Despite a horrendous start to the season that found them at the bottom of the league as recently as December, the St. Louis Blues unexpectedly brought themselves to just three points out of a wild card spot in the crowded Western Conference. That has led to speculation that the team is committed to winning this season, and are trying as hard as they can to make the playoffs after missing in 2017-18.
Whether fans believe it or not, the Blues actually can make the playoffs. But to do so would not be in the best interests of their long-term future.
New Direction Under Berube
The Blues were one of the worst teams in the league at the start of the season, which caused them to change direction and fire former head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 20. He was replaced by Craig Berube, who was already behind the bench as an assistant coach.
The team slowly built momentum under the new bench boss, starting their first nine games with a 3-5-1 record. Since then, they have improved dramatically, and are now at a total record of 15-13-2 under the new regime. It’s been enough of a turnaround for the Blues to officially commit to Berube for the remainder of the season.
Berube’s biggest improvements have been on defense. Under Yeo, the blue line was a mess, trying to run an outmoded man-to-man scheme that the NHL has left behind. But that unit has improved to the point that the Blues are now 10th in the league in Corsi for percentage (an advanced statistic measuring overall possession) at 50.9 percent.
Armstrong in “Buy” Mode?
The team’s turnaround has put a halt to the rumors that once swirled around the team, rumors that general manager Doug Armstrong was fed up with his core and looking for a shakeup. Players like captain Alex Pietrangelo and even superstar Vladimir Tarasenko were potentially available, and Armstrong was said to be exploring every option to change the direction of his team over the long-term.
Now that the team has improved, those plans seem to be on hold. In fact, the team could be looking to buy, as reported by Darren Dreger.
— MurphysLaw74 (@MurphysLaw74) January 22, 2019
The team missed the playoffs for the first time in six years in the 2017-18 season, and may not have the appetite to do it again. According to Elliotte Friedman, that playoff miss was a shot to the pocket book, as it cost the team major ticket sales. With the team’s improved momentum, the dollar signs may be in the eyes of ownership, who appear to be pushing the team to focus on victory this season.
To the Blues’ credit, the Western Conference is a mess. The Dallas Stars are falling apart, the Anaheim Ducks are a disaster and the Edmonton Oilers seem to be lost entirely. The window is opening for the Blues to claw back into the playoffs, and that has clearly whetted the appetite of the front office.
It’s the perfect storm, and as much as non-believing fans may doubt it, the Blues certainly can make the playoffs in the 2018-19 season. But, when weighing all the information available, that would be a mistake.
Blues Struggle Without Backes
The Blues’ current tailspin really began after the 2015-16 season, a season in which they reached the conference final, the farthest the franchise had gotten since the 2000-01 season. That result was the culmination of almost a decade of team building, with captain David Backes as the central figure in a core of talent that fans believed would finally bring them a Stanley Cup.
The conference final was as far as that core group ever went, and Backes left the Blues for free agency. The Blues were unwilling to offer Backes a fifth year on his contract, and so he signed with the Boston Bruins. The same day, Troy Brouwer, who had only spent a season in St. Louis, but had become a critical leader in the locker room, moved on to the Calgary Flames.
In both cases, the Blues were wise not to match the contracts these players were offered. Backes is the constant target of criticism in Boston, as his contract has aged horribly, and Brouwer was bought out by the Flames before this season, having never found any rhythm there.
Failed Leadership of Pietrangelo, Tarasenko
In their absence, the Blues had a leadership vacuum. Pietrangelo was named the captain almost by default, as he was close friends with Backes and was the team’s leader in minutes. The alternate captaincies were given to Tarasenko and Alex Steen, both of whom were rumored to be unhappy that they were not given the primary honor.
Whether that rumored in-fighting is real or not, it is clear that the current leadership group is not the same as it was under Backes. The team has lost its grit and focus, both hallmarks of the previous era, and often show up for games seemingly unprepared.
It was this inconsistency that Armstrong targeted at his Nov. 20 press conference when he insisted that his patience had worn out with his core group. Is a 15-13-2 record under Berube really enough to re-instill that confidence? A more serious analysis of the past three seasons would insist otherwise.
Blues Need a New Direction
Except for a two-month hot streak when Ken Hitchcock was replaced by Yeo, the Blues might have missed the playoffs two seasons in a row. Had they done so, who knows whether the team would have committed to Armstrong for four more years, or instead sought a different voice at the top.
Now, the team is in a similar position. They may have the momentum to carry them to a playoff appearance, but that is not the most important direction for this team. The Blues are without a permanent coach, and have promised their fans an exhaustive search. Pietrangelo has just one more season left on his contract, and the team needs to decide whether he’s the right leader for their future.
Brayden Schenn is in the same position, and the team may not be able to extend him, with several centers blocking his playing time at that position. Star players like Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz are underperforming, and the team needs to identify what they have in both. Finally, the goaltending situation is as chaotic as always, with Jake Allen being totally replaced by 25-year-old AHL journeyman Jordan Binnington.
Decision Time in St. Louis
All of these are decisions the Blues have to make, and to ignore those decisions for the cheap thrill of what would surely be a first-round playoff exit would be a tremendous mistake. If the Blues’ primary desire is to make the playoffs this season, they likely can do so. The Western Conference is weak enough at the bottom, and the team has enough talent. But that is not the right direction.
If the Blues want to be healthy for the long-term, they need to evaluate their talent, trade the players they can’t keep long-term, maximize value and hire their next head coach. In the process, they can identify their new core, and hit the ground running in 2019-20.
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.