Going into Monday’s home game against the Dallas Stars, the Blues already have played 25 percent of their schedule in this strange and unstable season.
What are the Blues? They’re like a NASCAR team: high-speed, then crash, go fast, then crash, a run of success, a sequence of wrecks, and a lot of time in the garage making repairs. They’re fortunate to be 11-10, and hanging around with a .524 points percentage that’s tied for 18th overall – and tied for seventh in the West.
We know all about the streaks – happy or hideous – so there’s no point in reviewing the pattern. I’d rather cite the stark realities that have formed this zig-zag paradigm. Sometimes it’s just wise to take a seemingly complicated issue and simplify it.
1. The system is broken. The Blues don’t score enough goals, and they give up too many goals, and they are losing their identity as a robust team at 5-on-5 hockey.
Compared to last season, The Note has too many cracks in the foundation and the house is tilting. In 2021-22, the Blues ranked third in the NHL in goals per game (3.77) and were 11th best in goals against (2.91) per game.
This season? The Blues are tied for 21st in goals per game (2.90) and 26th in goals allowed per contest (3.52.) This is a dramatic, damaging deviation from last season’s most vital strength.
The 2021-22 Blues ranked 8th in the NHL with their 54 percent share of goals at 5-on-5. Through their first 21 games this season, the Blues have scored only 46 percent of the goals at 5-on-5; that ranks 23rd.
2. The special teams are badly off kilter. Last season the Blues ranked 5th in the NHL in power-play success and were No. 5 at killing penalties. This season? The Blues are mediocre (15th) in power-play effectiveness, and flat-out horrendous (30th) in the task of killing penalties.
3. Personnel issues and the impatience of coach Craig Berube: The spotty play of too many regulars has made the coach extra restless. Berube is desperate to assemble sound and productive forward-line combinations but can’t come up with the satisfactory mix.
In just 21 games this season Berube already has used 119 different forward-line combinations – an average of 5.66 per game. Last season Berube used 293 line combinations in 82 games – an average of 3.57 per competition. There’s nothing wrong with changing the lines; Berube has a nice touch in this area. But the immensely high volume of line shuffling this season is a clear indication of the Berube’s increasing restlessness.
4. This is a careless, inefficient team that makes too many costly mistakes. This bad habit makes it extremely difficult for the Blues to establish any real, long-lasting consistency. This season opponents have taken the puck away from the Blues 222 times in 21 games. They rank 31st among the 32 teams with a weak takeaway share of 43.8 percent – which means their opponents have come up with 56.2% of the takeaways in games.
And that isn’t even the most detrimental trend in the turnover category. This is the one: at 5-on-5 this season, 67.8 percent of the Blues’ giveaways have happened in the defensive zone – the fourth-worst rate by an NHL team so far. At all strengths, 64.12 percent of the Blues giveaways have come in the defensive zone. That ranks 29th. Terrible.
5. The sloppy play is a factor in why the Blues often put themselves at a game-flow disadvantage. They’re trailing more frequently in games this season. Last season the Blues trailed an average of 15 minutes 17 seconds per game. This season they’ve trailed an average of nearly 21 minutes per game. St. Louis is chasing the game too often, frequently operating from weakness instead of strength.
So far the Blues are on the wrong end of the competition – literally. A total of 35 percent of their faceoffs have taken place in the defensive zone, which ranks eighth-highest in the league.
Three other items:
— I don’t blame the St. Louis goaltenders who are abandoned too often. But fact is, the Blues ranked 8th in the NHL with an overall save percentage of .908 last season and are 23rd (.894) this season. And that’s more of a reflection on the team.
— The Blues are flunking against better competition. They’re 5-8 against opponents that have a points percentage of .500 or higher and are 6-2 vs. teams under .500. And during their recent seven-game winning streak, five of the seven victories came against opponents with losing records.
— After losing the first two games of a three-city road trip, the Blues charged their way to a fiery third-period comeback, wiping out a three-goal deficit to defeat Florida 5-4 in overtime Saturday. It was an impressive display of willpower, but it would be silly to fall into a trap of believing that this was more than just a one-off rally. The win, while sweet, gave the public a chance to overlook the many flaws in the Blues’ overall performance.
What do we make of this?
All of this?
After the Blues won their seventh consecutive game I wrote a column about the components that made the streak possible. All of that was true at the time – but lacked context. The schedule was loaded up with beatable teams. Some of the revised line combinations were working … at least for a time, until the magic expired. The goaltenders came through. Depth players stepped up and contributed.
Very nice. But something else was going on: while winning seven straight the Blues managed only 44 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, and had just 47 percent of the shots on goal. The Blues’ shooting percentage (13.18%) was unsustainable. Five of their seven wins were notched against opponents that have a combined 28-50-12 record. Many of the Blues’ underlying flaws were still there – but under the surface, shined up by weak competition, and drawing less scrutiny.
That’s why I wanted to look at this team at the one-quarter mark of the season and view the entire body of work through the first 21 games instead of overreacting to specific hot-or-cold streaks in real time. I’m kind of burned out on the “is it time to blow up the team” questions when the Blues lose two or three in a row. And I’m sick of the premature parade planning whenever the Blues get hot for a while. By the way: I’ve done my share of both. I’m trying to widen the lens today.
My three takeaways: (A) Money Puck gives the Blues a 15.8% chance to make the playoffs; (B) this team has a helluva lot of cleaning up to do; (C) it’s also true that it could be worse.
In the NHL Central the Blues are six points out of first place, five points out of second, are three points behind third-place Colorado and have as many points (22) as Minnesota. But without real improvement, that won’t mean as much by the time the NHL All-Star break commences in early February.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from Hockey Reference, Money Puck, Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.
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.