Quarterly Report Card: Can Blues Sustain Great Start?

The St. Louis Blues players celebrate a goal scored against the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Photo courtesy: Keith Gillett, Getty Images)

The Lowdown

The Blues, for all intents and purposes, have shaken off the hangover. They got their “morning after” pill in the form of the players-only meeting after going 0-2-2 just 8 games in. Since then, the Blues have been on a roll: 12-4-5 in their first 21 games and a convincing 5-0 shutout against Calgary in game 23.

They took a 7-game winning streak on the clutch performances of David Perron and Jordan Binnington; Jake Allen is still getting wins as the backup, and the depth forwards of Oskar Sundqvist, Mackenzie MacEachern, and Robert Thomas seem all but unstoppable. There were a couple of trades and way more injuries: Tarasenko is out until playoffs, Steen is out for a couple more weeks and Sammy Blais is out until post-All-Star game.

Despite all this, the Blues are still winning games. In a league-leading 11 overtime games, the Blues have managed to find ways to win, regardless of what foe they face or who gets sidelined next. Brayden Schenn is definitely up to that challenge, re-signing with the Blues for 8 more years (then proceeded to score 8 goals in 9 games). With a current record of 14-4-5, they hold sole possession of 1st in the Western Conference, with a whopping 5-point advantage over the injured Avalanche. The Blues, however, still have injured forwards of their own; the question is, can it last?

Trade Buzz

We’ve already had two trades: Justin Faulk for Joel Edmundson and Dominik Bokk, and Robby Fabbri for Jacob de la Rose. Faulk has been… a perplexing conversation in St. Louis. Faulk, signing a lucrative 7-year, $45 million contract, hasn’t been up to par early for the Blues: six assists and pretty reprehensible Corsi numbers. Maybe it’s a consequence of playing for a brand-new franchise after spending his whole career with Carolina, but a player getting paid in a number that starts with a 6 starting next season needs to get it together.

As for Robby Fabbri, this was one trade you’d likely lose no matter what you try. There’s a lot of criticism for getting on the phone with a GM that’s rebuilding a team reduced to AHL caliber, who also turned Tampa Bay into the gargantuan roster they are now. All the same, Armstrong traded Fabbri for two-way forward Jacob de la Rose for one simple reason: Robby Fabbri is done in St. Louis. I’m with thousands of other fans that wanted to see Fabbri’s resurrection, but we’re seeing it in a Red Wings uniform.

Fabbri does not play the style of hockey that coach Berube wants of this team; that much is apparent. I wish nothing but the best for Fabbri, and I’m glad that he’s already found his groove as a “reclamation project” in Detroit. However, de la Rose is getting more ice time than Fabbri ever would have in St. Louis and he plays a physical, possessive game that fits right in.

Playing With the Boys

Speaking of play style, the Blues are right back at it with what won them the Cup last season. The Blues are heavy and physical in both ends of the ice. The possession in the offensive zone has been the bread and butter for the Blues, and Marc Savard has turned a laughable powerplay into one of the league’s best (7th at 24.3%). The defense has remained frustrating as well: 6th overall in Goals Against rattles speedy teams and gives the bigger teams a tooth-and-nail fight night in and night out.

The offense has been a concern. St. Louis is right down the middle in Goals-For, 15th at 3.04 GPG. For the first 10 games it looked like anyone not named Brayden Schenn or the second line couldn’t find the back of the net. However, the depth lines for St. Louis has been really starting to contribute as Berube cycles the lines. Tyler Bozak has returned to some of his Toronto days, playing top winger with Schwartz and Schenn.

The old “Sanford and Sons” pair has found chemistry again in the last couple games, as Sundqvist, Thomas, and Sanford netted a combined 3 goals and 9 points against Calgary. Klim Kostin made his NHL debut recently and has shown some promise alongside the young line of Barbashev and MacEachern.

The defense, while not exploding on the stat sheet as much back in early 2019, are still getting the job done. Pietrangelo continues to quarterback his team and the offensive situations, especially on the power play. Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko are virtually impossible to play against in their own zone. And when you’re really in a bind, enter grizzled vets Robert Bortuzzo or Carl Gunnarsson to lay a hit or block a shot.

Between Two Pipes

The Blues’ last line has been some of the best in the league – at least, in terms of wins. Jordan Binnington has proven his NHL caliber night in and night out by getting results – 11 wins in 18 starts, tied for most in the league. His GAA ranks 4th at 2.19 and save percentage at 6th with .926.

Jake Allen has less than impressive numbers (.893 SV%), but still maintains a 5-3-1 record in his 9 starts. What’s more uplifting about Jake Allen is his demeanor – he’s much calmer and moves much more laterally in his crease. Binnington, as usual, has been cold as the ice he dominates each night, and the duo might not be lights-out, but they’re getting the most important stat – wins.

Plug n’ Play

The Blues are rolling in the wins, but it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Franchise sniper Vladimir Tarasenko was sidelined with a shoulder injury that required surgery. His re-evaluation isn’t for 5 months, which puts him ready for playoffs if he’s lucky. Days after that announcement, veteran Alex Steen sustained an injury, putting him out for at least three more weeks.

Finally, the Blues got more bad news on Wednesday, as up-and-coming forward Sammy Blais required wrist surgery. That puts him out 10 weeks, with re-evaluation coming up shortly after the All-Star Game in St. Louis.

With key injuries mounting, Doug Armstrong remained patient and reserved about his next move. Klim Kostin made the first call-up from San Antonio and a lot of eyes will be on him as he develops in the NHL. Blues fans also got some nostalgic news when Troy Brouwer was signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $750,000.  The goal scoring has declined with Tarasenko out, but the Blues are making cautious, low-risk moves to add depth players to manage the roster, before they start calling up AHL kids.

Finally, coach Berube has stepped into the roster when necessary. He tried putting Robert Thomas on the top line with Schwartz and Schenn. That didn’t work. He puts him on a line with Sundqvist and Sanford? 3 assists in one game. St. Louis hits a skid, going 0-1-2? Berube overhauls the lines and get two decisive wins in regulation. He’s not one to just appreciate the wins; Berube see the parts of their defensive game that needs work, and that will contribute to more offense.

What’s Next?

It’s a month of home-at-homes for the Blues in November. They recently beat Tampa on home ice, with a warm welcome to St. Louis native Pat Maroon, and will play Tampa again on the 27th. Their next two games are against the Predators who, despite their low standings, are always a division rivalry to watch. They’ve played Calgary and Columbus twice this month, taking 7 out of 8 points in those contests, and play Pittsburgh twice in four days at the end of the month.

The looming issue with the Blues is the sustainability. The Blues are playing heavier than the majority of teams in the league and, by all accounts, it’s working early in the season. That asterisk always gets placed in the word “early”; it’s an 82-game season and two core pieces have already been placed on LTIR. While I think the Blues will fall back to earth a little, say, 2nd or 3rd in the Central Division when it’s all said and done, the sustainability of their grinding play that won them a Cup in 5 months is a legitimate question for a full season.

Finally, every Blues fan is pouring for more information on Alex Pietrangelo. Coming up on 30, the captain of the Blues becomes a UFA next season. He’s off to a great start: 12 assists and 18 points in 23 games. After spending all 12 years of his career with St. Louis, and after hoisting their first ever Stanley Cup, it’s hard to believe his contract talks are still in limbo. While I think the Blues should (and will) re-sign him, the Roman Josi contract (8yrs/$72m) complicates matters, for better or worse, and the Blues organization will likely pay a “Cup Champion” bonus to secure the right-shot defenseman.

Wrap-Up

All in all, the St. Louis Blues are off to a fantastic start, and they’re still hungry for more. Coach Berube rarely lets the team sit on their laurels and continues to bring the best out of each player. The team, likewise, has bought into the vision of Berube and the organization as well, playing to the values that won them a Cup last year. Despite losing key players young and old, they’re finding ways to get wins. There may be issues in consistency and scoring, but for now, the Blues aren’t ruling out a repeat run.

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