For all the hope and promise that a recent three-game winning streak gave the slumping St. Louis Blues, a 4-3 home loss to the division-leading Colorado Avalanche brought coach Craig Berube’s team crashing back down to earth. Faced with the reality that just about every team in the Honda West is mathematically still “in it,” the Blues face a series of tests over those division rivals in the last few weeks of the season.
Sure, the three-game win streak helped the Blues leap-frog over the Arizona Coyotes into the fourth playoff spot behind the Avalanche (64 points prior to Thursday’s NHL games), the Vegas Golden Knights (60 points), and the Minnesota Wild (53 points). St. Louis has 44 points this season and a game in hand on the Coyotes (43 points). The San Jose Sharks weigh in with 40 points on the season. The Los Angeles Kings have 38 points, and the Anaheim Ducks are at the bottom of the division with 35 points.
The Blues (19-17-6) and Coyotes (19-20-5) lock horns on Saturday in Arizona. With a win, the Blues will create some much-needed space between them and the Coyotes in the standings. A loss would help the Coyotes leap-frog back over the Blues and into the playoff spot with about 13 games remaining for each team.
With big-money players on the St. Louis roster and a goalie they insist is their goalie of the future – to the tune of $6 million a year – fans are asking a simple question: Why aren’t the Blues better?
Let’s take a look at five dumpster fires that raged this season in St. Louis:
DUMPSTER FIRE No. 1: Where Are the goals? They Paid for goals!
The Mike Hoffman Dilemma: Scoring was spotty, streaky, and virtually non-existent, especially against the top teams in the division. And the paucity of goals came at a big price – $46 million is being spent on 13 forwards, including Vladimir Tarasenko ($7.5 million this season); team captain Ryan O’Reilly ($7.5 million); Brayden Schenn ($6.5 million); Jaden Schwartz ($5.35 million); Tyler Bozak ($5 million) and David Perron and Hoffman each at $4 million this season.
Hoffman, a power-play specialist, was brought in during training camp to boost the Blues when they go on the man-advantage. He’s fourth on the team in goals with 13 and has 13 assists for 26 points. Three of his goals have come on the power play and two of his goals have been game-winners. Still, it hasn’t been enough to propel the Blues higher in the standings. In Hoffman’s case, it was literally a case of, “you had one job.”
The Blues rank 16th out of 31 teams with 122 goals. The Avalanche have scored a league-leading 154 goals by comparison.
Of those former No. 1 picks, Tarasenko and Schwartz, along with centerman Bozak, all missed stretches of games due to injury. Taking away the potential for 37 goals as Tarasenko scored in 2014-15, as well as the potential for 28 goals from Schwartz as he did in 2014-15 as well, things look pretty bleak. That is a lot of goals to lose.
Hoffman was rumored to be on the move during the trade deadline. General manager Doug Armstrong and Berube have grumbled about all of their scorers being mired in a horrific slumps. The defense is as porous as Swiss cheese lately. The thinking online was that Armstrong would swap Hoffman for a third-line defenseman at a minimum, or possibly a top draft pick as a dream, according to an article by The Hockey Writers. That deal, nor any deal, ever materialized for St. Louis on Trade Deadline Day, Armstrong said.
“Quite honestly, I haven’t had any meaningful phone calls in almost three days,” Armstrong said in an article about the deadline by The Hockey Writers. “If we were doing anything, I probably placed a higher value on our own players than other people did.”
DUMPSTER FIRE No. 2: The Defense
Why has the Blues’ defense been so bad? Let me count the reasons …
1. When Colton Parayko went out with an upper-body injury, that ended up hurting the Blues more than it hurt him, as old people used to say. He was counted on to play big minutes and to be the heir apparent to Alex Pietrangelo, who left dramatically for greener (as in money green) pastures in Las Vegas. Parayko’s injury, at first not believed to be severe, quickly became a growing concern. He ended up missing 21 of the Blues’ 42 games this year. He has a single goal and seven assists. Since returning to the lineup on April 5, he has logged between 17 minutes to 20 minutes of ice time per game.
2. The Blues signed Torey Krug to bolster their backline, and the team had very high expectations for him. The jury is still out on Krug. Justin Faulk, brought in to replace the departing Joel Edmundson, had severe growing pains his first year with the Blues. This season, he has been a solid defender and has added some scoring punch from the back end. Faulk has six goals and 10 assists for 16 points.
Marco Scandella brings a veteran presence to the lower lines. He’s played 615 games in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, the Montreal Canadiens, and Buffalo Sabres. He has actually lost more teeth this season (three) than goals scored (two). He has been solid defensively but has certainly had his challenges and his stat line is not overly impressive in any category.
3. The Blues needed more from their defense. Losing Stanley Cup Champion Carl Gunnarsson hurt the defense, and newcomers Nikko Mikkola, Jake Walman and veteran Vince Dunn have been largely ineffective. Mikkola and Walman have been in and out of the lineup as healthy scratches. Dunn is frequently in Berube’s doghouse and was the subject of trade rumors during the NHL Trade Deadline week. Critics wonder if Armstrong did the team any favors by standing pat, while others trust his process. A third-line defenseman would have been a nice pickup, but Armstrong said the pickings were slim in that aisle. Robert Bortuzzo has been serviceable on the defense but often finds himself watching the games from above.
4. THE HARD FACT: The inability to find or replace a third- or fourth-line defenseman might end up biting the Blues’ rear ends. Defense wins championships, as the saying goes. The defense has played well, and even good at times, but never great and most certainly never epic. There always seems to be one or two mental lapses each game that lead to goals at inopportune times.
DUMPSTER FIRE No. 3: The Goalie Is a Head Case
Fans should have known something was peculiar when, on the day Binnington signed his new six-year contract that will pay him about $6 million per year, he took the night off. Backup Ville Husso made the start on March 13 against Vegas, a 5-1 loss. The Blues announced Binnington’s new deal on March 11. The Vegas game – at Enterprise Center no less – was poised to be Jordan Binnington Appreciation Night, as news of his contract filled all the local newscasts. Yet, Berube opted to bench him against Vegas, in a very curious move.
The 2019 Stanley Cup hero has played in 31 games, starting 30 of them. He is 12-12-5 this season with a .909 save percentage (SV%) while posting a 2.70 goals-against average (GAA). Husso, the backup, has been spectacular at times, and completely vulnerable at others. He’s 7-5-1 with a .887 SV% while posting a chubby 3.43 GAA.
Husso is ranked 51st among goalies in games played this season. Binnington is fifth. Both goalies can be counted on for big saves in key situations. When put together, Binnington has pieced together another highlight-reel season’s worth of unbelievable saves.
But it is the ones that are getting past him that cause St. Louis to heave a collective grumble. In a tight game against Colorado, for example, Nathan MacKinnon used his speed to get inside the defensive zone where he slipped a shot past Husso at an impossible angle. The puck slipped inside the left post to give the Avs a big early goal in a crucial divisional game on April 3. Similarly, in a 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild, freshman super kind Kirill Kaprizov deked Krug and skated in on Binnington. He flipped an impossible shot over the goalie’s shoulder and under the crossbar for an important second goal in that game. There have been some terrible, terrible goals, as well … too many to detail here. Skim the fan pages for the gory details there.
The head case part is interesting because to Berube and Armstrong, they like the fire their goalie brings. Opposing teams love peppering him with shots, as the Golden Knights did 46 times in a 3-1 St. Louis win that brought the team back to life after dropping seven in a row. Fans saw the fire earlier in the season when he skated to the Blues locker room after being pulled against the San Jose Sharks after an Evander Kane goal. He somewhat challenged Devin Dubnyk, then the Sharks’ goalie, as he skated off. With it being a slow news day in the hockey world, clips of the faux fight zoomed into living rooms, offices, and onto mobile devices across North America.
Then, in leading the Blues to that 3-1 slump-buster, he confidently declared the Blues were back in contention.
“We’re coming,” he smugly told Bally Sports Midwest Blues analyst Darren Pang.
“Both goaltenders have played great the past two games,” Armstrong said in a THW article about the NHL Trade Deadline. “We’re going to need everyone to push through in these last, what? Three or four weeks of the regular season? You get into the playoffs, anything can happen. But there’s no guarantee we’re going to get in. We have to play and focus every day like it’s a life-or-death situation.”
DUMPSTER FIRE No. 4: This Division, Though … Grrrrr
The Honda West Division looked like fun on paper. But dammit, it’s brutal. The late games for fans are super annoying. Playing teams in a different time zone has jumbled start times. And then, to top it off, having to play the Golden Knights and Avalanche a billion times at the end of the year is just not fair.
OK, with all that behind, the parity offered by teams in the West Division is on-point. Hockey snobs up north don’t want to hear it, and the East Coasters have their own set of hockey problems. But this division, the West… it’s for real. It’s a helluva grind.
Colorado is clearly one of the best teams in the entire NHL. The Hockey Writers Power Rankings has the Avs ranked atop the league once again with 168 writer votes. And at the trade deadline, the Avs made a bold move to bolster their goaltending.
“Devan Dubnyk was Colorado’s big acquisition prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, and his Avalanche debut showed why general manager Joe Sakic wanted the 34-year-old goalie,” the THW power rankings said about Colorado. “Dubnyk made 31 saves in his debut with the Avs on Wednesday, helping them survive a third-period barrage by the St. Louis Blues to earn a 4-3 road win that kept Colorado four points ahead of the Golden Knights for first place in the West Division.”
THW has the Vegas Golden Knights rated fourth in their power rankings, and the Minnesota Wild is 12th. The Blues received two votes but did not rank.
The Avs lead the league in power plays with 161 opportunities. They have scored a league-leading 38 times on the power play. The Blues conversely are 23rd in the league in power-play goals, (18.5) and rank a mediocre 27th on the penalty kill.
Do the math. Things don’t add up here.
DUMPSTER FIRE No. 5: Where Are the Breakout Seasons From Young Players?
In Minnesota, their rookie sensation Kaprizov (35 goals) has been dazzling fans and opposing goalies with his fancy stick work, and in Colorado Cale Makar (31 points) keeps etching his name into box scores with timely goals. The Ducks have high hopes for 20-year-old Trevor Zegras (seven points in 17 games), and 19-year-old phenom Jamie Drysdale (five points in 13 games).
The Blues’ young guns have fired mostly blanks this season. If you weren’t a Blues follower or fan, chances are you couldn’t name one of them. They are not household names – yet.
Again, on paper, the young Blues’ players are an impressive breed with big-time collegiate and junior credentials. But in reality, these players have been dogged by bone-headed mistakes in key situations that likely cost the Blues results.
Mikola, from Finland, played in 20 games this year and has a goal. He is a 6-4 defenseman with a long reach like Parayko, which makes him an intriguing long-term prospect for the Blues. But that’s where the similarities to the alternate captain stop.
Mikola’s playing time has slipped away in favor of Walman, who has played in 14 games this season, with a goal and an assist. Walman was badly exposed in the 4-3 home loss to the Avs, so his immediate future is unclear. Berube’s M.O. is to often sit players as punishment.
Aussie native Nathan Walker was an early surprise with his speed and ability to forecheck, but he too disappeared inexplicably to the rafters and the press box. They were joined there by up-and-comer Dakota Joshua, a 6-2 beast of a player from Michigan State. The NHL has caught up with him and his early success, and his learning curve has been steep. He too watches the games from upstairs lately.
The Blues do know how to draft. They boast a roster of several former top draft picks. St. Louis drafted players such as Robert Thomas, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron and Vladimir Tarasenko all at number one. They also drafted and developed former No. 1s Alex Pietrangelo (now with Vegas), Robbie Fabbri (Detroit), TJ Oshie (Washington Capitals), Ian Cole (Minnesota) and Lars Eller (Capitals).
Early promise has been shown by Jake Neighbours and Scott Perunovich, but neither player has impressed enough to earn his way onto the active roster this season. Beyond that, goalie Colton Ellis has garnered some headlines, but being the Blues’ starting goalie has been documented as being the crappiest job in North America. You can ask Jake Allen and Brian Elliott.
The list of reasons why the Blues have suffered this season can go on and on, but likely the general areas will line up with most Blues fan’s list of woes. We’ve limited them to five general areas, but these were areas that directly contributed to the team’s struggles this season.
What did we miss?
There is time to change the trends. Time to shock the NHL. Will it happen for St. Louis? Not likely.
Could it happen for St. Louis? It’s anybody’s guess in this weirdo season.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1