The Blues lost their identity in 2021, a natural next-phase regression that actually began in 2020.
Injuries are always a factor, yes. But as hard as the Blues’ roster was hit this season, injuries can’t explain away the collapse of Coach Craig Berube’s foundation of brawny, punishing dominance at 5-on-5 hockey.
Any attempt to dismiss the obvious and use injury crutches an excuse would cause the Blues to delay the inevitable makeover. Clinging to a past that’s already gone would only waste another season. Yo: 2019 isn’t returning.
As much as fans and media leaned on the Blues’ incredible 2019 Stanley Cup run as a reason for hope and confidence, a sweet set of winsome memories can’t change reality and stand up to the Colorado Avalanche.
Including the four-game, first-round sweep-away by Avalanche, the Blues finished 24-24-9 on the season. If we go back to their dispassionate play and record in The Bubble after play resumed in 2020, the Blues are 26-29-11 since then.
And the Berube substructure has eroded. The personnel no longer fits the philosophy. The roster pieces can be snapped in to play a style of game that exposes weakness instead of strength.
When the Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019, they took off on a remarkable rush that produced a 30-10-5 record in the final 45 regular-season games.
During the run Blues were a relentless machine at 5-on-5, leading the NHL in largest percentage of shots on goal (54.7), high-danger chances (58%) and goals (59.8%.)
The Blues’ rugged 5-on-5 display rolled like tanks through their 26-game postseason games, with the team outscoring opponents with an amazing 58.3 percent share of 5v5 goals. And of course, a lot of that had to do with the phenomenal resistance provided by rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington.
In the 2020 postseason Bubble, the Blues had only 41.3 percent of the 5-on-5 goals, with Binnington stopping only 85 percent of the shots at even strength.
True, the Blues played very well (42-19-10) before Covid-19 shut the regular season down. But when play resumed, the Blues didn’t have defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (heart ailment.) Forwards Alex Steen (back) and Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder) played only four games each and weren’t effective.
That team wasn’t into competing. The commitment was lacking. For the first time under Berube, you had to wonder about the intensity of the so-called “buy in” from the players.
In their final 46 regular-season games this season the Blues were outscored 93-73 at 5-on-5 for a weak goal share of 44%. A smoldering Beruble frequently questioned his team’s overall effort and commitment to the details that are essential for effective 5-on-5 play. The departure of free-agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo left a hole — but remember Petro was still here at the beginning of the 5-on-5 decline.
In the Colorado series the Blues scored only four of the 14 goals netted at 5-on-5 for a goal share of 28.5 percent. I’m not here to point fingers at certain players and their insufficient performances.
And yes, the Blues’ defensive group was ripped by injuries. They were missing leading regular-season points producer David Perron, who spent the series on the Covid 19 list. But again, that doesn’t justify a 41 percent share of 5-on-5 shots.
Facing a powerhouse opponent the Blues were in a weakened position physically. They were also weak from a mental standpoint. And Binnington couldn’t save them. After a .953 save percentage at 5-on-5 in Game 1, his 5-on-5 save percentage dropped to .897 over the final three games.
For two consecutive seasons the Blues were booted out of the postseason in the first round. And collectively Vancouver (2020) and Colorado outscored the Blues 42-23 at all strengths — including 27-16 at 5-on-5.
That’s a long way down from pounding four opponents by a tremendous 56-40 goal margin at 5-on-5 during the 2019 Stanley Cup run.
“In general, I think … it’s two series now where we’ve lost,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly said via video conference after Game 4 Sunday. “We didn’t really represent the culture that’s here, that we built here. We didn’t defend, like we know we have what’s been seen in the past. And I feel myself, being the captain, I have to find a way to maintain that because that’s what made this team and this organization so tough for so many years, is that culture of playing hard and playing as a team.
“A lot of times you’ll be out-skilled, like a matchup, but still with the work ethic and the way you guys can compete as a team, we’d give ourselves a chance and so that I think is missing. And, you know, with myself and some others, the personnel is there, a lot of things go into it, but it has to be something I focus on to get that back and lead us to a better way.”
The system no longer works with the assembled personnel, and the Blues require a makeover. Difficult decisions must be made. The defense must become bigger and tougher. It’s way past the time to assess the goal shortages — and the payroll value — of high-paid forwards.
I appreciate the candor of Blues’ radio analyst Joey Vitale in his Sunday night interview with KMOV-TV’s Brooke Grimsley.
“You need some culture you need some energy, you need some guy with some zip,” Vitale told Grimsley. “So much of this year to me boils down to the style they won (with) in 2019, they had the horses to do that. But the same system that Craig Berube tried to implement this year, we just didn’t have the horses, we didn’t have the personnel to do it. Mike Hoffman wasn’t going to go out there and play that style.
“It comes down to (GM) Doug Armstrong and a lot of questions to be answered. What is the makeup of this team, what are the characteristics of this team, and what’s going to be the systems of this team moving forward.
“And once you kind of establish that, then you can kind of go out there and start finding the right pieces. Because right now to me it seems like a team in transition, from that old-school Craig Berube style that won in 2019 to more of a younger man’s game with some skill with the Hoffmans and (Jordan) Kyrous and (Robert) Thomases that this team and this general manager certainly has to sort out.”
It may be sad, but 2019 is long gone. The memories will always live on but the Blues have to move on and go in a different direction.
The Blues lost their identity this season.
And the Avalanche did them a favor by making this perfectly clear in a way that eliminates any doubt: When you are built on a strong 5-on-5 game that’s turned soft, you can’t show up with a fake ID and expect to win.
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.