The Blues have found themselves in a much different position through November, going just 4-4 so far this month. This comes after an October that saw the team battle through various adversity and fight for a great 8-2-1 record. Besides the ongoing injury problem, what has been the cause for the lackluster play as of late, and what can be done to remedy it before it becomes a big problem?
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Where the Problem Lies
Though the team has still had flashes of brilliance throughout the rocky month of November, and have battled through additional injuries and poor travel situations, they have still left a lot to be desired on the ice. The real problem lies in coach Ken Hitchcock’s new “reckless” playing style, as tired and slow feet aren’t allowing Blues back-checkers to get back in transition and avoid odd man rushes and defensive zone miscues that are ultimately leading to more goals against.
This means that more forwards, who may or may not be good at playing defense, are covering for defensemen who get caught pinching, and defensemen (when they are back) are having to face those odd-man rushes without proper support from their teammates. This causes more confusion in the Note’s zone, and a lot of times leads to missed coverage leaving opposing players wide open in high scoring areas. Luckily for the team the goaltending tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliot has been stellar all year, negating a lot of these wide open chances to keep games close. However, there’s only so much the tendies can do when facing top scorers around the league who get multiple chances every night. Just imagine how many goals Vladimir Tarasenko would have if he was wide open weak-side 3 times a game.
This problem is beginning to bleed into the offensive zone as well, where the Blues seem to be waiting for teammates to do the work regardless of who has the puck. Some of the recent lack of dynamics in the offensive zone is from the aforementioned poor travel schedule as of late, but a lot of it is lack of communication and cycling in-zone, to draw defenses out of position. Though the team is doing better about activating their defense to keep pucks in the zone, that doesn’t lead to more scoring chances for them unless players are causing confusion of opposing teams to open up ice for high quality shots on net.
How to Remedy these Issues
Again, the Blues are 12-6-1 on the young season, are tied for 2nd overall in the Western Conference and in the Central Division (with Nashville at 25 points, though the Predators have played 2 less games) so these problems aren’t looming too large just yet. However in the toughest division in hockey the Blues will need to address these issues soon to avoid plummeting in the standings as the injury bug continues to bite. The first step in fixing these on ice problems is by getting the players to up their communication each shift.
This will lead to less confusion in every zone, and should allow the Blues to become more dynamic during fore-and back-checks. Increased chatter will allow the defense to pinch more effectively in the offensive zone, and will allow the forwards to be more effective in their own zone as well. The key to this is still keeping active (quick) feet however, otherwise players will still be too far out of position to make a difference regardless of how much they are talking to one another. That is the final key to the Blues getting over this early bump in the road, and to find their consistent winning once more. Far too often the team seems to pull up on offensive drives to allow their line mates a chance to get set up, or to survey their options more thoroughly.
The problem is that with a slower pace the defense has plenty of time to set up as well, and if the lapse in foot movement goes on for too long (as it has lately), or if Blues players quit moving their feet altogether, then the defense always has the upper hand. This causes the Blues to have a much more difficult time even getting pucks on net, as teams can collapse to the middle and just watch the Note pass along the perimeter in low danger areas with no threat of ever getting a true scoring chance. That’s exactly how important it is to keep your feet moving in hockey, and why the Blues have taken a small step back recently. The more they whip around the offensive zone, and the more they change their skating angles and passing lanes, the more the opposing defense has to step up and can slip up, allowing Blues players to get open for those scoring chances in high danger areas.
If the team can manage to keep their feet moving, take shorter shifts, and communicate effectively moving forward this 4-4 month of November will be a distant speck in the rear-view of another successful regular season for the club. Once they can get healthy that will also help rejuvenate the roster, and pump more life into an offense searching for answers. By no means are they in trouble yet, but if they don’t address these issues soon losing streaks are on the horizon.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.