Put bluntly, nothing is going right for the St. Louis Blues right now. Through 20 games, the Blues are 7-10-3, nowhere near the expectations set for them entering the season. It’s caused them to take drastic action in firing their head coach, Mike Yeo, but nothing seemed to change dramatically in Craig Berube’s first game at the helm — a 4-1 loss to the Predators in Nashville.
Perhaps the Blues are struggling to gel after the significant player turnover they experienced in the offseason. As the roster is currently constructed, seven of the Blues’ forwards did not play a single game with the team in 2017-18. These include two players returning from season-long injuries (Zach Sanford and Robby Fabbri), one rookie (Robert Thomas), one trade acquisition (Ryan O’Reilly), three free agent acquisitions (Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Patrick Maroon) and a UFA goaltender, Chad Johnson.
While things aren’t going well for the Blues as a whole, some of these players are doing incredibly well for themselves on the young season. Through 20 games, let’s evaluate what’s going right and what’s going wrong for these new and returning faces.
Returning From Injury
Zach Sanford isn’t technically a “new” Blue, but the 2018-19 season is the first opportunity Blues fans have gotten to take an extend look at him. Acquired in the trade that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals back in 2017, Sanford played in 13 games for the Blues and collected five points. He became a significant part of the Blues’ plans for 2017-18, but then missed the entire season with a serious shoulder injury that he suffered in training camp.
Entering this season, Sanford was an afterthought in most fans’ minds, and didn’t make the roster out of training camp — though this may have been largely due to the fact that his father passed away late in the preseason. When Sanford came up, though, he quickly became one of the hottest players on the roster.
For a bigger player (6-foot-4, 207 pounds), Sanford moves well and has soft hand. He’s collected seven points in his 14 games, though it’s a bit disappointing, as many of those came in his first few games back. In Berube’s first game in charge, the coach returned Sanford to a line with Ryan O’Reilly, with whom he found tremendous chemistry early in the season. It was a welcome improvement for a player who had been relegated to a fourth line role a lot by Mike Yeo.
The Bottom Line: Sanford has gone from largely forgotten to a solid top-nine forward in his 14 games this season. He’s another exciting youngster the Blues have to play with.
If Robby Fabbri finishes the season healthy, he could be a strong contender for comeback player of the year based on sheer power of will alone. Fabbri had not played a regular season game for the Blues for a year and a half after missing time with consecutive ACL injuries. To give an idea of how long an absence that is, Fabbri’s original injury happened in Mike Yeo’s second game at the helm, and his ninth game back was Yeo’s last with the Blues.
Fabbri has only collected two points in his ten games with the team, but his return coincided with the Blues’ offensive downturn, so he may not be entirely to blame. More importantly, he’s looked confident, strong, and willing to trust his knee, which are the most important considerations for him this year.
The Bottom Line: Fabbri’s focus should be on recuperation. If he’s strong, confident, and healthy leaving this season, he has a bright future, regardless of where his point total ends up.
The Rookie Sensation
What a roller coaster of a season it’s been for Robert Thomas. He entered the year as the Blues’ top prospect, almost guaranteed a roster spot, or a return to the OHL, the junior league he dominated last season. But, under Yeo, he was not given much time to shine out of the gate, and ultimately hit a stretch of four games in a row where he was a healthy scratch. It was the first time anyone had considered that he might not survive his nine game NHL trial.
As it turns out, those fears were totally unfounded. The five-game break may have been one of Yeo’s better decisions as Blues’ head coach, because Thomas came out with confidence afterward and hasn’t looked back. Game after game he looks more confident and more skilled. His last three games have each been a season high in minutes, culminating in a two minute spike to 19:04 under Craig Berube on Wednesday. Coincidentally, Thomas also scored his first NHL goal on Wednesday, an absolute beaut of a into the top corner.
The Bottom Line: Robert Thomas may be the Blues’ most untouchable player. Everything he’s shown so far has justified all the hype around one of the top rated prospects in the league entering the season.
The Blockbuster Acquisition
Ryan O’Reilly was traded to the Blues in a mega deal right at the end of free agency day. Immediately, he became a centerpiece of the Blues’ offense, as well as one of the Blues’ two highest paid players (his contract is identical to Vladimir Tarasenko’s). Hopes were high for O’Reilly, the best face-off man in the league (and perhaps in the history of the NHL) and a consistent 55-65 point player. But thus far, he has obliterated even the highest expectations set for him.
Through 20 games, O’Reilly has 23 points, and leads the Blues in both goals and assists. He’s winning 60.9 percent of his face-offs, somehow an improvement on the 60-percent rate that got him to St. Louis. He leads the league in face-off percentage (though Jordan Staal of Carolina and Bo Horvat of Vancouver have won more total draws). He also has become a leader for the team on and off the ice, something that he was criticized for in Colorado and Buffalo.
If there is any criticism to be lobbed at O’Reilly, it’s that he already has six penalty minutes this season, triple his total from the 2017-18 campaign. He might not win the Lady Byng again with that sort of behavior, but if O’Reilly continues on the pace he’s set so far and the Blues can return to playoff contention, he might just be a contender for the Hart.
The Bottom Line: O’Reilly has established himself as the centerpiece of the Blues’ core. No veteran player is more indispensable to the team at present.
The Free Agents
Before the trade for Ryan O’Reilly on the evening of July 1, the Blues’ signing of Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million contract was seen as a huge disappointment. With O’Reilly, Bozak is allowed to be a third line center, where his responsibility and defensive reliability can excel. Five million may be a slightly high price to pay for those talents, but on a three-year deal, Bozak is a nice chip for the Blues to have.
Currently, Bozak is tied for third on the team with 11 points. He’s on track for 45 points, which is right in line with his expectations. He’s also winning almost 56% of his face-offs, which, combined with O’Reilly, has made the Blues second in the league in that category. Bozak spends decent time on the power play, and significant time on the penalty kill, where he’s third among Blues’ forwards in minutes. Bozak is exactly the kind of Swiss Army Knife the Blues want on their third line, and does most things as well or better than Patrik Berglund, the player he is replacing.
The Bottom Line: Bozak is a very fine third line center who does many things well, but his style of play and his relatively low impact on the stat sheet will make his contract a constant source of criticism for many Blues’ fans.
David Perron has played for five different NHL teams, including the Edmonton Oilers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Vegas Golden Knights, but he has never signed a contract with any team but the Blues. This is now his third different stint in St. Louis and the second time he’s signed as an unrestricted free agent from a different team, this time to the tune of four years, $16 million.
Most assumed that Perron’s season in Vegas last year, where his point total ballooned to 66, was an outlier. But Perron certainly could have gotten more on the open market than he did to return to St. Louis — he simply loves to play here. He’s already recorded a hat trick this season, but with just 11 points in 20 games, Perron is only on pace for about 45 points this season. Blues fans will want more than that, but it wouldn’t be a disaster if that’s where Perron finished the season.
The Bottom Line: Similar to Bozak, Perron is a middle six forward who can do a lot of things well. He won’t wow anyone, but at $4 million per year, he won’t need to.
Patrick Maroon was a late addition in free agency, signing a one year, $1.75 million contract with his hometown team on July 10. Fans were ecstatic that the big man from Oakville, MO (a suburb of St. Louis) took such a considerable discount to come home and play for the team he cheered for as a kid.
SAINT LOUIS!!!! Wow! Excitement is an understatement! Can’t wait to join the @StLouisBlues this is a dream come true!! To wear this jersey in front of you guys is going to be the best feeling!! Can’t wait to join the boys! See you in October Blues fans!!! -The Big Rig
— Pat Maroon (@patmaroon) July 11, 2018
Maroon has done some things well for St. Louis, but has yet to score his first goal. His size and physicality has been valuable when he’s used it, especially on the power play, and with him temporarily on the shelf due to injury, the Blues’ special teams have been noticeably poorer. Maroon has collected seven assists in his 14 games, which is a decent 41 point pace, but Blues fans will want him to start hitting and start scoring when he gets back.
The Bottom Line: So far, Maroon’s homecoming has been a disappointment. When he’s healthy, he’ll need to show significant improvement to not be a trade deadline candidate for Doug Armstrong, who has traded an expiring contract two years in a row.
We talked about Chad Johnson at length recently, and while the controversy has died down for a moment, Johnson has still been fine for the Blues. In 7 games, he’s 2-4, with a .916 save percentage and a 2.41 goals against average. He has one shutout in that time as well.
There isn’t much more to be said about Johnson. He is one in a long line of goaltending backups who have rehabilitated their careers in St. Louis. His 1 year, $1.75 million contract looks to be a good gamble for the Blues, and an especially good deal for Johnson who, like Carter Hutton and Brian Elliott before him, may now go on to healthier contracts elsewhere.
The Bottom Line: Johnson is more than serviceable as the Blues’ backup, and a one year deal, the Blues’ biggest question will be whether to re-sign him or not at season’s end.
So What’s the Problem?
For the most part, these players are performing to or above expectations, so what’s gone so wrong with the Blues? In his press conference with the media following the coaching change, Armstrong hinted that changes could be coming for the pre-existing core of Blues players if things don’t improve. Perhaps they are more the problem than the newcomers are.
Certainly there’s some truth to this. Superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko is on a 24-goal pace, nowhere near the 40+ goals fans expect from him. Captain and primary defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has looked worse at times this season than he has any time in recent memory. And Jaden Schwartz, who has been called the straw that stirs the drink for the Blues, has been all but invisible in the first 20 games.
For the most part, the new players the Blues have acquired over the last year (and the two returning from injury) are certainly not the Blues’ primary issues. But the team as a whole is nowhere near expectations, and so everyone is responsible for righting the ship. If they don’t, there could be major changes coming in St. Louis.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.