For anyone, even those using just half an eye to watch the St. Louis Blues, the cause for concern has become painfully obvious.
The team can’t score goals.
What would eventually become a chain reaction began when two key wingers that were the primary offensive catalysts went down to injury. The losses of TJ Oshie and David Perron created a power vacuum that has sucked the life out of the forward attack. The energy, effort, confidence and creativity the duo brought, lead to a reversal of fortune. The Blues would go on to post a record of 3-8-2 in their 13 games following the franchise record-setting mark of 9-1-2 in the opening 12 games of the season.
The team’s response to such adversity has pulled an equally abrupt u-turn compared to their record. Those on the books with the highest paychecks are expected to carry the load when the inevitable injury bug bites. The remaining healthy skilled forwards have not picked up their game in relation to the situation.
Gone is the desire to take on defenders and penetrate the high value area four to five feet outside the crease.
Gone is the ability to win board battles below the end red line.
Gone is the patience and poise to appropriately slow the play down and set up scoring chances.
Instead, the likes of David Backes, Brad Boyes, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen are moving like a bulls wearing a pink tutus in a china shop; that is, going as fast as they can while tip-toeing around like a ballerina to avoid knocking the dinnerware over. Far too much periphery play leading to a scant few second chances. A dynamic resulting in just 31 goals (2.38/Game) in the absence of #57 and #74.
For a combined $14.5 million in yearly salary, more is needed from the four experienced producers. There was a brief period where three were finding the net. The top line of McDonald, Backes and Boyes contributed 11 goals and 14 assists between November 13 and November 27, fantastic production from those expected to do the heavy lifting. However, the record during said time frame was 3-5-0.
How can a team lose so many games while one line is so hot? No secondary scoring stepped up behind them.
While another overachieving team, the Dallas Stars, has had Morrow, Riberio, and Benn to balance with Eriksson, Richards and Neal, the Blues haven’t had that second wave of productive pressure. The Backes line accounted for 73% of the Blues goals in the aforementioned stretch. Steen, Patrik Berglund and Matt D’Agostini failed to maintain their brief bit of chemistry. Brad Winchester did have some fine of games against Detroit, Ottawa and New Jersey, but returned to his standards shortly thereafter.
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong addressed this point with the St. Louis Post Dispatch on November 29.
“We’re manufacturing points, but we haven’t had enough balanced scoring,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “That’s one of the areas we have to improve. We’ve relied so heavily on that one line. Not as much from the call-up players, but there’s players on this roster that we need to have start chipping in offensively so that we can sustain this time with Perron and Oshie out.”
The finger was squarely pointed at Steen, Berglund, D’Agostini and everyone else not named Backes, McDonald and Boyes. Armstrong effectively saying “A golden opportunity is there for the taking, someone reach out and grab it.” Sadly, no one has.
Due criticism is also warranted for the power play. As of Sunday, the Blues man advantage unit sits at 13.1%, 26th overall. At times they are dramatically out of sync in gaining the offensive zone, and unable to pull the trigger early in the possessions they do gain to get the penalty killers out of position. These are general trends that are forcing an exaggerated number of low percentage chances. In the games since the injuries, and starting with Columbus on November 10, the power play is six for 40 (15%). This is a slight improvement on their season to date percentage, but far too ineffective to tilt games in their favor, especially when they’ve drawn just 11 advantages in the last five games. Teams need game situations to workout their kinks. Two chances a night is not enough.
Teams like St. Louis that struggle to score at even strength need their power play to provide a counter punch to stingy play five on five. They can’t score on the power play unless the opposition takes penalties. They can’t draw penalties if the puck and its carrier are outside the defensive box. And they can’t make it inside the dirty little areas unless the dues are paid.
All roads lead back to the same place. Energy, effort, confidence and creativity.
While the Blues were not scoring in great volume by any stretch of the hockey imagination prior to the injury outburst, they did have successful sustained pressure. They were outworking defenders on the forecheck, retrieving pucks, cycling and creating second chances. Energy and effort are still present but not nearly as much so. Analysts like Darren Pang don’t make comments like “Hardest working team in NHL IMO”, even if it is on Twitter. The confidence and creativity to take what is given to make the simple play has evaporated. There has been no yin of patience to the yang of hard work.
Rediscovering that balance is vital to survival in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and finding it soon means all the difference between staying in the pack or falling back.