Is The Blues Defense Built To Win?

Blues defense has been strong during the Ken Hitchcock era in St. Louis, but the current state of the defensive corps is cause for concern as the Note heads into tonight’s home-ice matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. All-Star Kevin Shattenkirk has been skating on his own but is just two weeks removed from abdominal surgery and isn’t close to returning to practice. The depth that was a strength at the beginning of the season has evaporated.

Can This Core Carry The Blues?

The top pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester has had an off-year defensively. To be fair, Petro has been markedly better since Shattenkirk went down, but out of necessity and despite an increase in minutes. Historically very reliable, Bouwmeester spent time this season on IR with a groin injury and I believe he rushed back. He’s not been the same since returning and the increased ice-time is *not* helping his game.

Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson have been the most consistent duo on the Blues defense and credit Gunny with maintaining his high level of play while working with a revolving door of partners since Shatty’s injury. The Swede hasn’t been able to elevate his game to the point of contributing as much offensively as the Blues likely hoped when they shipped the physical presence of Roman Polak out of town, but he’s a smooth skater and knows how to be in the right position to make the defensive play most of the time.

Ian Cole was given the benefit of the doubt in training camp and handed a roster spot. He’s had a lot of negativity heaped on him by the fan base but really hasn’t disappointed if you accept that he’s simply not going to get much better than we’ve seen this season. The argument for him in the past was that he didn’t get to play enough and while his number of games played has essentially doubled, his average ice time over the last two seasons is at a career low 15:05 per game. He’s a guy who will fill that last spot for you.

Cole has made costly mistakes in his own zone, but no more than any of his fellow Blues D-men. They’ve all had troubles at times this year and it might be a result of Hitchcock & Co’s conscious effort at changing the style of their game. More emphasis was put on puck movement this year which has hurt the quality of team defense. Cole is among team +/- leaders with a plus-17 rating, but it’s too easy for a mediocre player to have a good number because he skates with higher-caliber players, as is usually the case for Cole.

St. Louis native Chris Butler has been impressive this season while averaging about 2 minutes more ice-time than Cole in roughly half as many games. Both have had strong games and weak ones, but again, it’s that defensive inconsistency showing up as the hallmark of this entire Blues team. His sample size isn’t large enough to truly measure, though I suspect he’s not more than a 5th or 6th D-man on most NHL teams.

Stalwart veteran Barret Jackman has been just that: steady, hardworking and reliable as far as 5th defencemen go. I railed against Jax in years past only to finally realize he was being mis-cast as a top guy. Yes, he won the Calder Trophy, but that was over a decade ago. He’s perfect as the 5th starter and anchors the defense without dazzling anyone. That’s something we should all be cheering after 782 games wearing the Bluenote. He leads with his attitude.

Not to be left out of the equation is Finnish rookie Petteri Lindbohm. His game brings the physicality the Blues currently lack on the blue line but is still learning the North American game. While he did score his first NHL goal in a win versus Boston last week, a poor showing against the Penguins cost the Blues and a playoff push may not be the best time for him to find his footing. So far neither Cole or Butler has been able to lock down that 6th spot which keeps the Fin in the mix.

Where Do The Blues Go From Here?

With roughly 2-dozen games remaining in the regular season the Blues have been floundering of late and slow starts have seen them outscored in the first period 9-3 over their last eight games (4-4.) Lack of defensive support has hurt Brian Elliott’s game over that span and also leaves the team relying more heavily on their back-check in order to win.

Early in the season the Blues defense was winning games for them, though largely thanks to outstanding work of St. Louis forwards in their own zone. When that aspect of their game began leveling off, the back-end weakness was exposed and made more obvious by the loss of Shattenkirk. The Blues miss him desperately and the next few games may go a long way in determining whether Blues GM Doug Armstrong makes a move outside the organization for defensive help by the March 2 Trade Deadline.