At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, goaltender Brian Elliott was traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Calgary Flames. A mere month after a memorable trip to the Western Conference Final, the man they call “Moose” was shipped out of town. The “1A, 1B” tandem in St. Louis was scrapped as 25-year-old (at the time) Jake Allen was handed the reins in the crease after Elliott’s departure.
With one year still remaining on a two-year, $4.7 million contract, Allen was extended to a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension on July 1st of 2016. Earlier that day, the Blues lost significant roster pieces in captain David Backes and Troy Brouwer, who both signed elsewhere through free agency. With the identity of the team up for grabs when October rolled around, it was Allen’s time to prove he was a number-one netminder in the National Hockey League.
Starting off Strong
Through his opening 20 starts, Allen amassed a record of 13-3-3. That stat-line ranked 2nd among goaltenders. His save percentage (.909) and goals-against average (2.44) numbers weren’t spectacular, but he was finding ways to get two points for his club on a consistent basis. The Blues were only three points behind the Chicago Blackhawks for first in the Central Division.
In Calgary, the 31-year-old Elliott wasn’t off to his hottest start, going 3-9-1 with a save percentage of .885 and a GAA of 3.31. He was in danger of losing his job to Flames backup Chad Johnson. For Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, it appeared he had made the right decision in elevating Allen’s status to “the guy” in between the pipes.
A Disastrous Run
Over the next 12 starts, Allen won only four games and was pulled from six others. He had allowed three or more goals in six of nine starts and his save percentage was plummeting. After a game against the Boston Bruins on January 10th (where he was yanked for surrendering three first-period goals), Allen addressed his recurring woes:
This is really tough for me right now, but the crazy thing is, I don’t feel bad on the ice, I feel like I’m practicing really well. I feel good out there. Pucks are getting behind me and I’ve got to find a way to stop that sooner than later.
A week later, he was left home while the Blues ventured on a three-game road trip. There was no “1B” to take over the top slot on the depth chart. Carter Hutton was signed on July 1st to assume the back-up role and had been providing stable relief. Nonetheless, it was up to Allen to dissect the reasoning behind his struggles or the Blues were going to find themselves outside the top eight in the Western Conference. Throughout the month of January, Allen was 1-3 in six appearances with a .844 SV% and a 4.06 GAA.
On the morning of February 1st, the Blues were 24-21-5. The defense was atrocious and the goaltending wasn’t doing them any favors. A lack of execution transitioned into a lack of effort; the Blues were getting outworked during the most important sequences of games. St. Louis had held the best regular-season record in the NHL over the past five seasons, yet were now having trouble with the lightest of opponents. Armstrong’s seat was scalding; he had to make a move and fast.
He chose to fire his best friend, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. The blame was not solely held by Hitchcock for the team’s performance and Armstrong recognized that. Goaltending coach Jim Corsi was canned, as well. At this point of the season, the Blues held the worst save percentage in the league (.887), despite allowing the fourth-least shots per game.
The coach-in-waiting was waiting no longer as Mike Yeo assumed head duties behind the bench earlier than expected. Yeo had spent five years leading the Minnesota Wild to a 173-132-44 regular season record before being fired in the middle of last season. He was hired as an assistant coach by St. Louis last June. Assistant GM Martin Brodeur took over Corsi’s position, intent on boosting the goalies both technically and mentally.
Boy, did he ever do that.
Returning to Form
With Yeo at the helm, the Blues were rolling. They won seven of eight games and were playing soundly as a cohesive unit (a concept that had alluded them all year long). A five-game losing streak swiftly took the wind out of their sails, but Allen remained consistent. In the first 20 decisions following Hitch’s dismissal, Allen was 13-6-1 with a save percentage of .942 and a goals against average of 1.70 (which topped the league among goalies with 10 appearances or more).
The Blues were allowing the fewest goals/game over that span and improved their penalty kill/road record remarkably. Even the trade of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline couldn’t slow them down. While the change of scenery behind the bench provided a spark, the club credited Allen time and time again for the turnaround. It didn’t matter if his mask was on or not, he was doing everything to stop pucks. “Snake” was dialed in.
St. Louis locked up a spot in the postseason for the sixth straight season on March 31st.
Two games remain in the regular season for the St. Louis Blues, who are vying for the 3rd place in the Central. Hutton will start in Carolina against the Hurricanes on Saturday. Allen will appear in the season finale at home versus the Colorado Avalanche. Although the Fredericton, New Brunswick native was “mercy pulled” against the Winnipeg Jets earlier this week, he responded well against the Florida Panthers to secure his 32nd win of the season on Thursday.
How Allen and his team fare in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is uncertain at this point. With only eight career postseason starts under his belt, the microscope will be focused tightly on him. The organization has backed Allen all season long and remain confident in beginning the postseason with him.
Because without him, who knows if they’d be there in the first place.
Cristiano Simonetta is in his third year studying broadcast journalism at the University in Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the executive producer and lead play-by-play broadcaster for Illini Hockey’s ACHA DI club. Follow him on Twitter at @CMS_74_.