The St. Louis Blues have lost five of their last six and are 11-13 on the season in what can only be described as a shocking start for the former midwest powerhouse. The team appears to be in free fall at the quarter-season mark, and it’s safe to wonder whether general manager Doug Armstrong’s premonitions about the potential for a rebuild might soon become very real. Before they begin tearing it down completely, though, there are three clear changes the team can make to either improve their circumstances or clarify the reality of what is working and what isn’t before major dominoes start to fall.
1) Move On from Mike Van Ryn
Former Blues defenseman Mike Van Ryn has served as the team’s assistant coach in charge of the blueline since 2018. And on the whole, his tenure has been a success. The 43-year-old helped the team win its first Stanley Cup, led largely by its stout defense featuring then-captain Alex Pietrangelo and the shutdown pairing of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester. But Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are gone, and recent seasons have been much harder on the London, Ontario native’s coaching resume.
Since the start of the 2021 season, at five-on-five, the Blues have allowed the ninth-most high-danger chances against (HDCA) in the NHL and the third-most expected goals against (xGA), trailing only the Anaheim Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The fact that they’ve only allowed the 13th-most goals against in that time is a credit to the team’s goaltending, most notably Ville Husso, who turned his laudable season-under-fire behind Van Ryn’s defense into a hefty contract with the Detroit Red Wings. This season, no goalie is bailing out the shoddy blueline, and it’s led to the team’s 11-13 record.
It’s hard to know whether the Blues’ defensive struggles are down to coaching or personnel. Most people’s money would be on the players rather than the coach being the issue. But with the contractual nightmare Armstrong has created, it’s going to be very difficult to make major changes to the roster. It is comparatively simple to move on from an assistant coach. And it’s critical the team does so quickly to know whether a new voice can make the defense any better. If it can’t, it’s time to begin gutting the blueline as quickly as possible.
2) Play Calle Rosen More
By every metric, Calle Rosen, a journeyman who ended up with the Blues as a depth signing in 2021, has become one of the team’s best defenders. He and Niko Mikkola are the only blueliners with a positive plus/minus, and Rosen has even managed five points in 15 games, including one of the most fun moments of the Blues’ rough season, a goal he scored in front of his own mom on the team’s mothers’ trip. Rosen’s metrics are also a credit to his strong performance:
With Rosen playing as well as he has, it’s tough to understand why he’s still only logging 13:33 per night while someone like Torey Krug, who has been awful, plays 19:09. This could also be a byproduct of Van Ryn’s coaching. The Blues are long past the point where veterans deserve playing time for no better reason than their tenure and experience. Rosen is not a young player that the Blues need to build their future around, but he’s one of the few Blues giving great performances most nights, and he should be rewarded for that output.
3) Bench Jordan Binnington… For a While
The Blues hoped it wouldn’t come to this again, but starting goaltender Jordan Binnington has been a drag on the team in recent weeks. Some will point to the defense, arguing that the goalie deserves credit for what he’s done behind the poor blueline. But Binnington has allowed an average of 4.2 goals per game over his last five starts, all losses. Moreover, his penchant for on-ice mischief has reared its head again in a manner that has even drawn outspoken criticism from his head coach.
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It’s not that backup Thomas Greiss has been much better — although he did stop 19 of 20 shots against in relief of Binnington on Saturday — or that he has a bright future. But Binnington needs some time to get his head straight. He cannot keep costing the team games and causing embarrassment, his head coach has now publicly said as much. A few games off before Christmas might be enough of a wake-up call to get him back on the right track.
Winning Cures Everything
Of course, the best thing the Blues can do before the Christmas break is to win a stretch of games. That won’t be easy based on their schedule in December, but their one great stretch of the season — a seven-game winning streak in November — did include consecutive road wins against the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. If they can find their form and start winning, there is no need to panic. They’re miraculously just five points out of a playoff spot right now despite the extended skids this season has included. But if they cannot right the ship by the holiday break, Armstrong will have some serious thinking to do entering the new year.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.