The St. Louis Blues are undoubtedly one of the major players in the NHL so far this season, and their current (and NHL’s longest) win streak is further proof. The team has even recently captured the entire league’s attention because of the win streak, a string of interesting illnesses, and stellar individual performances like that of the goalies Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, and a certain Russian standout that’s quickly becoming the center of attention, Vladimir Tarasenko.
However, individuals can’t win every game in a true team sport like hockey, and the Blues can’t ride this wave forever. Here we take a look at 5 areas the Blues need to improve (IN RANDOM ORDER), in order to stay atop the Central Division and the Western Conference throughout the season.
Where the Blues Need to Step Up
5. Big Players Need to Play Big
When looking at the Blues from afar you may overlook their lack of scoring leadership as of late, due to their increasing win totals, but if you dive in a little deeper you can see that the ‘biggest’ named guys aren’t the ones producing thus far. This is actually an okay problem to have, especially this early in the season, because there’s plenty of time for the team’s leaders like David Backes, TJ Oshie, Alexander Steen, and Alex Pietrangelo to find their rhythm and to start contributing regularly.
— Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnFox) November 5, 2014
When you look at the stats on the season (thus far) for the core group of Blues leaders you’ll see that they haven’t exactly been pulling their weight (see chart below). Coach Ken Hitchcock stressed the importance of this after the poor game against the Vancouver Canucks that resulted in a 4-1 loss for the Blues when he stated,
“…playing the right way; managing the game properly. Getting our better players to play better, that’s the message. You can’t get anywhere if your best players aren’t your best players.”
Big Names Leaving Something To Be Desired Player GP G A P PIM Plus/Minus Alex Pietrangelo 12 1 5 6 2 minus-1 David Backes 11 2 3 5 6 plus-1 TJ Oshie 8 0 1 1 7 minus-1 Alexander Steen 12 2 5 7 4 plus-5 Patrik Berglund 11 1 1 2 4 minus-2 Jay Bouwmeester 12 1 0 1 4 plus-4
The bottom line here is that even though some of the big names like Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester are finding their stride and beginning to contribute (while continuing to contribute on defense, as shown in their great plus/minus ratings), others that need to be the biggest difference makers seem like backseat drivers at this point. The team won’t be able to continue their winning ways, or extend their current win streak without a change in this category, so let’s hope the captain can pick the veteran leadership group up, and let’s hope that when TJ Oshie returns he has a fire lit under him.
4. Quick Transition Mistakes
While this area of the Blues’ game has been much improved over the last few games, there are still remnants of the problem in each contest played. When you glance at past games like the previously mentioned Vancouver one and the home/season opener against the New York Rangers, you can clearly see this gap in the Blues game, so it’s good to see these situations vanishing from the team’s play altogether.
The way to avoid the 1-2 in-zone breakdowns that are still occurring each game is to harp on each player focusing on stops and starts, and playing a full 200 feet to make sure each line doesn’t jump the gun and create turnovers in high scoring areas, such as what happened in the opener (see video above).
3. Balanced Scoring is CRUCIAL to a Cup Hopeful Team
The St. Louis Blues are used to facing adversity in the scoring department, even dating back to the glory days of Hull and Oates. Sure they may have combined for hundreds of points each year in the early 90’s, but did the team ever get closer to a Stanley Cup over that span? The answer is a resounding no. The early-90’s Blues were met with much of the same fate the current team is, when they were unable to make it past the 2nd round of the playoffs in Hull and Oates’ prime with the club, and were even further away from a Cup after Oates shipped out in 1992 (which included 2 1st round exits and one 2nd round one).
Fast-forward back to current times and you’ll see an eerie trend developing with Vladimir Tarasenko and this current win streak. He is currently on pace for a monster year (a 93 point pace right now) which has been expected by many experts around the area and the league, but will his efforts end the way Hull’s did? Not if the Blues find a way to step up and re-balance the scoring. Semi-vet Jaden Schwartz started off the year on a high note, but has hit a lull over the last few games, although he is coming out of this mini-slump nicely and even registered an assist against the Devils on Tuesday night. Alexander Steen started off a little sluggish, but has also picked it up as of late. If the rest of the team can jump on board as these players have, and the Blues can get all 4 lines contributing, there’s no doubt that they have the skills to win a ton of games, and perform in the playoffs.
The Blues penalty kill is so bad, they gave up a power play goal to the Rangers.
— Kevin (@dkiff77) November 4, 2014
Where the Blues Need to Refocus
2. Special Teams
There is not much that needs to be said about the Blues’ special teams to this point of the season. They’ve been wildly inconsistent, sometimes even during the same game, and the numbers show all that needs to be exposed. They currently sit 7th overall on the power-play, with a 22.2% conversion rate which is good, but it has been volatile as of late. The team needs to make sure their feet are moving and their passes are quick to avoid defenders sticks and bodies, and to get those opposing players moving until they make a mistake that results in an easy goal. That is obviously easier said than done, but the Blues have shown flashes of this type of brilliance over the course of the young year, and they will hope to settle in to some consistency with it soon.
The real question mark lately has been the penalty kill, and why it’s been so sporadic. When you look at the 6 game win streak the team is currently enjoying you’ll see 2 nights (against the Devils, and Ducks) where the kill was perfect (0/3 and 0/4 respectively), and then you’ll see 4 nights where improvements need to be made (Rangers:1/4, 75%; Avalanche: 2/4, 50%; Dallas: 1/4, 75%; and Chicago: 1/3, 67%). The team needs to come together and get every player involved in the kill on the same page to avoid these fluctuations moving forward so they can know what to expect, decreasing any surprises in game play as they do. Lastly, they need to focus on winning face-offs while shorthanded, as they have only won 43.8% of those draws this season, which is well below the league average (46.8%) and shows why opposing teams are getting more special teams chances against the Notes each game.
1. Protecting ‘Star’ Players
This is something that many Blues fans never thought they’d have to worry about, especially looking back at the ‘glory days’ of the team, where hard-nosed, in-your-face hockey dominated the Blues style of play. Now that the team has transitioned into a fast, quick-up powerhouse they need to revisit their roots to ensure opposing teams can’t take advantage of the Blues newer star players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera, and Jaden Schwartz.
Keeping these younger stars (Lehtera is borderline young at 26 years’ old) healthy is pivotal in the success of the team this seaosn and beyond, so the Blues need players who will step up to defend their teammates. It can’t always be the resident tough guy either (unless Reaves happens to be on the ice when the play happens) because in today’s NHL leaving the bench to fight is a major misconduct penalty with disciplinary action involved. Players need to know that their teammates have their backs, and will fight for their success alongside them. This is what gives great players the confidence to go into those tough areas and continue to make top-notch plays without fear. If the Blues can find a good balance of toughness and finesse they will be an unstoppable force that will shatter records, if not, they will be a great team that sees another playoff run slip away.
Overall the Blues are in a great place right now sitting atop the Central Division, and at 4th in the Western Conference, riding their 6 game win streak into Thursday night’s finale of the home-and-home series with the New Jersey Devils. Let’s hope these minor details get ironed out soon so the team can really settle in and continue to dominate the NHL.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.