The St. Louis Blues have looked far better in the past two weeks. After opening the season 3-2-1 with three albatross losses making up their defeats, they’ve bounced back and gone 4-3-1 and have played far more competitively in the meantime.
While the losses still sting, and they have dropped too many games that they probably should have won or at least made closer, they are not getting blown out every other game. While that’s not overwhelming or exciting for a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations, it is a barometer for success and an effective measuring stick for progress that is far more productive than blind expectations.
Tied directly with the Blues’ streak of more competitive play has been the statistical resurgence of team captain Ryan O’Reilly.
O’Reilly has never been a statistical darling. In his 12 NHL seasons, the Canadian-born center has only surpassed 60 points on just five occasions. With that said, in his time in the Gateway City, O’Reilly has twice surpassed the aforementioned 60-point mark. And in his first season with the Blues, he scored 77 points, which didn’t even break the top 30 in the league that season but was the most of any Blue.
The C Brings Higher Expectations
The value that the captain brings to the Blues’ lineup is far more nuanced than simply how many times he puts the puck in the net, and while he certainly can score, O’Reilly often receives praise for his tough, physical style of hockey that contributes to a winning hockey culture. His 2018-19 Selke Award for being the best defensive forward is a testament to his style and effectiveness at the role he plays.
Since O’Reilly arrived, his success has been synonymous with Blues’ success. When he struggled early in 2018-19, the Blues struggled, opening 15-18-4, the worst record in the NHL when the 2019 calendar year opened. But as he began to improve, the Blues did too, as they ultimately won the Stanley Cup. In the early weeks of the 2020-21 season, the invisible nature of O’Reilly’s play followed this exact pattern. Opponents found ways to limit or take advantage of the slow start the center had, and thus the team has had inconsistent results.
In the 2020-21 season, new expectations have been laid upon the feet of the 2019 Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) winner. Having already been a key locker room leader, being rewarded the C on his jersey clearly indicates an increased role in team leadership. There is also an unspoken expectation of increased on-ice production. Not only is he expected to be Ryan O’Reilly, but he’s also filling the shoes of the esteemed former captain Alex Pietrangelo.
The now-Vegas Golden Knight Pietrangelo was a model of both intangible and tangible success from the blue line year-after-year since being named captain before the 2016-17 season. He set the team record for points as a defenseman and was the first Blue to ever raise a Stanley Cup. Factoring in recency bias, the bar for captains wearing the blue note is especially high. This pressure can be a lot to handle in the early going.
It’s impossible to say whether or not the pressure has impacted O’Reilly’s performance. There has been no one more critical of the team in post-game media appearances, and no one has taken more of the blame upon themselves for losses than the new Captain. He clearly understands how to play the off-ice role of criticism lightning rod well, something I’m sure his teammates appreciate. But production on the score sheet has been inconsistent.
Bouncing Back After a Collective Slow Start
The Blues have been better about staying out of the box in recent weeks, but it is still a major problem. The upward trend of less time a man down, and improved performances from the team’s top players, has become distinct. It is double edge sword. The better players like O’Reilly play, and the less time they spend at material disadvantages, a compounding effect happens. If you can get better performances and not play a man down, those performances only get better and better, making the jobs of all players easier.
The Blues still have grand aspirations, like winning the West Division, a deep playoff run, a chance at another Stanley Cup. It’s all possible. 13 games into the regular season, the Blues are still in a position to right the ship. Having O’Reilly begin to turn his game around and showing more tangible results is a positive sign.
Captains lead on and off the Ice. O’Reilly’s ability was never in question, but having the stats to back it all up can’t hurt in lending credibility to his cause.