Before I explain why I’m fired up by the offseason additions of wingers Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich, let’s go back in time and trace the Blues’ odyssey to this moment in time.

The Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019 with a rugged and relentless 5-on-5 style of game. It was Craig Berube Hockey, full stop. By dictating the terms of engagement and imposing their controlled and targeted brand of toughness the Blues wore opponents down, dominated possession time, and made it hard for the other side to breathe. When the Blues were locked into the Chief Mode, their intensity was disruptive and oppressive. In the mission to capture the Cup, the Blues refused to relax or retreat. The tanks on ice kept coming at you.

After making a coaching change and transitioning to the Berube Way, the Blues went 30-10-5 over their final 45 regular-season games. At 5-on-5 the Note scored 59.8 percent of the goals, and had an expected goals-for percentage of 56.5%.

Translation: this was no fluke; the Blues’ authority was a real thing. They produced plenty of goals. And with the considerable assistance of rookie-magic goaltender Jordan Binnington, the Blues firmly denied goals. They tipped the competitive balance.

In the four-round postseason the Blues outscored opponents by an astonishing margin of 56-40. When 58.3% of the goals scored at 5-on-5 during a march to the Stanley Cup belong to you, it’s a helluva advantage.

The Blues were strong at 5-on-5 in 2020 — well, at least until they broke down in the bubble after the lengthy shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Blues were kicked out of the bubble — season over — after scoring a pathetically low 41.8 percent of the goals at 5-on-5.

It was the beginning of their loss of an identity. Berube Hockey wasn’t the same. And the decline continued during the injury-tormented 2021 season. The Blues had to compete with a lineup that couldn’t fully function with so many missing parts. But when the injuries healed and players returned, the Blues were often a pushover at 5-on-5 play.

Last season they scored 48.3 percent of the goals at 5-on-5. And it was worse than that; based on the metrics the Blues’ expected goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 was only 46 percent. And that ranked a lowly 25th among the 31 NHL teams. And the Blues simply didn’t get to the net for enough sweet-spot scoring chances; at 5-on-5 they ranked 30th in the percentage of high-danger shots from the crease or slot. Under Berube in 2019, the Blues were No. 1 in the NHL with 58% of the high-danger chances during their games.

Two years after winning the Stanley Cup, the Blues neglected to grind their way forward with the system that led to the elusive, cherished trophy. Or maybe the Blues were incapable of playing that way; the frequent interruptions damaged their lineup continuity. And that certainly was a factor.

Other chasms were created by the retirements of conscientious forward-leader Alex Steen and valorous defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. And the Blues’ reliable, all-purpose consistency was weakened by the free-agent defection of defenseman-captain Alex Pietrangelo. And any team’s lineup would miss the goal-scoring prowess of Vladmir Tarasenko, who essentially lost two seasons because of chronic shoulder problems.

But I can’t overlook other, jarring developments. The players didn’t buy in last season. The effort was sporadic. Berube frequently growled about the team’s reduced level of intensity and competitiveness. The Blues checked in, checked out. They were on the ice and in uniform — but didn’t necessarily show up for each game.

Berube Hockey is a hard way to play, and too many guys lost their desire to commit to it. This is undeniable. And as long as Berube is the coach, the Blues will have to play the Berube way. So president of hockey operations Doug Armstrong has a choice. He can (A) find more players that fit the Berube template; or (B) find a new coach.

The summer, Armstrong is choosing the first option.

And Buchnevich and Saad profile as a match for Berube Hockey. That’s my initial take, but as always we’ll have to see the Blues back in competition before we know for sure.

But the Blues have collected a couple of effective 5-on-5 players. Armstrong acquired Buchnevich, 26, from the NY Rangers for winger Sammy Blais and a second-round draft pick. Armstrong pivoted and signed Buchnevich to a four-year contract extension worth $23.2 million. And then Army entered the free-agent market to procure Saad, 28, on a five-year deal for $22.5 million.

Here’s what I like about the two additions and how the moves should help reconnect the Blues to their 5-on-5 base, and I’ll include some quotes and views from other places:

1–Buchnevich and Saad have the kind of size that’s an attribute when playing Berube Hockey. They do not shy away from contact. Tough physical play isn’t an issue. Both do a good job of creating rebounds, and over the last three seasons Buchnevich ranks among the league’s top 40 forwards in tip-in goals.

2–On the topic of Berube Hockey, you have to love this comment from Saad: “From playing against them. They like to hold onto pucks, cycle pucks, protect it, and that’s all part of my identity as well. I like to contribute a 200-foot game as well as scoring and contribute in that aspect. It’s part of how I pride myself on being a consistent player night in and night out. That’s just the type of person and player I am.”

3–Last season Buchnevich led the Rangers with 13 goals and 32 points at 5-on-5. The Rangers had plenty of high-end forwards, and that makes Buchnevich’s team-best production at 5-on-5 even more impressive. When Buchnevich was on the ice at 5-on-5 last season, the Rangers scored 57 percent of the goals. Since the start of the 2017-2018 season the Rangers have scored 55% of the 5-on-5 goals when Buchnevich is out there working.

4–Buchnevich ranked second among NY Rangers forwards in penalty-kill ice time last season and scored three shorthanded goals. His PK ability helps fill a void that opened when Jaden Schwartz signed a free-agent deal with Seattle. The Rangers had an abundance of skilled forwards — a reason for the trade, along with the salary-cap crunch — and Buchnevich will probably receive more power-play time in St. Louis.

“He’s a definite top-six forward,” Armstrong said via video conference with media to discuss the trade. “I think he’s just starting to come into his own. I think he’ll touch every aspect of our game, or have the opportunity to.”

5–Saad scored 13 goals at 5-on-5 for Colorado last season; that was tied for second on the team with Andre Burakovsky. Only Mikko Rantanen, with 18, had more 5v5 goals for the Avs than Saad. Yes, that means he scored more 5-on-5 goals than Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Saad has averaged 14.3 goals at 5-on-5 over the last three seasons. And 16 goals at 5v5 over the last eight seasons.

6–Saad and Buchnevich were tied for 26th among NHL forwards last season for most 5-on-5 goals. Saad was third among NHL forwards with his average of 1.49 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Buchnevich averaged 1.08 goals per 60 at 5-on–5 last season. And Buchnevich 14th among forwards with 2.67 points per 60 min at 5-on-5. As a comparison: last season Schwartz averaged 0.56 goals and 1.76 points per 60 at 5v5.

7–As Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic correctly pointed out: “In essence, the Blues have swapped Jaden Schwartz and replaced him with Saad and done it for $1 million cheaper per season.”

8–Saad was an asset on two Cup-winning teams in Chicago. He scored 17 goals and had 37 points in 76 postseason games for the Blackhawks. And this past season Saad scored seven goals in 10 games for Colorado. Unlike his more acclaimed Avalanche teammates, Saad actually produced and came up big at the most critical stage of the season. The Blues have to get more of that from their top forwards.

“That experience, it’s hard to come by,” Saad said via Zoom conference with STL media. “So anytime you can join a team that’s had success, especially recently, they know what it takes to win, and they kind of have that mentality. I think that’s huge and something that you can’t really put a price on that experience.”

9–Here’s NY Post columnist Larry Brooks in lamenting the loss of Buchnevich in the trade to St. Louis: “It is fair to say that Buchnevich last season became the player the Rangers had been waiting for since he first arrived in New York in September 2016. He played with grit, was diligent without the puck and developed into a superior penalty killer.”

And this from The Hockey Writers dot com: “Buchnevich became one of the most important Blueshirts on the roster this season. He showcased his defensive skills and cemented himself as one of the best two-way forwards on the team. He played on the penalty kill, where he excelled and continued his strong offensive play.”

10–This may sound loopy, but Buchnevich may develop into scorer that the Blues used to have in Tarasenko before No. 91 was derailed by injuries. Here’s why: if you go back to roughly the second half of the 2019-2020 season, when Buchnevich began to flourish, this is what he’s produced over his last 83 regular-season games: 30 goals, 43 assists and +19.

The Blues still have work to do. And they have a problem to solve in this cuckoo situation with the toxic Tarasenko and his agent.

But for now, the additions of Saad and Buchnevich have reinforced their 5-on-5 element. After their strength became a weakness in 2021, Armstrong is trying to build it back up into something sturdy and vigorous. That’s essential. A Berube team can’t thrive unless it’s capable of playing Berube Hockey. This is about reclaiming a team identity.

Thanks for reading …


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* All stats used here were sourced from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.