It’s rarely easy to move from one pro hockey league to another, no matter the circumstances. Earlier this month, Vladimir Sobotka made a vastly more complicated shift, changing continents and cultures along with his uniform — and just in time for the NHL playoffs, too.
Sobotka left his team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League at the end of its season in March. He returned to St. Louis, where he played earlier in his career, and had to adapt on the fly as the Blues prepared for their first-round playoff series against the Wild. “It was hard,” Sobotka said. “I didn’t skate for 10 days, and then, I got back for two practices. But in the game, I feel really good.”
He wasn’t kidding. At 5-10, the Czech forward is not a large man, but he has had a big impact on the Blues since rejoining the roster on April 6. Sobotka scored the team’s first goal in Wednesday’s Game 1 victory, and in Friday’s 2-1 victory, he recorded a hit, a blocked shot and won five of 10 faceoffs.
Sobotka, 29, spent seven seasons in the NHL — including four with St. Louis — before a contract dispute prompted his move to Russia in 2014. He maintained a genial relationship with Blues management, leaving the door open for him to sign a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension six days before the playoffs started. That dropped an unexpected gift into coach Mike Yeo’s lap, adding to the roster a strong two-way player who knows the team and the league.
“[Moving from the KHL to the NHL] is obviously a very difficult thing to do,” Yeo said. “But you can tell he’s a veteran player who has played in different systems. He’s adjusting very quickly to what we’re asking. He’s been a big addition for us.”
Since returning to the U.S., Sobotka has spent only one day in St. Louis. After playing 41 games with Omsk Avangard of the KHL, finishing with nine goals and 21 assists, he practiced once with the Blues and once on his own before playing in the regular-season finale against Colorado. Sobotka scored a goal in that victory, his first NHL game since the Blues lost to Chicago in six games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
Never a prolific scorer during his time with Boston and St. Louis, Sobotka assumed a larger role on offense over three seasons in the KHL. That added some dimension to a player known for his diligence, nonstop energy and expertise in the faceoff circle.
After Game 1, Yeo praised Sobotka for his contributions on defense and on the penalty kill. Blues forward David Perron said he expects Sobotka to become more assertive and physical as he reacclimates to NHL play, and captain Alex Pietrangelo likes his feistiness.
“He adds an element I think every team wants: a guy that plays at both ends of the ice,” Pietrangelo said. “He does a lot of little things that maybe go unnoticed by the normal person; [faceoffs] and work ethic, and he’s pretty tenacious on the puck. It adds a good element for us.”
All those traits make Sobotka an example of what Yeo wants to see from his team going forward. He said before Game 2 that the Blues need to push back harder against the Wild, with every player giving a little more of whatever he brings.
Sobotka said he still has room for growth, as he continues to adapt to a smaller ice sheet and add speed and physicality to his game. Still, he and the Blues are pleased with what he’s done so far.
“I’m really happy to be here, helping the team,” he said. “I’m excited.”