helps a lot," Blues' goaltender Vincent Riendeau says. "If you only have one or two big guys, they will get run and the other team will try to take penalties with them. But if you have four or five back there, what can they do?"
The Red Wings tried to goad Butcher and Stevens into taking penalties, but both kept their cool and kept themselves on the ice. "You're not going anywhere in the playoffs by fighting," Stevens says. "You have to be disciplined." The Blues have assembled their best defensive corps in franchise history. For much of the l980s, they put makeshift units on the ice by combining fading veterans with too-green youngsters.
In the 1988-89 season, for instance, journeyman Gordie Roberts (77 games), rookie Tom Tilley (70 games) and tough guy Dave Richter (66 games) were their defensive workhorses.
Remember Gaston Gingras? He played 52 games that season as well. Since then, Cavallini blossomed into an all-star and Caron acquired Brown, Snepsts, Stevens, Butcher and Mario Marois and promoted Featherstone to full-time duty. Tilley, once a regular, has spent most of this season in Peoria (International League). "We have a good mix of guys who can move the puck and guys who are physical," Stevens says. "We don't score a lot of goals so it's important we don't give up a lot."
That conservative philosophy suits Butcher fine. "This team succeeds by working hard and having everybody show up every night," Butcher says. "By no means is this a finesse team. To me, these are the kind of players you want to play with."
The unofficial theme song of the Blues' training camp comes from that rousing rock 'n' roll ditty: Are you tough enough? That could be more than a musical question this season in the always-ornery Norris Division of the National Hockey League. The arms race - or more precisely, the knuckles race - escalated this summer when the Detroit Red Wings signed free agent Troy Crowder. Some regard him as hockey's No. 1 heavyweight contender. Hockey bouts at Detroit's aptly named Joe Louis Arena already feature the sport's undisputed heavyweight champion, Bob Probert. Their presence could strike fear into the hearts of relatively domesticated teams, such as the Blues.
With Scott Stevens awarded to the New Jersey Devils in an arbitration case, the Blues' muscle has atrophied. For now, the task of defending the team honor probably will fall on the punching skills of four players: veteran pugilist Darin Kimble, young ruffian Kelly Chase, veteran agitator Garth Butcher and newcomer Brendan Shanahan, whose signing as a free agent resulted In the loss of Stevens.
Let the record show that the Blues are crooning that they are, in fact, tough enough. "The answer is yes," general manager Ron Caron said. "I trust in the referees." Caron said that with almost a straight face. "I'm not worried," he said.
Any preseason worries were eased somewhat Saturday at The Arena, when the Blues went toe-to-toe with the ornery Chicago Blackhawks and held their own. Chase, in particular, was busy, getting 12 penalty minutes. He got two five-minute major penalties for fights that he won, plus a minor for roughing. But as Butcher said beforehand, "Toughness isn't always fighting." "If everyone sticks together, we're tough enough," Chase said.
But there are complications, especially with the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Kimble. He is skating with a football facemask attached to his helmet to protect a recently broken jaw. Kimble has played regularly in exhibition games, but he has yet to "go," as the tough guys refer to a fight. Although Kimble is willing enough, he often was unable to place higher than second in bouts last season. "You'd always like to win all your fights," he said. "But over an 80-game schedule, you could fight in five games in a row. Then in the sixth game, all of a sudden you're facing Probert. And maybe it looks like you're not doing as good as you thought." The main thing is not whether you win or lose, but whether you show up to stand up for less militant teammates.
Another chink in the Blues' armor is the retirement of veteran ruffian Harold Snepsts. "I don't think you need the big guys as long as you're mentally tough," said Snepsts, now coach of the Blues' farm team in Peoria, Ill. "I think Brian Sutter has prepared these guys mentally. It showed in the first exhibition game In Detroit this year, and it showed in the playoffs last year with Detroit." Snepsts, who rarely threw a punch in his later years, stressed that you don't have to poke somebody on the nose to turn his head. He noted that the Blues, especially Butcher, kept banging Probert In the playoffs until the guy began taking unwise penalties. "Butch is something else," Snepsts said. "When we were in Vancouver that one year, he threw the whole Calgary playoffs out of whack. He was yapping at their whole bench, and he drove (coach] Terry Crisp nuts. They were running out of their positions, trying to get Garth."
Butcher, 28, is at an age when his family prefers to see recognizable features on his face after a game. For strategic as well as cosmetic reasons, he is more agitator than fighter. "If it's a fighting role for me, possibly," Butcher said. "By the same token, I've got to be on the ice as much as possible, too." Playing tough is more important while game is in progress than when the fights proceed. "You can do as much physical and mental damage just by hitting them with body checks as by fighting them," Butcher said.
But when opposing goons begin goofing around, someone like Kimble and Chase must step up and take center stage. Chase is a 5-11, 195-pound bristler from Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan. He turns 24 on Oct. 25, if he stays intact that long. His hands were battered after he sparred with the Blackhawks on Saturday.
Despite being "a middleweight," in the words of Vancouver Canucks personnel director Brian Burke, Chase amassed 406 penalty minutes In 61 games for Peoria. And he didn't do it with 203 tripping penalties. "We had a lot of skilled players in Peoria," Chase said. "That was some firepower. Teams couldn't skate with us, so some of then tried to take liberties with us. "Like Milwaukee. I've never seen half of the guys, until Peoria enforcer Tony Twist got traded. Then I never saw a team with more guts."
Guts, not fists, are the key. "Look at Adam Oates going to the corner to get the puck, or Brett Hull going to the net," Chase said. "You have to be tough to do that. Hey, Hull's tough. He never has a problem standing in front of the net. He had 86 goals, and he paid the price for a lot of those." Chase smiled and said, "It's easy to fight, if you have that in you. It's easy to find a fight. Heck, some of these guys here, as big as they are, if they wanted to fight every night, I probably wouldn't have a job." But they don't. And he does. And he and his peers will continue to hold them, as long as they are tough enough.
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