Blues Weekly: Up and Down Start to the 2020-21 Campaign

Blues Weekly is a new series focusing on how the St. Louis Blues performed over the past week. Not simply a recap or game story of the week’s games, but coverage of key factors, stories, and themes that were pervasive throughout those games and my takes on those situations. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how the team performed this week, your views on the week’s themes, and any other ideas or questions you have about the team.

The Blues have opened the shortened season with a winning record, going 2-1 in their first three games of the season. Despite having a -4-goal differential due to an albatross second game of the season, the Blues are sitting atop the West Division after week one.

After an exciting 4-1 win on opening night, the Blues fell off in a major way two nights later with an 8-0 loss in the second game of the season. They did, finally, return home Monday for the first time in 10 months and walked out with a hard-fought 5-4 win over the San Jose Sharks. With a pair of wins and a major loss early, the Blues have been tested just a week into the season. They have shown a certain amount of grit that we’ve all come to expect and responded well when called upon. Ryan O’Reilly had to answer the bell for the first time as Team Captain and did so in both a confident and honest way.

Back-to-Backs Show Their Teeth

The Blues looked like two entirely different teams in their first pair of games this season. They first traveled to Denver to take on the Colorado Avalanche. Opening night, the Blues looked efficient on offense, organized on defense, and generally up to the task when taking on the NHL’s early favorite in the first night of the season. Night two was a complete 180. The team was slow, completely outmatched, and goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso did not do themselves any favors.

On the one hand, there is simply no worse place to play your first games back in an NHL season after an extended break and with a shortened training camp than Mile High Denver. Then playing there again just 48 hours later is truly unprecedented. Without considering just how good the Avalanche are this season, the altitude in Colorado can empty the air out of the lungs of the best endurance athletes in the world. Doing that twice with very little preparation in a short period of time is a significant uphill battle.

Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn
St. Louis Blues’ Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly skate to the bench after loss. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

On the other hand, allowing eight goals against is truly astounding. Since playing the same team in their own building back-to-back is going to be the commonality this season, teams are going to have to get used to it. Having varying performances from one night to the next is going to happen, but such wild shifts in performance can’t happen for teams who fancy themselves as Stanley Cup Champions as the Blues do.

One game is one game, especially considering the circumstances. But it will be worth keeping an eye on should a negative trend emerge surrounding that.

Jordan Kyrou Makes His Mark.

After two seasons of splitting time between the AHL and NHL and never quite looking comfortable on the ice when wearing the Blue Note, Jordan Kyrou has been the early breakout star in the first week of the season for the Blues.

Kyrou has used his premier speed combined with an ability to find open ice to score twice in three games. With an added assist, Kyrou is the only Blues player with three points in the first three games of the season and has been an early source of offensive firepower. Manufacturing opportunities seemingly every time he has been on the ice, he has anchored one of the best de facto second lines in the NHL.

A major question going into this season was whether or not Kyrou was ready to step up and become an NHL regular and contributor in a lineup without Vladimir Tarasenko. Thus far, he has grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. Head coach Craig Berube has rewarded the 22-year-old with more and more ice time as well, getting 14:21 against the Sharks, his third-most in his short career. I’d have to imagine that trend continues going forward if he continues to perform.

Special Teams Concerns

After having success on both the penalty kill and power play last season, the Blues have stumbled out of the gate. The penalty kill hasn’t been given any favors, taking on 14 penalties in three games, but the PK’s performance is what is primarily responsible for the 8-0 loss to the Avs, allowing six goals on seven attempts and then allowing two goals on three attempts in their matchup with the Sharks. The penalty kill has been killing the Blues. Five on five, the Blues have allowed just four goals in three games, but their inability to stay out of the box is concerning.

On the other end of the spectrum, the power play has been unable to produce in a meaningful way. Despite all the hype of players like Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman joining an already effective power play, the Blues have yet to score on the power play. Even more problematic is that those on the power play unit are having trouble producing any sort of pressure in any way. It is one thing to not find the back of the net, but to not test the opposing goaltender is unacceptable for a team as talented as this one.

Torey Krug St. Louis Blues
Torey Krug, St Louis Blues (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Berube has already started to fiddle with the line combinations on special teams, notably moving Hoffman off the first power-play unit after the loss to the Avalanche. It is seemingly impossible for the rate of failure to continue in a significant way given the historical data and talent this team has going for it, as well as the fact that the sample size is painfully small. But with every game in a shorter season holding more significance than the standard 82-game season allows, there is simply less time to find the answers and perfect whatever combination of factors contribute to that.

Seeds of Goaltending Concerns

It was not a fair introduction to the NHL for Finnish rookie goaltender Ville Husso. The 25-year-old rookie came in as relief to Jordan Binnington in the third period of the second game versus the Avalanche and proceeded to give up four goals on 14 shots. Unfortunately, that is the life of the backup goalie in the NHL.

The job of the backup is to come in and stop pucks in a pinch. Whether it’s in a spot start or relief of some sort, the backup has to be ready to perform in unusual circumstances. That role is not for everyone, and Husso did not impress in his first appearance under the bright lights. Does that mean he should lose his job after one appearance? Absolutely not. He has earned the right to, at the very least, start a game and get some time under his belt in the NHL this season. But a good chess player sees the board not how it is, but 10 moves down.

The Blues are weak between the pipes with very little depth in the organization. Husso’s poor performance isn’t cause for immediate panic, but it certainly doesn’t instill confidence that the organization is set in the wake of a catastrophic event or series of events.

Ville Husso San Antonio Rampage
Ville Husso, San Antonio Rampage (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Binnington is also not exempt from this anxiety. The star goaltender has allowed nine goals on 77 shots, amounting to a terrifying .883 save percentage and 3.38 goals allowed per game. Granted, most of these goals have come on the penalty kill, so there are mitigating factors, but the job of the goalie is to stop pucks, and he has not.

It’s clear that Binnington has not been the same Vezina-level goalie he was during the Blues Stanley Cup run. He underwhelmed in the Edmonton bubble and has started slower than expected in the 2020-21 NHL season. That being said, Binnington is definitively the starter, and that is not up for debate. But the seeds of concern are planted. Who knows if they blossom or not?

The path to the Stanley Cup goes through the crease, and if Binnington isn’t ‘the guy,’ then it’s hard to imagine the Blues finding themselves in a situation to win it again.

News, Top Performers and the Week Ahead

  • After a brief absence due to immigration delays, Mike Hoffman scored his first goal with the Blues on Monday, showing off his shooting ability with a goal from deep in the zone.
  • Sammy Blias will return the lineup Wednesday after serving his two-game suspension for a hit to the head of Devon Toews in the season opener. Meanwhile, Robert Bortuzzo has been placed on IR after a similar hit to the head that garnered no suspension. Bortuzzo will likely only miss two games, according to Tom Timmerman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (from ‘Blues put Bortuzzo on IR; Berube remakes lines’ – St. Louis Post-Dispatch – 1/17/21).
  • After 10 months away from Enterprise Center, the Blues were welcomed home to a crowd of 300 front line workers. Working with the city of St. Louis to identify health care professionals to invite in attendance, the Blues have also altered all protocols in terms of seating, entrances, and concourse sales to accommodate best safety practices.

Top Performers

Jordan Kyrou: two goals, one assist

Robert Thomas: two Assists

Justin Faulk: two goals, plus-four

Oscar Sundqvist: two goals

The Week Ahead

January 20: vs. San Jose Sharks

January 23: vs. LA Kings

January 24: vs. LA Kings

January 26: at Vegas Golden Knights

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