Five things I want to see from the Blues over their final 38 games of the regular season …
1) Improve on the road. This is important because the Blues will play 21 of their final 38 games away from Enterprise Center. At 9-8-3 they’re barely above average on the road this season with a points percentage (.525) that ranks 16th in the NHL and 8th in the West. After restarting the season with two home games later this week, the Blues will play eight of their next nine on the road. Division rivals Minnesota (.652) Colorado (.650) and Nashville (.640) have been much stronger on the road than St. Louis this season.
2) Be stronger at five-on-five. The Blues have a dynamic power play, ranking 2nd in the NHL with a success rate of 28.4 percent. And nearly 25 percent of their total goals this season have been scored on the PP. And that’s a huge factor in the team’s No. 6 overall ranking in goals per game (3.43.) No complaints here. Having said that, it would behoove the Blues to get sturdier when playing at five-on-five. While they’ve scored 53.5% of the goals during five-on-five this season, the underlying factors – bulk shot attempts, volume of shots on net, and close-range chances – point to potential trouble. The Blues rank 27th among the 32 teams with an expected goals-scored share of 45.6% at five-on-five. The Blues rank 31st with their 43.5% share of high-danger shots on net at five-on-five. Alarming? Not necessarily. But stronger five-on-five play would reduce the Blues’ vulnerability.
3) Tighten the defense. The Blues give up too many high-danger chances and have been rescued by their goaltenders. The STL goaltenders rank No. 1 in the NHL in high-danger save percentage at all strengths and are No. 2 in high-danger save percentage at five-on-five.
4) Shoot the puck! This is part of the five-on-five issue. The Blues are one of the more accurate teams in the league at shooting and scoring. Their percentage of shots on net that become goals – 9.38 – is fifth-best in the NHL. But the Blues can make opposing goaltenders work harder by launching more shots. At five-on-five they’re 29th in the NHL in total shot attempts and rank 19th with an average of 29.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes.
5) Jump to it. The Blues have outscored opponents by only two goals (37-35) in the first period this season. In their first 44 games, they’ve led only 13 times after the first 20 minutes. The Blues rank 17th in the NHL in wins (10) leading after one. And while their 15 comeback victories are tied for the most in the league this season, it’s better to take early leads and keep them instead of relying on comebacks.
READING TIME, 7 MINUTES
Congrats to Our Town’s Jayson Tatum, who will be a starter in the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 20 in Cleveland. Tatum was initially chosen as a reserve but was elevated to a starting role to replace the injured Kevin Durant for the second straight season. This will be the third consecutive All-Star Game for Tatum who is still only 23 years old. Though his shooting percentage is down this season – overall, and from 3-point range – Tatum is averaging 25.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game this year for his Boston Celtics … First year Boston coach Ime Udoka said Tatum’s high ceiling goes beyond making the NBA All-Star team. “For him, that’s a standard that he has set and a goal that he should achieve yearly, in my opinion,” Udoka said. “As well as All-NBA and, eventually, the MVP conversation,” … Tatum is the youngest player in Celtics franchise history to be chosen for the All-Star Game three times … “It’s an incredible feeling, something you don’t want to take for granted,” Tatum told reporters. “So I’m thankful and happy.”
Keith Law (The Athletic) put the Cardinals are No. 13 in his annual farm-system rankings. They were 11th last year. “The Cardinals’ system is surprisingly filled with high-ceiling guys, as the team has changed its approach in the draft in the past few years. They lost their first- and second-round picks in 2017. Then they returned the next year with what seems like a brand-new philosophy to aim high, which has worked so far … hey have a lot of depth in potential non-regulars – middle relievers, platoon guys, bench pieces – behind the seven or eight high-ceiling guys atop the system,” … Last week Law placed three future Cardinals on his MLB Top 100 Prospects list: infielder Nolan Gorman (17), corner infielder-outfielder Jordan Walker (30), left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore (36), and catcher Ivan Herrera (75) … other St. Louis prospects touted by Law include shortstop/pitcher Masyn Wynn, lefty pitcher Zack Thompson, DH Juan Yepez, third baseman Malcolm Nunez, outfielder Joshua Baez, pitcher Michael McGreevy, and pitcher Tink Hence.
Speaking of rankings, five of the greatest Cardinals in franchise history were selected for spots on ESPN’s Top 100 baseball players of all time: Stan Musial (10th), Rogers Hornsby (20th), Albert Pujols (30th), Bob Gibson (33rd) and Ozzie Smith (69th.) … Other notables include St. Louis natives Yogi Berra (39th) and Max Scherzer (65th) … these things aren’t easy to put together, and it’s easy to question some of the choices, but I’m thinking Pujols and Gibson should be ranked in the top 25. Or maybe I’m just being a homer. All in all, ESPN did a good job and it was fun to go over the selections. The top 10 in order: Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Walter Johnson, and Musial.
Only three St. Louis Rams remain on the LA Rams roster that will face Cincinnati in Sunday’s Super Bowl: all-world defensive lineman Aaron Donald, punter Johnny Hekker, and offensive right tackle Rob Havenstein. Hekker said the three still reminisce about their time in St. Louis. “It’s a real honor to be considered with those guys, and how long we’ve been able to stay with one organization is a real blessing,” Hekker said … Hekker, who was popular in St. Louis, draws glowing reviews from Rams head coach Sean McVay: “He was really a great leader from the time that I got here. Somebody that’s intentional about doing things the right way, perfecting their craft but also making a positive impact on their teammates, that’s Johnny Hekker.”
College basketball columnist Eamonn Brennan does a weekly “Bubble Watch” for The Athletic. St. Louis U. made it into his latest update. “This is another extremely solid Travis Ford team, led by point guard Yuri Collins, who boasts the nation’s third-best assist rate (45.4%) on a team that doesn’t shoot the ball all that well inside the arc and doesn’t attempt many shots beyond it. SLU came into league play with a road win over Boise State which looks much better these days, and it has won its last five games to pad out the records a bit. Just barely on the bubble right now, we’d say, but there’s plenty of time left — and a road trip to Davidson still on the schedule. Hmm.”
Hall of Fame football writer Rick Gosselin recently selected the Top 55 plays in Super Bowl history. And coming in at No. 5 was “The Tackle” by St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones on Tennessee wide receiver Kevin Dyson on the final play of Super Bowl 34. The stop sealed the Rams’ seven-point win … “There have been thousands of tackles in Super Bowl history but none stand out like the one by Jones,” Gosselin wrote. “Tennessee was 10 yards away from overtime with 10 seconds to play. Steve McNair found Dyson on a slant at the 3-yard line but Jones hit him low. Dyson tried to spin out of the tackle and, as he was going down, reached for the goal line — but the ball touched down inside the one, short of the end zone. The Rams escaped, 23-16.”
CHECKING IN ON BRADLEY BEAL
UPDATE: Hours after this column was posted, ESPN reported that Beal will miss the remainder of the season because of a wrist injury. The drama over his contract and future in Washington — stay or go, opt for free agency or not? — most likely will be tabled until the offseason. But with the NBA trade deadline coming up on Thursday, Beal won’t be traded this week. Did Beal decide to shut it down to heal in time for a potential free-agent run? We’ll wait and see.
Beal isn’t having as much fun as his friend Jayson Tatum. Beal, the proud St. Louisan and star guard for the Washington Wizards, has missed the team’s last four games with a wrist injury. He’s made only 30% of his three-point shot attempts this season, and the Wizards have lost 22 of their last 33 games to tumble to 24-29 on the season.
Beal is monitoring activity leading into Thursday’s trade deadline. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, is in Washington D.C. to meet with team management in advance of the deadline. Beal can opt out of his contract after the season, and he’s pondering a five-year max contract offer from the Wizards – projected at $241 million – that would keep him in Washington. But Beal hasn’t indicated he’ll sign the offer, which is around $60 million more than other NBA teams can pitch to him.
The Wizards are in a bind. The question: trade Beal now, or hope that he signs and stays on. But if management believes there’s a good chance of Beal departing as a free agent, does it make sense to trade him? There’s another aspect to this. If the Wizards want to increase Beal’s desire to remain in Washington, they’d be smart to improve the roster by adding talent and clearing clutter before Thursday’s deadline.
The team chemistry is awful – just as Beal suggested in a recent interview with NBC Sports Washington.
“A lot of my teammates are fighting for minutes. They’re fighting for a spot, they’re fighting for survival in a lot of ways, trying not to be traded, trying to stay in the league, trying to get another contract,” Beal said. “So, I get it from the business standpoint and it’s tough to manage that from different roles because everybody has a different agenda in a way. Once we have a committed group to what’s important and winning, then I think that’s what’s going to change.”
Good luck with that. After a horrendous 121-100 home loss to the Miami Heat on Monday, Beal’s teammate Kyle Kuzma sounded off on the team’s obvious dysfunction.
“I think the biggest thing with us these past games is our effort level and then our response,” Kuzma said. “It’s really tough when you get punched in the face and you don’t stand up. I think that just kinda sums up what’s going on. As soon as we hit a little bit of adversity, it’s quite a challenge to get out of that. I think in order to be resilient in a team sport, you have to think about the team first. Right now, it’s really, really murky in that sense of trying to have another guy be happy for the next guy.”
In the final seconds of the blowout loss to Miami, Wizards assistant coach Mike Batiste went into the stands to confront a mouthy spectator. At least Batiste showed some fight, which is more than we can say about the team’s players.
AS OTHERS SEE US
My friend Joe Sheehan, the superb baseball analyst, offered an early-bird preview on the Cardinals in his daily newsletter.
Here are some of Sheehan’s thoughts on the 2022 Cardinals – at least as they stand during the current lockout. There’s always a chance of roster additions later.
— Team overview: “Since the National League realigned, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 16 times in 27 seasons, winning the NL Central 11 times, the NL pennant four times, and the World Series twice. More than the Dodgers, more than the Braves, they are the dominant NL franchise of the post-strike era. Heading into 2022, the Cardinals return almost the entire team that won 90 games last year, and they are on the brink of promoting two excellent prospects in Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore.”
— On rookie manager Oli Marmol: “I am incredibly curious to see how Marmol runs this bullpen. Mike Shildt locked in on Alex Reyes as his closer early on, and stuck with him even as Reyes’s walk rate portended failure. Like a lot of managers, Shildt talked about flexibility and practiced rigidity. Marmol inherits a lot of talent here, a pen with a range of skill sets that should provide him options from the sixth inning onward. Will he take advantage of them or fall into the score-and-inning trap so many managers do?”
— On the NL Central: “With two NL Central teams not that interested in competing and the Cubs a bit of a mystery, only the Brewers are in the way of the Cardinals extending their run as the NL Central’s biggest bullies.”
— On the DH: “If the NL does adopt the designated hitter, top prospect Nolan Gorman would likely be the biggest beneficiary. If they were to go outside the organization, Michael Conforto’s lefty pop and high OBP would be an excellent fit.”
— On Paul DeJong: “DeJong continued his long slide from his 121 OPS+ rookie season, hitting .197 and losing the shortstop job. He’s still a plus defender and signed through 2023 with options for 2024 and 2025. I never believed in that bat, and if he’s not starting he’s not much of a bench asset. His glove and power would improve a lot of teams’ shortstop situations, so if Edmundo Sosa is going to be the starter, DeJong is trade bait.”
— On Tommy Edman: “He had a .308 OBP, which just kills you atop a lineup. It’s .318, career, from the left side, a number that’s dropped in each of the last two seasons. Edman has been a plus defensive second baseman, so it’s not like he has to move, but I like him better as a utilityman, starting less often against right-handers and playing six positions, some of them very well. We’ll see if Gorman forces him into that role soon enough.”
— On Adam Wainwright: “Wainwright was both a great story and a great pitcher last year, solidifying a rotation that couldn’t go a week without an injury. If Wainwright had merely taken the ball 32 times and thrown 200 innings, that would have been plenty, but he did so while running a 3.05 ERA and 3.66 FIP. He wasn’t just eating innings, he was keeping runs off the board, and he did so right through that ill-fated wild-card exit.”
— On the rotation beyond Wainwright: “At 40, Waino’s bag of tricks could empty at any time. The Cardinals, looking for stability, signed Steven Matz to a four-year deal at fourth-starter money. His job will be to let (the defense) get outs behind him. Whether this rotation works out will depend on three guys who combined for 25 starts last season. Jack Flaherty looked like an ace in 2019; he was ineffective in 2020 and missed half of last year with oblique and shoulder problems. Few players have more on the line in ’22. Dakota Hudson made a couple of appearances after 2020 Tommy John surgery and is an unknown. Miles Mikolas has fought forearm and shoulder problems the last two years. The Cardinals can look forward to the debut of lefty Matthew Liberatore, as they try to get something from the 2019 Randy Arozarena trade. When the innings of Hudson and Mikolas need to be managed, Liberatore will be a big part of doing so.”
— Conclusion: “As I wrote (earlier), the Cardinals are more of a finished product than I thought they were. Thirteen of the 14 players who played in their playoff game return. They signed the innings-forward starter they needed. Their bullpen is loaded. They have internal options to fill the looming designated hitter spot, and with a projected payroll down $35 million compared to 2021, plenty of money to go outside the organization to fill that hole if they want. The Cardinals’ century continues apace.”
These excerpts from Joe are an example of what you can expect if you subscribe to his excellent newsletter. So do it! Sheehan works hard for your support and pumps out abundant, insightful content.
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Thanks for reading …
Please listen to Bernie’s opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and on Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can stream the show live or download the show or specific segments by going to 590TheFan.com or by using the 590 The Fan app which is available in your preferred app store. Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz