(Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
In one of my first articles for Bluesrants.com, I presented the Blues’s “4H Problem”: head, heart, hustle, and hangry. All four of those items were key areas where the Blues could improve on, and were completely within their control to fix. However, they were not the only areas of concern that plagued our beloved team. Instead of starting the season on the right foot, a “3S Problem” existed beyond their control: suffering, scheduling, and splitting. Those were unavoidable hazards that worked against them from the get-go, and while two of those problems have the potential to return, one of them is already solved.
Ah… the injury bug. We caught it bad in 2017-2018, worse than I’ve seen in a long time. Before the first puck dropped, Robby Fabbri tore his ACL for the second time, and was out for the entire season. Zach Sanford (shoulder) rejoined the Blues organization after he healed, but went back to the AHL for conditioning. He never played an NHL game all year, even though he did participate in practices before he was sent down. Both Patrik Berglund and Alex Steen started the season on the injured reserve list for respective injuries. After those guys, the list goes on and on: Jaden Schwartz (broken ankle), Joel Edmundson (broken wrist), Jay Bouwmeester (hip injury and surgery), Carl Gunnarsson (torn ACL and surgery), Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder surgery and upper body), Scottie Upshall (lacerated kidney and torn MCL), Jordan Schmaltz (concussion), Carter Hutton (lower body injury and neck issues), Nikita Soshnikov (upper body injury), Sammy Blais (concussion and lower body injury), Robert Bortuzzo (lower body injury), Tage Thompson (undisclosed injury), Kyle Brodziak (undisclosed injury), Alex Pietrangelo (foot injury)… all experienced injuries at one point, or multiple points, within the year (and that’s not including anyone who happened to get the flu bug or came down with an illness along the way!). Injuries happen, and it forces younger players in the minors to step up, but by the end of the year, ailments to key players, especially our defense, were a problem the Blues could not overcome successfully. I also want to point out that many of these injuries (Upshall, Gunnarsson, Schwartz, Pietrangelo, Edmundson, etc.) were freak injuries (especially in the case of Upshall). They were not a direct result of too many body checks, or worn out joints, or consistent, grinding and grueling play over years of experience. No, these were nothing of the kind: they were happenstance injuries from playing a very fast, very physical game, with little to no time to react differently.
Keeping our guys healthy was so difficult, and players were cycled in and out so much, that only two Blues players from the entire roster played a full 82 games: Colton Parayko and Brayden Schenn. If either one of them was sick or injured, neither one showed it, and deserve all the credit in the world for being the stalwart soldiers they were all season. Keeping more men off the injured reserve list and on the ice will be imperative moving forward. One thing I know I will not have to worry about is Doug Armstrong’s, and the trainers and coaches’, judgment in these situations. If they know a player is injured and assess that the injury is serious, they are not afraid of pulling that player off and keeping him off the roster until he is fully healed and ready to go. There are some exceptions to that, though they are rare exceptions. A great example is Bouwmeester, who played with a broken or fractured hip all year, without complaint, until it became so serious that he had to have immediate surgery. However, with all due respect to both Armstrong and Bouwmeester, Bouwmeester is not the type of person to necessarily inform anyone of an injury until he feels it has become a severe problem, and Armstrong has enough respect and confidence in Bouwmeester to know that if Bouwmeester says he can play, he can play. In that regard, both felt that the team would benefit more by keeping him in than leaving him out, and the season played out as it did. If the Blues can overcome the injury bug a bit more this year, and especially with the ability to pull up reliable players from their own AHL roster (more on that in a minute), from the top-down, the team will be better than it was last season.
Out of all the teams in the NHL, the Blues had the hardest schedule going into the 2017-2018 season. Their first game was against the two-time, Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Early on, the Blues stacked up against some of the best teams in the league, many of them Stanley Cup contenders a few months later: Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Vegas, Philadelphia, Nashville, Anaheim. The match-ups in the central division were brutal.
Next season is shaping up to be another extreme of gameplay. The first game out of the gate is against the Central Division Champion Winnipeg Jets. A bizarre seven game home stretch from October into November will not bode well if the team continues to play as poorly at home as they did last in year’s losing record. Twice, the Blues play the Predators back to back, both in St. Louis and in Nashville, and some of the other scheduled games make no sense at all (whose bright idea was it to have the Blues play at home against the Islanders in January, then fly to Philadelphia for a game two days later, then immediately fly back home the next day against Dallas?!).
They cannot pick the days they play, or the teams they play, but they can overcome them by playing well, in spite of jetlag, low expectations, and heated rivalries.
Once the Vegas Golden Knights were established, the Blues became the unlucky victim of losing their AHL team, the Chicago Wolves. How that was decided by the newest NHL team and the AHL affiliate, without the Blues having the option to have its own AHL team to transfer to immediately because of the San Antonio Rampage’s contract stipulations, is still a point of contention with many Blues fans to present day. Their new Rampage team would not fall underneath their jurisdiction until the 2018-2019 season: it was still affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche for 2017-2018.
All Blues prospects, including Klim Kostin, Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, and others, were basically on a team of nomads. The Blues had to either put their prospects on a team roster they no longer had control of, send them to a team they could not control yet, or disburse their players to other teams not directly in their control at all. Some of them did well for their respective teams, but half the battle in learning the game is to develop chemistry with teammates that would transfer to the NHL, and sharpening your skills against fellow teammates who have learned the same way you did. As seen in the 2016-2017 season, the “Wolf Pack” of Robby Fabbri, Zach Sanford, Jordan Schmaltz, and Ty Rattie all developed chemistry in the AHL that transferred to the NHL. No one could fully develop that chemistry if very few played on the same team. Also, Colorado and Vegas prospects took priority; their top players took top minutes, played on the top lines, and pushed the Blues prospects up and down the rosters as needed. No one could learn to play with their own Blues-affiliated teammates because they played with another team’s prospects instead, and even if they did play with the same Blues-affiliated teammates, jumping up and dropping down the lineup sheet ruined any momentum that the players may have developed with each other. The same situation took place when Schwartz was injured in December 2018, and both Schenn and Tarasenko were scattered to different lines. Once the “band” was put back together, it took quite a few games for them to reestablish their rhythm. Because Colorado and Vegas players took priority, it disrupted the Blues prospects’ line chemistry. It also hindered development. The Blues prospects were taught by coaches from entirely different systems, and if the need arose for the Blues to dip into the war chest of prospects to replace injured players, the results were mixed. I believe some prospects, like Schmaltz and Tage Thompson, were adequate enough to help out, and did well, but could have been better with a better set up and room to grow; they both left a lot to be desired when they were called up during the course of the season, even with their massive potential. Others, like Sammy Blais and Klim Kostin, who were either sent back down for more time and recovery (Blais) or left off the NHL roster entirely for development (Kostin), seemed to have a harder time adjusting because they did not have the benefit of learning the game in San Antonio in the way Mike Yeo needed them to learn it. They benefited the least from the odd team mismanagement predicament that they were in.
Thankfully, this is one problem that’s already solved, and will not be a problem for the next five years. I fully expect Schmaltz, Thommpson, Blais and Kostin, should all four return next year, to not only meet their potential but exceed it, as the Blues will finally have the proper way to teach them Blues hockey.
Play hard. Persevere. Defy the odds. The Blues are in a far better position this year than last year, and with key players from the OHL and AHL on the rise, I’m certain the year can take care of itself. The Blues are not in as bad of a position as one may think, and this next year will prove that. However, out of the two remaining “S’s” out of the Blues’s control, it’s up to them to see which one plagues them… one, both, or none at all. I’m hoping for none at all.
(Source: Hockey-Reference.com, STLToday.com)