After watching the Feb. 24, 2015 5-2 shellacking by the Montreal Canadiens on home ice, some things became sadly apparent about this Blues team. Yes, the absence of Kevin Shattenkirk — by most measures a Norris candidate — hurts. But this team’s fate doesn’t hinge around one guy. There’s a lack of drive, energy and focus, and it starts in the backend. This team is designed to play in the opposition’s attacking zone, with offensive support from its defense. As it stands, Blues forwards are playing tentatively, knowing they’ll have to bear an inordinate amount of defensive responsibility to cover what this overmatched D faces. Now is the time to find the problems and fix them, prior to entering the playoffs and attempting to figure things out on the fly. Example is this butter-soft play from the Montreal contest:
Jay Bouwmeester Might Not be 100 Percent
The groin injury that stopped Bouwmeester’s iron man streak might be a lingering problem. His play is representative of the entire defensive corps — playing to not make mistakes and only pinching when the opposition is on its heels. Normally, he’s about a 24-minute player and is not a defensive liability on most nights. The issue from a purely subjective viewpoint is he’s trying to do too much in the absence of Shattenkirk, and possibly in some degree of discomfort. It isn’t that he’s hurting the Blues — he’s almost even on plus-minus over the last five games — but coach Ken Hitchcock needs to figure out whether he’s being overplayed and be better about matchups.
The Blues’ Fourth Line Isn’t Stopping Anyone
The traditional role of a fourth line is to stop the opposition’s best. That hasn’t happened of late on this Blues squad. Steve Ott (-6), Ryan Reaves (-3) and Marcel Goc (-1) can’t contribute enough offensively to counter these negatives. Other teams are clearly getting the message and exploiting these holes. Compounding the matter is support players like Chris Porter (-1) and Patrik Berglund — when he’s taking his rightful place on a lower-tier line — is a minus three. Clearly some creative line juggling needs to take place and, to Coach Hitchcock’s credit, he did attempt to do just that by sticking Berglund with Oshie and Backes in the Montreal game. Although it’s hard to not succeed in that role, it’s generally a smart move create balance and complimentary matchups. Looking up and down the roster, it’s clear the fourth line is getting exposed. These are the forwards most complimentary to the defense, and something’s in dire need of correction in this regard.
Blues Should Plan for the Worst, Hope For the Best
There’s a very real possibility Kevin Shattenkirk isn’t coming back. Abdominal surgeries impact core strength that affects all aspects of a hockey player’s activities. So, even if he’s not shut down as a precautionary/healing measure, he certainly won’t be the #22 we’ve seen thus far. The Blues prior to the deadline would be smart to go all-in for the best defenseman they can find, whether that be Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekmann-Larsson or Mike Green. Yes, these are expensive options and yes, they will cost in terms of assets. But let’s not play NHL 15 GM for a second and assume Doug Armstrong can work the magic Blues fans are used to. Any of these players is in some ways a direct replacement for Shattenkirk and, even if expensive rentals, this is the hand the team is holding right now and must play. It’s never easy to replace a top D-man, especially when he’s playing well over what you would expect from a guy earning right around $4M per year. When the depth on defense includes the likes of Chris Butler and Petteri Lindbohm — not names that will lead the Blues deep into the playoffs — drastic measures need to occur to fill the void. Hopefully, the front office figures out what those measures are and fixes them before it’s yet again too late.