Blues’ Slow Start Not All On Berube’s Shoulders

The 2022-23 St. Louis Blues are off to a 3-5-0 start after winning their first three games. There are many issues that contribute to their lack of success to begin the season, but the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of head coach Craig Berube. I don’t think there are any logical arguments to call for the firing of Berube, and general manager Doug Armstrong agrees.

Related: 2 Takeaways in Blues 5-1 Loss Against Kings – 10/31/22

After holding a press conference following the Blues’ loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Armstrong reiterated his belief in Berube and his system. I feel it’s necessary to point out the reasons why it isn’t Berbe’s fault and where the blame could be directed for the slow start.

Berube’s System Isn’t the Problem

Since becoming the head coach of the Blues, it’s been nothing but success for Berube. He’s coached at multiple levels and had a mild level of success, but everything changed with the 2019 Stanley Cup run. His system has evolved over the last few seasons, but the principle of forechecking and playing smart are still there. However, the Blues have been the opposite of those things through eight games this season.

St. Louis Blues Craig Berube Doug Armstrong
St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube and general manager Doug Armstrong (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

There isn’t much that the coaching staff can do when players are underperforming and making simple mistakes. The number of small mistakes that have been made indicates chemistry and communication issues, and neither of those things should take place on a team with so many veterans and familiar faces. Berube can switch lines up, he can make adjustments to game plans, and make other small tweaks, but none of that matters if players don’t execute. They haven’t executed anything in the last five games.

There are obvious signs when a team is struggling because of its coach, but that isn’t the case with this team. It was clear that the Blues weren’t playing for Mike Yeo during the 2018-19 season when they fired him. I don’t see that with this team; I see a lot of underperforming and a lack of execution. There is no reason for them to want the coach fired, and that is part of why this slow start is not Berube’s fault.

Blues Forwards are Underperforming

Nearly every player on this roster is underperforming in some way, which hasn’t been the case since the shortened season of 2020-21 when the Blues barely snuck into the playoffs. Last season was far different, as they had a historic year of scoring goals. It seemed likely that they wouldn’t have nine 20-goal scorers as they did in 2021-22, but they may not even get more than three if this continues. Despite some line shuffling from Berube in the last couple of games, nothing has helped solve any of their issues.

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It starts with captain Ryan O’Reilly, who is having a brutal season through eight games. He has just one goal and a plus/minus of minus-11. There are a ton of factors for this, and I think it starts with his linemates, as the lack of consistency and chemistry has been on display. He lost his most consistent linemate over the last four seasons in David Perron, and veteran forward Brandon Saad has missed five games with injury. Jordan Kyrou has generated offensive chances, but he hasn’t produced much, with three goals and a minus-13. Kyrou and O’Reilly have played a lot together this season, but it simply hasn’t worked.

Ryan O'Reilly St. Louis Blues
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Berube is trying new lines at practice as their losing streak continues. I feel it necessary to discuss them to see if they can fix any of the issues.

Berube is breaking up the only effective line through this stretch — the fourth line of Toropchenko, Acciari, and Pitlick. He is also putting Kyrou and Thomas together with the hope that they can both start to produce. This also feels like a possible wake-up call for Neighbours, as he hasn’t produced whatsoever and will now play with a couple of playmakers. He also reunited the Russian line, which had a ton of success last season before Thomas was put between Buchnevich and Tarasenko.

This should be the last chance for Brown to figure out his game at this level in the regular season, as he has struggled a lot since returning from injury. It’ll be interesting to see if he can fill the role that Acciari had between these two wingers since they’ve been very effective. I’m confident that these shakeups will spark something. It may not get them a win against the New York Islanders, though I believe there will be some success. But the real issue with this team comes down to defense.

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Blues Defense Is a Disaster

Coming into the season, it was well known that this defensive unit was league-average, at best, on paper. They have plenty of puck movers but not enough grit or defensive specialists. They have one defenseman that they can rely on, and that’s Justin Faulk. Faulk is a solid and underrated two-way defender, but he can only do so much. They know what they have with Torey Krug; he’s a power-play playmaker and offensive defenseman. But this unit is awful at defending, as their coverage is poor and their communication appears to lack as well.

To put it mildly, Nick Leddy and Colton Parayko have not played well. They don’t cover opponents well in the defensive zone or make good decisions with the puck. The extensions they received could go down as two of Armstrong’s worst moves as the Blues’ GM. Another issue is benching Niko Mikkola, who’s been solid, and continuously rolling out Leddy and Parayko, thinking that will fix itself.

Colton Parayko St. Louis Blues
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This unit is a below-average, overpaid group that has had issues from the onset. They weren’t good last season either, but it was covered up by great special teams and robust goal-scoring. I don’t understand what Armstrong sees in most of these players, and it always felt like rolling these six out was going to be ugly. A significant trade won’t happen either since the Blues have no salary cap space to work with. A spark from the AHL could happen — ideal players would be Tyler Tucker, Matthew Kessel, or newly acquired Dmitri Samorukov. The bottom line is that this unit, as currently constructed, is going nowhere fast.

Armstrong’s Recent Moves Have Had Mixed Results

This is the elephant in the room around most Blues circles. The recent moves by Armstrong, notably since the Cup run in 2019, have not been good overall. The decision to extend Parayko for eight years and Leddy for four years are two of the worst. On top of this, they let Alex Pietrangelo walk with the belief that Parayko was the future of the blue line. One thing that I don’t understand with the Parayko extension is that he wasn’t playing well before he got the deal, so it reeks of desperation. The jury is still out on the extensions for Thomas and Kyrou, but I get the feeling that these deals will look fine once the cap goes up.

Other poor moves include the extensions for Marco Scandella and Jordan Binnington. I understand the Binnington deal much more, but it hasn’t produced good results yet. The Scandella deal was another desperate move by Armstrong to keep a player around for Parayko’s sake. The Krug deal may not end up looking good, too, but he has been solid enough to where I won’t list it as a poor move yet.

I’ll give Armstrong some credit, though — the trades for Buchnevich and Faulk have been brilliant moves. But at the end of the day, this roster has some clear flaws, and that falls at the feet of Armstrong. He’s a great GM and has been for a long time, but he’s made some bad moves over the last few years.

With all that said, it’s still only November, and there are 74 games left. However, the usual NHL trends show that if you’re not in a playoff position by American Thanksgiving, it’s tough to make up ground. (Don’t tell that to the 2019 Blues, who were in a terrible spot in January before their magical run). This team has enough talent and veteran players to believe it’s not over yet. They are in a terrible spot right now, but they can fix it and turn it around by the end of this month. It’s not time to hit the panic button on the 2022-23 Blues yet.