Six games into the St. Louis Blues’ young season, the team is 1-3-2 and facing some significant problems. Chief among them may be the struggles of their defensive corps, an expected strength of the team. The defense is led by team captain Alex Pietrangelo, but his play on the ice has been less than stellar, and it’s causing some fans to panic. It is safe to say that the Blues will go nowhere if their cornerstone defenseman can’t fix whatever ails him. Let’s take a look at his play and what needs to change.
Pietrangelo’s Paltry Start
Through six games, Alex Pietrangelo is a minus-six and has zero points. He is one of just three skaters on the Blues who have played multiple games and failed to record a point (along with forward Sammy Blais and fellow defenseman Robert Bortuzzo). Pietrangelo still leads all skaters in average time on ice by over four minutes per game, but that time on ice has led to a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of just 44.0, far shy of his career mark of 52.3.
All of this is more troublesome when compared with last October. In the first month of the 2017-18 season, Pietrangelo had 13 points in 13 games and was a plus-six. He also tallied two game-winning goals in a month of strong performances that helped keep the Blues in the playoff race until the very last game of the season. His strong performance in the early going had experts pegging Pietrangelo as a frontrunner for the Norris Trophy.
The 2018-19 version of Alex Pietrangelo is hardly a Norris contender yet, but there isn’t yet reason to panic. A number of things could be contributing to Pietrangelo’s bad play, and some of them can be addressed reasonably easily.
Pietrangelo & Bouwmeester
Pietrangelo has spent most of the season partnered with Jay Bouwmeester on the top line. This is nothing new, as Bouwmeester has been Pietrangelo’s primary partner ever since he was acquired to fill that role back in 2013. But Bouwmeester is far from the fleet-of-foot NHL ironman that the Blues traded for. He’s now 35 and in the final year of his contract, and his play has fallen precipitously in the past year.
Bouwmeester is currently a minus-four, and has a 42.5 CF%. He has looked positively dreadful in each of his appearances, and clearly no longer has the ability of a first pairing defender. But head coach Mike Yeo has been slow to react to the drop in quality, as Bouwmeester has still averaged 20:50 minutes per game.
Bouwmeester skated in the extra D pair with Jerabek today. When asked if he would sit Bouwmeester Saturday, Yeo said, “We’re considering everything.” #stlblues
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 18, 2018
But that may be soon to change. Ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Yeo has paired Pietrangelo with Vince Dunn, a stark 180 from when Dunn was scratched earlier in the season, and Yeo appears to be contemplating scratching Bouwmeester. While the Blues are likely to play Bouwmeester most of the season, given the $5.4 million he’s owed this season, his possible benching would be a significant step in the right direction, and could potentially provide Pietrangelo with a more consistent and reliable partner.
Pietrangelo’s Personal Life
The Blues’ captain is also dealing with a new challenge off the ice: he and his wife recently welcomed triplets into the world. The birth of the children comes on the heels of the Pietrangelo’s very public and emotional loss of their son Gabriel due to complications with pregnancy.
While we do not wish to speculate on how a player’s personal life might affect his on-ice performance, Pietrangelo could hardly be blamed if raising three-month-old triplets did have an impact. While it wouldn’t be an “excuse,” per se, for poor performance, fans should be patient with the captain if it takes him some time to adjust to life as both a father and a hockey player.
The Blues’ System
Another potential issue with Pietrangelo, as with the entire team’s defense, is the structure that’s been put in place. The Blues have recently been criticized for employing a man-on-man defensive format, a style that’s been outdated for many years. Modern NHL defenses play primarily in zone systems as they need to keep up with the speed and skill of modern forwards.
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) October 17, 2018
But the Blues have been playing man-to-man, and have been failing to do so conclusively. The Blues have allowed more goals on high danger scoring chances (14) than any team in the league. They are allowing their opponents into dangerous positions, and they aren’t stopping them from converting on those chances, either.
The Blues’ entire defense is porous right now, and it’s difficult to identify whether Pietrangelo’s struggles are emblematic of the team’s shortcomings or whether they’re a result of the rest of the defense playing poorly. But the team’s style needs to change quickly for its defense to have any chance to succeed.
No Reason to Panic
Alex Pietrangelo is a phenomenal defenseman who has received votes for the Norris Trophy six of the last seven seasons. While he is certainly off to a very poor start, there is no reason to think that the 28-year-old will not recover his former standard and receive Norris votes yet again.
It is natural for the captain of any team that is struggling this badly to take a large amount of blame for the team’s struggles. And Pietrangelo certainly needs to be more vocal in owning the team’s failings. But fans should be patient with the young father, who has been a stalwart for the franchise for many years. His play will rebound, and when it does, the team should rebound right along with him.
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.