I was going to write a typical “Keys to the Blues Season” column, and really load the thing up with a double-batch of stats and hot-take add-ons. But really there’s no reason to waste a substantial volume of words.
We all know the consequential factors in play here, right?
The Blues gotta …
Stay healthy …
Get Vladimir Tarasenko healthy …
Try their scout’s honor hardest to block the Covid from entering team-occupied air space …
Get a break-it-out season from dexterous passer Robert Thomas …
Get a lot more this season from defenseman Justin Faulk…
Make sure the talent-wired power play is as destructive as promoted.
Hope that Colton Parayko is an All-Star defenseman for the first time.
Get the career of Kid Kyrou launched in earnest.
Remain vigilant under the revised leadership structure, which shouldn’t be a problem considering that Ryan O’Reilly will handle the captaincy. But yeah, the Blues lost some valuable elders. And I suppose that we could call this a transition.
Hope that Torey Krug is underrated — as in the defense part of being a defenseman. I have numbers. I won’t bore you with them now. But he was a solid defender in Boston. And not just a power-play artist. And if this dude clicked with Brandon Carlo in Boston, just wait until we see the Krug-Parayko pairing.
Blues gotta hope that Coach Berube will be effective at using his whole roster, including the taxi squad. Shouldn’t be an issue.
Stop losing games to Arizona, OK?
To win the division, The Note has gotta come away with plenty of points in the combined 16 regular-season tilts with Colorado and Vegas.
That’s about it …
Oh, wait …
One more thing: GOALTENDING.
Jordan Binnington will live forever as an honored demigod in St. Louis. He was the Kurt Warner of hockey. He came out of the minor-league catacombs in 2019 to lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup. Other than throw the winning touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce to seize Super Bowl 34, or go David Freese and hit an 11th-inning home run to save the Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, I don’t think Binnington could have produced more impossibly magic moments. The rookie’s run-up to the postseason, and run through the postseason was sensational, surreal, spectacular, unexpected, unhinged.
And then came the follow-up season, 2019-20. The encore wasn’t as good as Binnington’s first set. Binnington was fine. He just wasn’t as special as we wanted and demanded. Our expectations were probably unrealistic. Binnington wasn’t going to go bust in his second season, but was it fair to ask for his Cup to runneth over for a second consecutive year?
In 5-on-5 situations, his save percentage was .923. As a rookie, it was .941.
His rookie-season goals-against average (1.57) went up to 2.13 in year two.
Pardon my metrics, but Binnington’s expected goals against — he had the best mark in the league as a rookie — inflated to the No. 51 ranking last season among the 56 NHL goalies that worked at least 1,000 minutes. And after being 7th among NHL goaltenders Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) as a rook, Binnington was 19th in GSAA last season.
Jake Allen was probably the better goaltender last season — some of his important statistics were superb — though we have to take workload into account. And I think all non-fanboys agree that Binnington cratered in the first-round postseason loss to Vancouver.
Allen is gone, traded to Montreal in a necessary and unavoidable salary-cap subtraction.
Blues management has confidence in No. 2 goaltender Ville Husso, but the rookie has never played in a regular-season or postseason NHL game. And come to think of it, Binnington has played in only 111 NHL games (postseason included.)
It isn’t just that Binnington will be trying to bounce back from an OK-at-best season. But he’ll be doing it without Allen padded up, and ready to fill in. Husso obviously has talent, but he hasn’t been tested. At all.
So it’s a somewhat fragile situation — at least among those of us who find stuff to worry about. Look, I know that Binnington has won a Stanley Cup, and that should give us an enormous amount of confidence in him. But Cam Ward and Antti Niemi goal-tended their teams to a Cup, too. Unless we’re talking about a Hall of Famer, when it comes to goaltenders you just never know. They’re unusual creatures.
That’s all I’m saying.
Don’t take it from me.
Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger told me this when I asked him to assess the Blues’ team and their chances of venturing deep into the postseason.
“At the end of the day, you like the look of the roster,” Pronger said on my KFNS radio show. “But as we know it all boils down to goaltending, and which Jordan Binnington are you going to get? Are you going to get the one when they won the Cup, or the one last year? And not that he was bad last year, but when you look at the numbers from the previous year when they won the Cup, versus last year, yeah there’s a dropoff. And it’s hard to play at the pace that he was on during their record run, when they won the Cup. But funnier things have happened in sports and certainly in this league.”
And then there is this opinion from Dom Luszczyszyn, who does outstanding work as a hockey analyst for The Athletic.
“Goaltending is very ‘what have you done for me lately’ and what Binnington has done lately is hurt the team,” Luszczyszyn wrote. “He has the ability to get back to the level he was at leading a last-place team into the playoffs, but the Blues are playing a dangerous game if he doesn’t. Goaltending is the number one thing that can make or break a team and with Binnington there is a lot of risk that it can break.
“They have enough of a cushion above the rest of the West if he’s a replacement level goalie, so missing the playoffs isn’t the big concern here. It’s that strong goaltending is the difference between St. Louis being a real contender that can challenge for the top seed or being a team that very likely loses in the first round as the third seed. The Blues need to hope Binnington can provide that strong goaltending.”
Do you see why I’m just a little nervous?
Binnington will be playing for a new contract — but motivation isn’t a concern. More than anything I just think the man has pride. He’s been impressively resilient during his journey from minor-league obscurity to Cup-triumphant stardom. I’ll have to see what’s there for us in Season III of JB, but I know he has heart.
READING TIME 5 MINUTES
Crazy NHL schedule, eh? Maybe not. Here’s a great quote from Blues broadcaster Darren Pang to The Athletic: “The schedule itself – and I’m looking right now at the Blues’ schedule – doesn’t seem that much different to me. It looks like a fairly normal NHL schedule. Honestly, it doesn’t look that terrible. They have five days off twice. They’ve got 10 back-to-backs. But the back-to-backs, being in the same city, I don’t see that being a problem. In fact, because you’re in the same city and in the same hotel, you’re not packing up and leaving right after the game and arriving in the next city at 3 a.m. In fact, I would venture to guess that some teams are thinking about playing their starting goaltender in back-to-back games now more than ever.”
Emily Kaplan (ESPN) has the Blues at No. 4 in her final preseason power rankings behind Tampa Bay, Colorado and Las Vegas. “The Blues got one of the top scorers on the free-agent market, Mike Hoffman, for a budget rate of $4 million without having to commit to more than one year,” Kaplan wrote. “If this isn’t a massive victory, we’re not sure what is.”
The Athletic polled 41 hockey writers on a variety of topics. Who will win the Western Division? Colorado received 30 votes, Vegas got 10, and the Blues had only one nod of respect from the writers … What about winning the Stanley Cup? The writers love the two top teams in the West, Colorado (26 votes) and Vegas (6 votes.) But the only other team to receive more than one vote was Tampa Bay, with four. Nashville, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Toronto reach received one vote … by the way, the writers picked the Eastern Division as the toughest, and the Western as the weakest… all of this interesting content is another reason for you to subscribe to The Athletic. Best hockey coverage on the planet.
My pal Puck Daddy — that would be Greg Wyshynski of ESPN — shares our concern over the Blues goaltending. “Goaltending hogs the conversation,” he wrote. “Binnington expectedly regressed to the mean in his second regular season and then unexpectedly had a terrible postseason (0-5, .851 save percentage). Now he enters the season with an unproven backup. It’s a critical season for the 27-year-old goalie, as his contract is up this summer; even more critical is whether he can come through for the Blues while playing the vast majority of the games.”
As for the best choice for the Blues’ breakout candidate, Wyshynski went with Robert Thomas. “The 21-year-old jumped to 0.64 points per game last season although his ice time increased by only 1:30. He’s slotted to be the team’s second-line center and play with scoring ace Hoffman. Not a bad place to be the season before hitting restricted free agency.”
In the Las Vegas sportsbook consensus, the Blues, Carolina and Washington are listed at 20-1 to win the Stanley Cup. The more preferred choices are Colorado (6-1), Tampa Bay (15-2), Vegas (9-1), Toronto (11-1), Boston (14-1) and Philadelphia (14-1.)
Enjoy tonight’s game at Colorado!
Thanks for reading The Bits …
Mike Hoffman: “I think it’s going to be great,” he said. “We’ve got guys out there that know what they’re doing, they can move the puck around, make plays, they can put the puck in the net. There’s hard-working guys, guys that can retrieve pucks. I think it’s going to be a great fit and looking forward to getting things running with them.”
Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show at 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. You can catch it online or download the show podcast by going to 590thefan.com