The St. Louis Blues are defending Stanley Cup champions, but they are on the brink of elimination in the first round of the 2019-20 postseason. The team is built on defense, but that is precisely the unit that has failed them up until this point. They have allowed 3.2 goals per game, a stiff uptick from the 2.69 mark that carried them to hockey glory last season. They have especially struggled to shut down the high-powered Vancouver Canucks power play, which has scored six goals in 21 opportunities.
But looser play in their own zone isn’t the only concern with the Blues’ defense. They’ve also averaged just 1.38 points per game in eight games this postseason. Last season, they tallied an average of 2.23 points per game over 26 games. In short, they’ve added half a goal allowed per game and lost almost an entire point. That’s a devastating shift and a huge reason for the team’s struggles. But when placing blame, there are a few suspects who particularly stand out.
Last season, Colton Parayko was the centerpiece of the Blues’ shutdown pairing alongside veteran left-handed defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. But this summer, with Bouwmeester no longer by his side, Parayko looks lost. He does have two goals, but both came in the round-robin against the Vegas Golden Knights. Outside of that, he is pointless in seven games and is a minus-six, with four of those demerits coming against the Canucks.
The towering defenseman has looked small and insignificant at times during this series. The Blues have allowed 30 high-danger chances against (HDCA) in his time on the ice, six of which have converted. Trade deadline acquisition Marco Scandella has been his defensive partner, but the pair shows nothing of the early chemistry they had after Scandella’s arrival. Unfortunately, Parayko isn’t the only young defenseman on the rocks right now.
Vince Dunn, who will be a restricted free agent (RFA) at season’s end, has done nothing to help his contract status. He has just two points and is a minus-two, despite an increased average time on ice (ATOI) of over 80 seconds per game from last postseason. Dunn has looked as weak as Parayko, and many echo the sentiments of former Blues’ forward Darin Kimble, who was unforgiving in his analysis of their performance.
The advanced stats are somewhat kinder to Dunn than they are Parayko. He’s faced 19 HDCA, but the team has tallied 22 of their own with him on the ice. And he is ahead in expected goals percentage (xG%) at 58.19. But he has not looked like the puck controlling playmaker he often does. The Blues need Dunn to be part of their future, but they need more from him in the present, too.
The Bright Spot: Justin Faulk
Ironically, the biggest bright spot on the Blues’ defense is the man who has been the fans’ whipping boy most of the season: Justin Faulk. After arriving from the Carolina Hurricanes in a controversial trade and signing an even more controversial extension, Faulk struggled to find his footing in St. Louis. But his performance in the postseason has been the best he’s looked as a Blue, and the numbers back it up.
Ever think about what BUF got in return for ROR? pic.twitter.com/ao1wkRTBGa— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) August 18, 2020
Faulk is the lone Blues’ defenseman with a positive xG outlook, joining only David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly in that quadrant. His sole point was a significant goal, and he leads the team’s defensemen in plus-minus at plus-three. It is the best stretch of his brief tenure with the team, and it raises questions about the future of the Blues’ right side.
Pietrangelo’s Final Game?
Entering the postseason, if you’d told Blues fans that the entire defense would play like Faulk, they would have predicted doom. Now, that transformation might be the key to the Blues winning two straight and advancing to the second round. But one of their members has even higher stakes: Alex Pietrangelo, who is the first player ever to lift a Stanley Cup in a Blues’ jersey, is approaching unrestricted free agency (UFA). If the defense doesn’t improve and quickly, he may be playing his last game for the only franchise he’s ever known Friday night.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.