The secret sauce to the St. Louis Blues success? General manager Doug Armstrong has constructed a well-balanced, skilled team with one of the strongest defenses in the league, allowing head coach Craig Berube to deploy forward four lines with devastating effect. Okay, so it’s not that big of a secret.
Some say the Blues are molded in the Berube, AKA the “Chief’s,” image. During his spirited 17 years in the NHL, he racked up 61 goals, 81 assists, 3,149 penalty minutes and zero Lady Byng nominations. To put it mildly, he was willing to bang bodies, deliver hits, and when necessary, throw hands.
Yet, this notion that the Blues are following in Berube’s likeness ignores the other half of the equation. Sure, the Blues play with an edge. When clicking, all four lines forecheck with controlled aggression, willing to get a piece of any and all opponents with the puck. With the exception of Robert Bortuzzo and his indefensible cross-check to the back of Nashville Predators’ Viktor Arvidsson on Nov. 23, the Blues know where the line is and skate right up to it.
Hits are down for the team this season, with Alex Pietrangelo and company averaging only 19.7 per game. They are being more selective about when to lower the boom and are concentrating on delivering legal – and hard – checks. The discipline is paying off. The Blues currently rank 24th in penalty minutes (623) and are tied for the 15th spot with only 15 majors.
They Might Be Giants
Up and down the lineup, the Blues are a big team. They are in the top 10 in height and are the fifth heaviest team in the NHL (from ‘Sizing up the NHL: 2019-20 NHL teams by age, height, weight and nationality,’ The Athletic, 10/09/2019). Since trading Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings, Jaden Schwartz is the only player on the active roster who is under 6-feet tall. (San Antonio Rampage call-up Nathan Walker is 5-foot-8.). Their defensive corps is gigantic, with wing-spans that can nearly touch both sides of the rink. Okay, so maybe not quite. Listen to how Armstrong describes his Bunyanesque blueliners:
We believe in big defense. We have had a lot of big defensemen over a number of years. It’s probably not as physical of a game as it was, but those guys are like seaweed, they’re tough to get through back there. Like going through a car wash sometimes when you got Bouwmeester and Parayko up there.‘Gordo: Strong defense gives Binnington, Blues good chance to repeat,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 09/18/2019
Youth Is Being Served
At first glance, the Blues are slightly older than average, coming in at 27.9 years of age per player. While players like Jay Bouwmeester and Tyler Bozak tip the scales in one direction, there are plenty of exciting kids peppered throughout the lineup to balance it out.
None is more tantalizing than Robert Thomas. A revelation last season, with moments of brilliance scattered throughout the Stanley Cup run, Thomas is emerging as an elite playmaker. Since being moved back to center, the dangling 20-year-old has notched four helpers in the last three games. His ability to control the puck and find teammates in space earned him top-line minutes in the 3-2 shootout loss in Nashville the other night. He did record the game-tying assist on Brayden Schenn’s third-period goal.
From the top line to the bottom line, the kids are more than alright. It wasn’t that long ago that the Blues rolled out three lines and an aging “energy line.” In 2016-17, the fourth line consisting of Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak and Chris Thorburn was dubbed “the century line” as their ages added up to over 100 years (from ”Century Line’ defies its age with big energy,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/28/2017).
Those days and all of those years are gone. While the components of the line vary, most nights you’ll see Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev, and Mackenzie MacEachern racking up 12-plus minutes of ice time. The ownership has committed to the fourth line, recognizing just how critical it is to the Blues’ continued success. The Blues invested in both Sundqvist (four years, $2.75 million cap hit) and Barbashev (two years, $1.475 million cap hit).
Coming off a season with 14 goals each – and Stanley Cup rings – the best thing about these fourth liners is that they are upwardly mobile. Not just good skaters who can hit, but can travel up and down the lineup. Earlier this season, Sundqvist saw ice time with the top line, pairing with Schenn and Schwartz. While no one thinks of him as a long-term solution to Vladimir Tarasenko’s absence, the 6-foot-3 Swede did not look out of place.
And then there are the prospects pushing up from the American Hockey League. Look no farther than Klim Kostin, who embodies the very DNA the Blues prize most: skill/size/speed. Although he was sent back down to the Rampage for more playing time, he left a lasting-impression in his final game of his call-up. The 6-foot-4 Russian power forward in the making dazzled on a 1-on-3, beating the Predators’ Juuse Saros with a wrister from the top of the left circle for his first of what Blues fans predict will be many NHL tallies.
Depth for Another Deep Run
By now, everyone in the league knows that the Blues are missing key pieces to their team. Tarasenko probably won’t be back until the playoffs due to shoulder surgery. And it’s hard to expect Alexander Steen back in the lineup before the calendar flips to 2020. Meanwhile, Sammy Blais has a decent chance to be lacing them up before Groundhog Day.
In the meantime, players on the current roster are taking advantage of the opportunity. This includes Zach Sanford, who had his first four-point night of his young career against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 19.
Sanford had quite the game. He did. Zach Sanford. Again. This is St. Louis losing a player in Sammy Blais. To go down with Steen. And to go down with Tarasenko and other guys step up. This is why St. Louis is one of the best teams in the league.Shannon Skanes, aka The Hockey Guy, during his NHL Review: Nov. 19, 2019
Skill, size, and discipline add up to consistency. And wins. The Note were 7-3-3 in October. They are currently 7-2-3 in November, with three more games to play. Put another way, the Blues are playing the exact kind of hockey that won them the biggest prize of all.
Dyed-in-wool Blues fan living behind enemy lines in Chicago. First-line aspirations, third-line skill.