The Blues open their new season on Saturday night at Colorado, and here’s hoping for better health and better hockey by a team that must reestablish its working-class identity.
Here’s hoping for fewer injuries and disruptions. Here’s hoping for a team that returns to its foundation and stands tall on it by recommitting to five-on-five hockey, with a dedication to competing the hard way.
Here’s hoping for improved harmony and a plumber to stop the poisonous, gaseous leaks coming from Vladimir Tarasenko’s preposterously inept handlers.
Here’s hoping that increased forward depth becomes a source for increased scoring. Here’s hoping that Colton Parayko can be the powerful sun that the smaller, less physical defensemen can orbit around.
Here’s hoping that newcomers Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad find happiness and success in the House of Blues.
Here’s hoping for a breakout by center Robert Thomas, and fewer breakdowns by goaltender Jordan Binnington.
Here’s hoping that the players do things the right way and allow coach Craig Berube to have a cooler brow — and avoid a place on a warming seat.
Here’s hoping that captain Ryan O’Reilly is a lion leading other lions instead of a lion leading sheep.
Here’s hoping that Braden Schenn can relocate the back of the net, and that David Perron remains as ageless as Adam Wainwright.
Here’s hoping for a spot in the postseason, and it doesn’t matter how you arrive to the tournament. At the start of the 2019 postseason, the Blues were seeded fifth among the eight Western Conference contenders and seized the Stanley Cup.
KEYS TO THE SEASON
1) Fewer Injuries. This applies to all 32 NHL teams, but the Blues are first in line for a good-luck season. During last year’s 56-game schedule the Blues suffered through the league’s highest total of man games lost to injury. And they took the second-worst hit in player value lost to injury.
2) Reinforcement Of Berube Hockey: We’re talking about strong five-on-five hockey. The Blues had it in 2019. They slipped a bit in 2019-2020. They lost their five-on-five edge in 2021. The only way I can explain this is by using numbers, and I’ll try to keep it simple. One note: for 2019, I’m using the stretch of hockey that began Jan. 1 and became the famous expedition that led to the Stanley Cup.
Percentage of goals scored in all games at five-on-five:
2019 (45 games): 59.8%, No. 1 in the NHL
2019-20 (71 games): 55.6%, No. 4
2020-21 (56 games): 48.3%, No. 19
The erosion can be spotted in the percentage of high-danger scoring chances in all games at five-on-five:
2019: 57.9%, No. 1 in NHL
2019-20: 48.6%, No. 21
2020-21: 43.8%, No. 30
The Blues know what they have to do to prevent their coach from turning into a werewolf. There is no choice; hard and heavy hockey is the only way to play. So do it again.
3) Jordan Binnington’s Wild Ride: Where will it go. Where will it take us this time around? I don’t think it’s fair to hold The Binner to the 2019 standard. To show my age, please allow me to quote from John Kay of Steppenwolf: “Last night I hold Aladdin’s lamp. So I wished that I could stay. Before the thing could answer me. Well, someone came and took the lamp away”
Yes indeed, 2019 was the magic carpet ride for Binnington. He came out of the bush leagues on the Kurt Warner special, and the next thing you know the Blues were flying to the Stanley Cup, flying home to The Lou, and having a raucous dance party on Market Street.
At five-on-five …
2019 save percentage: .941, 1st in NHL
2019 goals saved above average: 14.11, 7th in NHL
2019-20 save percentage: .923, 21st.
2019-20 goals saved above average: 4.63, 18th
2020-21 save percentage: .921, tied for 14th
2020-21 goals saved above average: 2.25, 14tth
All things considered, Binnington held up pretty well last year during the regular season. The playoffs have been an experience of nastiness over the past two seasons. Lost in the 0-9 postseason record was an OK save percentage of .904 at five-on-five, and he had some motivating’ moments. That said, Binnington performed at minus 4.65 goals saved above average; that was way off from his 3.45 goals saved above average during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. To blame Binnington for the Blues’ postseason demise in 2020 and 2021 is ludicrous; the team in front of him was mostly awful. But can he play better? Absolutely.
Binnington has the big contract. He has the security that comes with the big contract. And he has the big expectations that come with the big contract and the big job security. It’s been quite a ride for Binnington. A wild ride — magic carpet or otherwise.
Last season JB had one of the league’s worst save percentages on low-danger chances. And in his three seasons he’s gone from 5th in the league to 3rd in the NHL to 18th in the league in high-danger save percentage.
The Blues have what’s necessary to make the playoffs this season. But they’ll need a more consistent Binnington to extend their postseason stay beyond an opening-round flop.
4) The Colton Parayko Effect: The giant was hurting last season, and the intense back pain limited his impact. He’s healthy and ready to be a dude that warranted an eight-year contract extension. The Blues obviously hope that he can be a newer version of Alex Pietrangelo. Look, I think Parayko is very good. But is it fair to wonder if he’s as good as we generally believe? It’s a tough thing to answer.
I’m tossing out last season. But in the Cup-winning season and the follow-up to that, Parayko really clicked when paired with Jay Bouwmeester; in 1,300 minutes of five-on-five time the Blues scored 60 percent of the goals with that duro in ice. And that wasn’t even the best Parayko-related pairing; the Blues scored 65.3% of the five-on-five goals with the pairing of Parayko and Vince Dunn. Bouwmeester is retired, and Dunn was picked off by Seattle when the Blues left him unprotected in the expansion draft. Parayko has done well in the past when paired with Marco Scandella.
The good news: I think we can look forward to the Parayko and Torey Krug pairing this season. In 127 five-on-five minutes last season, the Blues scored 63.6% of the goals and had an expected goals percentage of 59% with Parayko-Krug out there. That’s outstanding — especially considering that the big fella was playing hurt.
Parayko can make Krug more effective. Parayko’s size and large coverage area puts Krug in a better place. Justin Faulk is a good, reliable defenseman. Younger D-men will have to reaffirm their potential and turn that into improved play. Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo are in the mix. All in all, it’s an experienced group, and I think it will outperform expectations — unless Parayko doesn’t play up to all that is expected from him.
5) Tarasenko: Go Time, Or Goodbye Time? At least for now, the trade demands have cooled down, setting up an opportunity for No. 91 to restore his reputation as an elite scorer of goals. Tarasenko appears sincere in his desire to make a peaceful and productive return to his Blues Family.
“As long as I play on the Blues, I will work hard and play for a win,” Tarasenko told reporters recently. “I don’t want to be a distraction in the room. I’m here to work. I’m healthy. I’m happy to play hockey again.”
We shouldn’t suspend our skepticism. But if Tarasenko is trying hard, we can also try to get over his nonsensical attempt to impersonate Kyrie Irving, or whatever the hell he was doing. And now the Blues need Tarasenko to go ballistic in a different way: SCORE GOALS. At worst, the Blues have ample firepower. If Tarasenko gets his mojo working, the Blues will have abundant firepower. Over four seasons from the start of 2015 through the end of 2019, Tarasenko ranked third in the league in total goals (182) and was second to Alexander Ovechkin in even-strength goals (10 to 135.)
If … If … If …
If Tarasenko can refocus his aim, the Blues will be a more dangerous offense at five-on-five. Based on shot volume and quality at five-on-five last season their expected goals percentage (43.7%) was hideous, ranking 30th in the league. Tarasenko can do more than any other Blue to change that.
What Others Are Saying:
➤ Going into the season Greg Wyshynski (ESPN) ranks the Blues at No. 12 overall and second in the Central Division to Colorado.
Wyshynski on the best-case scenario: “The Blues do as the Blues do — get contributions from throughout their lineup, with stars Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron shouldering most of the offensive load. The deep defense, led by a healthy Colton Parayko, drives play with strong skaters like Justin Faulk and Torey Krug; and goalie Jordan Binnington has another solid regular season for a playoff team.
Wyshynski on the worst-case scenario: “The Blues remain staggeringly average. Their goals per game last season: 2.98. Their goals against per game last season: 2.98. Their power play was good. Their penalty kill was not. But the true worst case is that they make the playoffs and watch Binnington struggle in the postseason again, where he has lost nine straight games.”
➤ Dom Luszczyszyn, The Athletic, ranked the Blues 17th overall:
“The fall is always inevitable for an older team, but it’s still a little surprising to see it when it does happen, especially when it feels so drastic. St. Louis is not on a great trajectory right now, and though new additions like Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad should mitigate the decline, it isn’t nearly enough to stop it completely.
“Don’t get me wrong: The Blues are still good enough to make the playoffs, and they may be even better than that. A resurgent season isn’t out of the question for a team not very far removed from a championship. But what they showed last season really was worrying, and it feels like a sign of things to come more than a temporary blip.
“Barring a collective bounce-back from a number of players, the Blues’ road back to the playoffs this season won’t be easy. It’ll be a fight that may just go down to the wire.”
Thanks for reading.
And enjoy the hockey season!
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* Unless otherwise notes, all stats used here are sourced from Hockey Reference, NaturalStatTrick, or Evolving Hockey. And I thank them for the incredibly valuable assistance.
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.