(Photo by USA Today Sports)
Goaltending has been inconsistent, the defense has been porous, they are leaving opposing players wide open to score, and then they have been utterly failing to score. That doesn’t even take into account the usual poor officiating and our usual December injury spree hitting the team. That being said, “The Blues Suck…and I know why but it doesn’t make any sense, because on paper they shouldn’t be”, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as a title. The point is, the Blues are not playing well and it frankly doesn’t make any sense.
Of course, some of this we all saw coming. Jake Allen has been inconsistent most of his career. Chad Johnson was never going to be another Elliot or Hutton and anyone who said differently was either lying or hoping. I’ve been a Blues fan for most of my life, and I don’t remember the last time the refs ever made a call favoring us over the opposing team. I also don’t remember the last time there wasn’t a key player that started the season injured, and we seem to have a spat of important players go on IR sometime around the holidays. It’s just a normal every year thing.
This year was supposed to be different though. We were supposed to be able to handle those normal every year hardships. We had a great offseason. Not just an offseason of 1 or 2 good draft picks and an ok free agent signing, we had a legitimately great offseason. We traded to get one of the hottest commodity centers in the league, Ryan O’Reilly, who is currently playing out of his mind. We signed two solid forwards that would provide us with the depth we were severely lacking last season. Then we closed it out by picking up the hometown hero in Patrick Maroon. All of this was good news, all of this was what needed to happen. The two biggest complaints about this team last year was lack of forward depth, especially up the middle, and goaltending. Granted, the latter wasn’t addressed, but there weren’t really any options out there for it. Armstrong was left choosing between Hutton and Allen, and then cleaning up the pieces afterward. He did that, whether you liked how or not it was done, we got what we got. The thing that was wrong that could be addressed was forward depth and it was, in spades.
The one thing nobody was talking about last year was defense and why would they? Last year the Blues were 6th in the NHL in Goals Against per game, they were 3rd in shots against per game, they were also 6th in both Hits and Blocked Shots and had the least giveaways in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo looked like an Elite defenseman. He set career highs in goals, points, and takeaways, and tied his career high in blocked shots. He averaged more than 25 minutes a game for the sixth year in a row, made yet another All-Star game, also finished the year 13th among Defensemen for points, 18th in assists, 8th in goals, and 6th in ATOI. He also set a solid 51.5% Corsi For and finished 9th in the voting for the Norris. By all accounts last year, Alex was arguably a top 10 NHL defenseman and defiantly a top 20. Behind him, Joel Edmundson had a career year and Vince Dunn legitimately looked like a future great. He finished 6th in points, 5th in assists and 6th in ATOI among rookie defensemen last year. Sure he wasn’t really a candidate for the Calder, but he looked legitimately solid. Sure Jay Bouwmeester was shaky last year and Parayko didn’t look like the top pair guy we all thought he would be, but with Pietro, Edmundson, and Dunn playing like they were, all we needed was a decent Parayko and depth, which was more than provided.
This year the defense can’t even be counted on to be decent. We are currently 7th worst in GA/GP, down to 14th in Shots against per Game, they are also down to 21st in Hits and 10th in Blocked Shots. The only silver lining so far, is that we have only fallen to 2nd in giveaways. Alex Pietrangelo no longer looks elite, he has played 24 games and was having his first negative plus/minus year since 2014-15. Then he got injured in the Colorado game and that injury looks likely to put him out for the rest of the season. He was on pace to put up only 37 points, which would’ve been tied for worst in his career and equal to the points he got in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. His ATOI was down over a minute from last year and under 25 min for the first time since 2011-12. So, even before the injury, he wasn’t looking to have a great season with the only bright spot being that he was on pace to set career highs in blocks and close to a career high in hits. Unfortunately, he was also on pace for a career-high in Giveaways. Whether he could have turned it around or not we’ll likely never know, as the chances are we won’t see him again this year.
Joel Edmundson, who looked like our second best defenseman last year isn’t really being given a chance to play that role this year, despite probably being our 2nd best guy on the ice and by far and away, being the most consistent. Unfortunately, he’s never managed to play more than 69 games in a single season, so he will need to set career highs this year just to show he belongs, and again, he’s only been given limited chances on the top pair, which is honestly where he probably belongs. With Pietrangelo out, the duty of top pair right defenseman falls to Parayko. Despite bad optics, Parayko is on pace to have a fairly decent year defensively, but his offensive numbers are down, especially his assists, of which he only has 3, which puts him on pace for only 11 on the season and that’s less than half his career low. Parayko is looking less and less like a possible offensive powerhouse that was being held back by Pietrangelo, and more and more like a borderline 2nd pair guy that has trouble hitting the net. He also seems allergic to using his considerable size as a weapon and seems like he is more and more shying away from actually putting his body on anyone in front of the puck. He has spent a considerable amount of time this year out of position and has blown more than his fair share of assignments. How he has managed to stay positive in +/- is beyond me. Only time will tell if the unfortunate promotion is a catalyst to propel Parayko up to the level of play we all thought he was capable of 3 years ago, but I for one am not holding out much hope. At the same time, Vince Dunn seems to be doing alright offensively, but he is making a collection of rookie mistakes, from bad giveaways to not taking shots when he needs too, to passing pucks to empty spots in crucial possession situations. Vince Dunn isn’t a bad defenseman, but when the team needed him to grow and improve the most, he seems to be regressing. Add to that the fact that Gunnerson, who isn’t exactly a great defenseman talent wise but is reliable and at least dependable, can’t seem to stay healthy, and Bortuzo has spent the majority of the season on the IR.
All of that has more or less forced the Blues to rely on an aging Jay Bouwmeester, who is just plain old. I don’t mean to knock the man, he’s had a long and storied NHL career and I wouldn’t exactly argue against him getting into the Hall of Fame, but that was in the past. Right now he’s too slow and making a ridiculous amount of mistakes, up to and including putting the puck in his own net. He definitely isn’t worth the $5.4mil the blues are paying him. Luckily, this is the last year of that deal, so at worst, the Blues will only have to live with the Bouwmeester problem for a few more months. We have also been forced to rely on Jordan Schmaltz, who is essentially a 25-year-old rookie. He’s only played 39 games total in the NHL and those have been spread over 3 years. He isn’t exactly killing it, considering he is basically being asked to figure everything out himself, because the guys he’s supposed to be learning from are severely underperforming. Now with the injuries, we are going to have to add Chris Butler to this mix. There’s nothing exactly special about Butler, he can be relied on to not be bad, but that’s about all one can say about him so far.
Despite all of this, the Blues defense isn’t outright bad, they’re just mediocre. None of those rankings I listed above are last or close to last in the NHL, they are all middle of the road, but when you combine that with goaltending that can best be described as inconsistent, it is a recipe for disaster. Still, we were supposed to be able to handle that. We made major upgrades to the offense, we added Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak who are two of the best Faceoff guys in the NHL, as well as David Perron, who was coming off a Career year and Pat Maroon, who was happy to be back home and has had incredible years playing with a series of great players. Not to mention bringing up two of our top prospects in Thomas and Kyrou and the sudden emergence of Zach Sanford and Ivan Barbashev. Plus, we finally got Robby Fabbri back from his repeated knee injuries and after preseason, he looked to be coming back to his old self. Sure we still had an aging Alex Steen and we lacked some physicality, but the NHL is starting to shy away from physicality, and the youth should have more than covered up for Steen’s age, and his defensive prowess should have covered up for the mistakes that naturally come with youth.
Despite all the positive additions, the Blues are languishing. They are 18th in Goals for per Game and 21st in Shots per game. So far the only bright side of our offense as a unit, is that our PP% is up to 9th in the league at 24% and seems to be at least working somewhat. When you break things down from games to 60 mins we are 18th in Goals per 60 mins and 19th in Points per 60 mins. Both of those ranks are up from last year, but with the defense regressing as much as they have, the offense would have needed to be pushing the top of the league to cover up and they are mediocre at best.
Certain players need to be called out here as well, both good and bad. Ryan O’Reilly is absolutely killing it. His Faceoffs are everything that was sold to us and more as he is currently on pace for a career year in Faceoff percentage. He is also on pace to almost double his career high in goals, set a career high in assists and add 30 to his career high in points. On the defensive side, he is on pace for his first positive plus/minus season since his rookie year and is doing all of this with solid defensive stats and a good Corsi number. Robert Thomas started the season looking a bit lost, but he has managed to rise to the NHL level and is starting to look like a future first line player, although he has only managed 1 goal and 6 assists in 18 games. The Blues made a slight gamble by calling him up and keeping him up rather than sending him back down for another season in Juniors, but so far, he is looking like he belongs here even if the numbers don’t necessarily show it. Tyler Bozak is also living up to the Faceoff numbers that were promised and is having a solid offensive year that could turn into a few career highs for him. David Perron also looks to be having a good year, although he’s a long way away from his career high in assists and points from his last season in Vegas and while he might hit a career high in goals, that isn’t going to win games this year. Basically, Perron is exactly what we thought he would be which is good, but not a game changer. Robby Fabbri looks OK, not great again, but not bad, and considering he hasn’t stepped on NHL ice since 2017, that is saying something. Sure he only has 3 points and 2 goals in 12 games, but he is averaging 14 mins per game, he’s been playing with great energy, and has looked to be one of our better forwards this year. Which makes his recent injury that will likely hold him out till at least Christmas all the more troubling.
That’s the good, here’s the bad. Alex Steen looks like the forward version of Bouwmeester. He looks old and slow on the ice and he is blowing assignments left and right. He’s also added yet another minor concussion to his long list of career injuries. Jaden Schwartz is hurt, again. I genuinely like Jaden, he is a great forward and he is one of the best forwards in the league. He is the textbook definition of a puck hound and he makes whomever he is playing with better. The problem is, he is fragile. He is starting to look injury prone and he struggles to stay healthy for enough games to be a factor. As a top line forward, the Blues need about 80 games a year from him. So far, he is only managing to play 65.6 games a year, and this year he is only on pace to play 56, which isn’t enough. When he is on the ice he is a force to be reckoned with, but he isn’t on the ice enough to be that consistently. Sanford and Sundqvist have had good games, but they have been inconsistent at best and they go from great prospects to invisible, almost from game to game. Finally, we get to Tarasenko. Tarasenko has improved his defensive play a lot this year and that was something we needed, however, in the process, his offensive game has suffered. He currently is only on pace for 26 goals this year, almost a career low. At the same time, he is on pace for a career-high in assists, and would only finish with one more point than last season. Despite a defensive improvement, he is having a negative year in plus/minus and is having the worst season in shooting percentage of his career. His block and hit numbers are both on pace to be career highs, but his Corsi is currently on pace to be the lowest of his career, although the CF% relative to the league is actually higher than his career numbers. It’s basically a weird season for Tarasenko. At times he seems like he is almost afraid to shoot the puck and he seems to be looking for passes at crucial situations when he should be shooting. At the same time, he is on pace for a career-high in shots and a career-high in shot attempts, however, his shooting percentage is down 3% from last year which was down 3% from the year before. Tarasenko is taking more shots and missing the net more than he did in his most successful years, while simultaneously trying to be more of a defensive force and more of a playmaker. Basically, he seems to be confused as to what he is. He keeps playing like he wants to be a major two-way player and a playmaker when his skillset lends him more towards being an elite sniper. It’s almost as if he was hearing the Ovechkin comparisons and thought, “No, I don’t want to be Ovie, I want to be Malkin” and changed his game accordingly.
When the season began, everyone had the Blues as a legitimate team and I mean everyone. The NHL media thought they were going to be good, the local media thought we were going to be good. The blog sites thought we were going to be good. The social media forums thought we were going to be good. Even Connor McDavid thought we were going to be good. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody was expecting this team to be last place in the central and 2nd to last in both the west and the league. This team was supposed to be good. On paper they look good, if you look at the numbers from last year, and add in this off-season’s acquisitions and call-ups, they looked like a top ten or even top five team. Hell, going into this season, the only real question anyone had about this team was whether or not the goaltending would be up to snuff. Now the goaltending is the one thing that is actually living up to what was billed. What was supposed to be a top 10 defense has fallen to mediocre at best, and our mediocre offense that was supposed to improve by leaps and bounds has seemingly failed to improve at all.
The question now is, what do you do about it? We’ve already fired the coach and despite a good game against Nashville and a solid performance against Colorado, that hasn’t really seemed to have an effect. There is a massive call to hire an elite coach like Joel Quenneville, but at this point, does anyone really believe he’d be able to turn this around right now? And even if he could, what’s his incentive to do so? Why should a future hall of fame coach that is basically being paid to do nothing right now, jump into a situation where he is working with a team that can’t seem to figure out their own individual identities, much less a team identity? Taking this job right now for Coach Q is setting himself up for failure and that is something that he is not going to do, not if he’s smart at least and we all know he is. In the end though, someone has to own this mess. The coach is gone and things haven’t gotten better, so you have to think that the next head on the chopping block has to be Armstrong.
Whether Armstrong stays or goes is ultimately irrelevant though. At the heart of this issue is the players and their seeming inability to play up to the standard that is expected of them, that they have set themselves through their previous play. There is a problem with this roster right here and now and either Armstrong or his replacement are going to have to clean this up and that is not going to be an easy task. Sure Bouwmeester is going to be gone after this year, if not sooner, but the Blues are still going to be stuck with an aging Steen for two more years after this, all with a no-trade clause. We have a collection of underperforming prospects on the defensive side of the puck and limited options in our system. I like Mitch Reinke, Jake Walman, and Niko Mikkola, I really do, but they are not going to suddenly morph into top pair defensemen. If Dunn and Schmaltz don’t start playing up to what they are supposed to be, then we are going to be in even more trouble on the defensive side of the puck. We have an array of depth forwards that are going to want new contracts next season, namely Robby Fabbri and Zack Sanford, and we may or may not have the money to give it to them. And to cap it all off, we still are no closer to solving the Goalie situation, which is still inconsistent at best. At this point, I’m not sure what the answers are but I do know one thing, this team is not the team we were sold in September, and if it doesn’t start to improve, coaches are not the only ones that are going to have to start worrying about their jobs.