It started right off the bat after the opening night loss to the New York Rangers: people counting down the games until Brian Elliott is replaced. This happens every year, so it should come as no surprise. This year is slightly different, in the respect that this Blues team is maybe the strongest and deepest in recent memory. You see, in St. Louis — as in Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere — the goalie is the guy that is supposed to smooth over every mistake the team makes in front, prevent every errant pass and make the defense’s decisions for them. Without this, he’s a failure that requires replacement. This also happens to be the year where Elliott has a rookie as his backup (or “1A” depending on your perspective), so the comments are especially ludicrous. But all that’s needed is a little perspective and a short history lesson to understand that if an NHL team is strong enough from the bench out, superstar goaltending is nice but not required.
The Chicago Blackhawks are models of how to win with cheap goaltending
Blues fans hate to pay the Blackhawks organization their due, mainly due to poor experiences in the stands with mouthy Hawk fans and general jealousy. But perhaps this year more than ever, with expectations around the Blues so high, the Blackhawk’s successes can be used as a source of peace and optimism. Ironically, these sources come in the form of Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford. Niemi led a strong but not necessarily favorited Hawks team in 2010 to their first Cup in decades. Hawks management knew that their team could win with virtually anyone in net, so they jettisoned Niemi, who landed in San Jose. Ironically, Niemi now faces the same issues Brian Elliott does in St. Louis — the team’s expectations built over the regular season come crashing down in the crease when the team fails to perform. In Niemi’s case, his Cup does him no favors with certain fans, who are calling for Alex Stalock to take over. What has Stalock done? Not much. Corey Crawford took the reins from Niemi, winning another Cup in 2013. Crawford performs well enough to win, but no too many place him in the same category as Jonathan Quick or even Jaroslav Halak, the former Blues goalie whose career revolves around two playoff series five years ago. The reason is, Chicago fans understand that, bravado aside, they don’t need a stud goalie to go deep in the playoffs. They arguably haven’t had one since Ed Belfour, who came close in 1992 but also never delivered in ChiTown.
Brian Elliott is in a great position to win
When the Blues offense is clicking and their defense is doing its job from typically November through February, Elliott’s numbers compared to recent Cup winners are stellar. Since Elliott joined the Blues in 2012, Corey Crawford has a 2.30 GAA and .915 save percentage. Johnathan Quick’s numbers are 2.15 GAA and .915 save percentage over the same three-year span. This, in comparison to Elliott’s 1.93 GAA and .923 Sa%. Games played are not included nor relevant, since a goalie cannot control the minutes played. Why bring up regular season numbers when the playoffs are what matters? By evening the playing field comparing when the compared goaltenders’ teams are all playing similar schedules and eliminating offensive lulls some teams encounter in the playoffs, it helps illuminate what the goaltender does. In this three-way comparison between Western Conference foes and recent Cup winners, it’s clear Elliott has the goods to do likewise in St. Louis. It’s up to the rest of the team to match their effort and output to LA and Chicago — currently the class of the West in terms of recent success — to be mentioned in the same conversation. Comparing Crawford, Quick and Elliott, we also have three goalies whose successes are often followed by asterisks, given each team’s defensive prowess. The comparisons are clear and Elliott is in the lead in terms of controlling what he can control.
Elliott should have Blues fans’ confidence
Some say perception is the lazy man’s reality. This is rarely exemplified more clearly than in the case of Brian Elliott. There’s no question that the tools are in the toolbox for him to lead cynical and impatient Blues fans to the promised land. As long as the organization has patience, allowing him to play through the peaks and valleys of the NHL regular season marathon, he should be able to prove his worth to the organization is in fact greater than higher-profile players picked up during the offseason. Time will tell of course whether this pans out to be true, or yet more wishful thinking.