The Blues are still on break, taking their extended winter snooze during the All-Star break, resting up for the resumption of play on Feb. 10.
At 43 games into the 82-game regular season schedule, the Blues are in an interesting position. At 26-13-5 they have a .648 points percentage that ranks 10th overall, and fourth in the Western Conference. But the three teams above them in the West are division rivals Colorado, Minnesota and Nashville.
The NHL Central is brutally tough. Despite having a very good start to the season and emerging as one of the top teams in the conference, the Blues will be scrambling to finish among the top three in their division. Anything less than that, and they’ll be relegated to a wild-card fight.
As I type this on Thursday morning the Blues are 6th in the NHL in goals per game (3.43) and 9th in goals-against per game (2.70.) Their power play ranks 2nd in the league, their penalty kill is 6th, and their overall save percentage (.916) is 4th.
Not bad at all, considering the considerable turmoil caused by injuries and Covid. Add to that the NHL’s eighth-toughest schedule so far (according to Hockey Reference) and the Blues are in fine shape. The plusses include their overall depth, and a bountiful forward group that ranks near the top of the NHL in goals scored.
The offseason additions of forwards Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad have made the Blues a much stronger team up front – and as a bonus the Blues were able to move on from underachieving or disappointing players (Jaden Schwartz, Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais) to lean on the newcomers.
The Blues are thrilled with the play of two essential young core players: All-Star forward Jordan Kyrou, and center Robert Thomas. Kyrou has 17 goals and 42 points, and with 27 assists Thomas is developing into one of the NHL’s best playmakers. And then there’s Ivan Barbashev. He’s expanded his game to become a scorer; he’s tied for second on the team with 15 goals.
The Blues’ Story of the Year is probably the healthy and happy return of longtime goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko. A stormy offseason – and a trade demand by Vladdy – has settled into peace and productivity.
Seven Blues forwards have scored between 10 and 17 goals. That count will increase to eight forwards with 10+ goals as soon as David Perron gets to 10. Injuries have limited #57 to eight scores so far. With so much firepower in house, the Blues have been able to take a more cautious approach to give the likes of Perron and Brayden Schenn extra time to fully heal from injuries.
The highlight of the defense is the pairing of Justin Faulk and Torey Krug; when they’re teamed together at five-on-five – 400 minutes on ice – the Blues have outscored opponents 29-10.
There’s also Colton Parayko. The hulking defenseman is logging heavy minutes and frequently is assigned to slow the other side’s top line. Parayko is a minus 16 at even strength this season; when he’s played at five-on-five the Blues have been outscored 52-32.
Coach Craig Berube is doing an excellent job of mixing and matching lines and to keep the goal-scoring assembly moving. But Berube’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season, and fans are getting restless. Where is Chief’s new contract?
When the Blues get back on the ice next Thursday for a home game against New Jersey, the list of things to watch is topped by the goaltending competition between Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington. No. 2 on the watch list is the NHL trade deadline on March 21. Are the Blues searching for a defenseman?
I had the chance to interview Blues GM Doug Armstrong earlier this week on my KFNS radio show. And while Army didn’t have much to disclose about the trade deadline – other than expressing the difficulty of making deals because of salary-cap issues around the league – he had a lot to say on other topics.
In no particular order, here are the best parts of our conversation …
1) ON CRAIG BERUBE
I asked Doug if fans should be confident about the continuation of the successful Armstrong-Berube partnership. Since the beginning of January 2019, the Blues are tied for fifth for most points in the league, and won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“I am,” Armstrong said. “And you know, Craig and I have a really good relationship. We started out with a good working relationship and now we have a good personal relationship that just grows over spending days and weeks and months and years together. I’m a big Craig Berube fan and he knows that. I’m very comfortable that at the right time, we’ll get something done.”
2) ABOUT THE GOALTENDING
Ville Husso seemingly has taken over as the No. 1 goaltender but Jordan Binnington will have a say in the matter with his play. We can expect a vigorous competition the rest of the way. Binnington has an expensive long-term contract. Husso can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. This adds to the drama. I asked Armstrong to give his assessment of where things stand, and understand that he doesn’t discuss anything to do with future-contract factors that apply to Husso’s status.
“Up and down,” Armstrong said. “We’ll start with Husso. He’s been good every night all year long. He hasn’t really had a downturn yet. He wasn’t getting a lot of starts early. We went with Binnington, who had some really good games and some OK games and then Husso was in there. And then when Husso went out and Binner went out we had to bring in (Charlie) Lindgren and he ripped off five (wins) in a row.
“So I would say overall, our goaltending has been average-plus all year long. I would say the Husso has been a plus all year long. And I think there’s going to be really good competition. And the interesting thing for a guy like Binner is it would have been right around or just before the All-Star game a few years ago that he came in and got on a roll and then never looked back.
“He’s seeing Husso playing at that level now, too. So I think it’s going to create great internal competition and I think both guys are looking forward to that. And it’s pro sports and I think you have to have those challenges to push yourself to get better, and the recipient and the benefactor of that is going to be the St. Louis Blues organization – with two top goalies pushing to be at their best.”
3) ON VLADIMIR TARASENKO
After enduring multiple shoulder surgeries that virtually wiped out two seasons, Tarasenko wasn’t in a good frame of mind and demanded a trade from the Blues last summer. Armstrong was unwilling to trade Tarasenko for a low return and gambled on the probability of a bounce-back season for the Russian scorer. In 40 games this season Tarasenko is averaging a point per game with 15 goals and 25 assists. His rate of 2.2 assists per 60 minutes would be a career best in a season, and his rate of 3.5 points per 60 would rank No. 1 in his career for a full season. Given the volatility of last summer, why has this worked out so well for Tarasenko and the Blues? Tarasenko is so committed that he’s leading Blues forwards in blocked shots.
“I think it has to start and stop with Vladdy,” Armstrong said. “He understood the situation, he came in and was in fantastic shape. He got here early, understood that he had a job to do and has committed himself to his teammates and to being a really good player.
“The Vladdy that I’ve known for a long time was something that I was never really concerned about. Because he is a pro and he does take a lot of pride in being a top player. So I always thought he was going to come back and do that. I think it’s just relationship building and trying to be honest and upfront. He was upfront with us and we were upfront with him about the situation.
“And you know, maybe time has healed everything right now. He’s playing really good. We’re really happy that he’s here, and he could certainly be at that All Star game … if you look at his play this year, he certainly should be there and could be there.
“I’m happy for Vladdy and he seems to be enjoying himself and I think health is – you know, I never questioned his (shoulder) injury, and now that he’s had time to get it properly rehabbed and to his satisfaction, he’s been a helluva player for us.”
Follow-up question: Have you received any indication that he’d like to stay through next season when his contract expires or is that something that will be discussed later?
Armstrong: “That’s stuff we would keep internal but it’s nothing to worry about. Now. He’s worried about having a great year and we’re worried about having a great year.”
4) ON BUCHNEVICH AND SAAD
Armstrong gave a turbo boost to the Blues roster by acquiring Buchnevich in a trade with the NY Rangers and signing Saad to a free-agent contract that pays $22.5 million over five seasons. At the break, they’d combined to give the Blues 30 goals and 31 assists and were a plus 16 collectively.
“Booch is a great two way player who touches every aspect of the game,” Armstrong said. “Power play, penalty kill, scores big goals. I would say he’s a better passer than I probably gave him credit for. I think that once you live with somebody you get to know them and see them more at practices. He’s got great anticipation and he loves to make other players around him better.
“Saad, he’s more of the player that we saw in Chicago and in Columbus in Colorado. You know, he’s going to be able to score, he’s got good speed, and is a really excellent support player. Probably one of the best pros that we’ve had around in the sense that he just comes in every day, sees where he’s playing and doesn’t get too high or too low. He just goes off and produces offensively. And having that secondary scoring and having a guy that you could count on that’s played in big games is really good for us.”
5) ON COLTON PARAYKO
We mentioned this earlier in the piece. But while Parayko deserves credit for giving the Blues a heavy load of minutes the bottom line – goals for, goals against – hasn’t been handsome. To be fair, Parayko has played a major role in the team’s stout penalty-killing performance. And he’s logged only 16 minutes all season in the power play, a factor that’s lowered his overall offensive production. He has five goals and 13 assists overall – but no goals and one assist on the PP. I asked Armstrong for his assessment of Parayko’s performance so far.
“I probably see a fluctuation again … you know, there’s been games where he’s been a dominant player in his skating, his ability to kill penalties. And there’s other games where sometimes he doesn’t get a lot of puck luck right, and that’s something that you can’t count on. But it’s just a matter of fact of what happens when you play a long time in the league.
“The other thing, offensively what we all have to understand is when you’re not playing on the power play when your offensive numbers are going to come down, there’s no question. It’s not like he was a stalwart on the power play but right now he has a role as a five on five defender and his zone starts are slanted more to our (defensive) end.
“So he has to go a long way (up the ice) to produce offense, but defensively he still does some really good things. And it’s tough when you’re not producing offense, because those minuses add up. They’re hard to get back when you’re defending, and being asked to defend a lot, and you’re not producing a lot of offense.
“I honestly have to say I haven’t been as concerned. I think, with the question you’re asking, you’re a little more concerned about it than I am. I just think he’s a good player that we have asked to do very, very important things. I refer back to (a few) years ago with Jay Bouwmeester. Hee seemed to have that (negative) slant in the public’s eye. And I never really saw it because I know the job we’re asking them to do and how difficult it is every night to go against top players. And so maybe I cut (Parayko) a little more slack than other people.”
6) ON BARBASHEV’S BREAKOUT
In the previous two seasons Barbashev scored 16 goals for the Blues in 107 games. This season he has 15 goals in 43 games. In his first five years as a Blue, Barbashev averaged 0.34 points per game, but he’s taken that way up to 0.79 points per game this season. The tenacious Barbashev has been an important if underrated piece in the Blues’ success. That’s why Armstrong put him on the team’s protected list for the Seattle expansion draft. Barbashev is doing it in a different way now – and it’s impressive.
“We were using him as a jack of all trades, master of nine for a few years,” Armstrong said. “And I think that we’ve now asked him (for more) … through the pandemic, through injuries he’s been able to move into that top six role and his offense has started to come. Offense is what separates or turns an average NHL player into a good player or a star player. He’s having a great year right now for us.”
Armstrong praised Berube for slotting Barbashev on a variety of lines depending on a specific need or matchup. And whether he’s playing center or wing, or right wing or left wing, Barbashev is easily adaptable to any line combination or role. The skill is shining now, but Barbashev remains physical and fearless. He ranks second on the team this season with 72 hits.
“He’s a multi-talented player for us,” Armstrong said. “We want guys to mature and understand things very quick. He’s still a young man, you know. He’s probably just entering the prime age (26) for all players. And I think he’s going to be a really good player for a number of years.”
7) WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT THIS TEAM?
“Yeah, I would say the thing that’s different from this team from teams we’ve had in the past is we score easier than we have in the past,” Armstrong said. “You know, our depth has probably gone from four scorers to probably being as deep as maybe eight good scoring players, or nine good scoring players. And we haven’t had that in a long time. And it just relieves the pressure off a few guys and spreads that around.
“Ultimately you need your best players to be their best players. But having Buchnevich and Saad allowed a player like (Brayden) Schenn who got injured early and had a nagging injury pretty well all year long to not put too much pressure on himself that we needed him to produce to have success.
“I think that’s been a real positive for us is just our depth and it’s a little bit different. Our depth and scoring and ability to come back in games. In the NHL, now you feel comfortable scoring from two goals down and a decade ago two goals down was pretty much ‘turn out the lights the party’s over.’ I do like having the talent to be able to play that style.”
8) PRIMARY CONCERN?
The Blues have been outscored in the first period this season which puts them in a deficit position too often. Armstrong wants that to change.
“I would say, our consistency of starting on time,” Armstrong said. “We’ve had the great record of coming from behind. But you know, the only way you can have a great comeback is if you’re down. And so I’d like to see us play a little more consistently early in games, get a lead and then maintain it and stay with it and not tempt fate too often to have to come back and rally in later games to score goals.
“It’s just getting the valley closer to the top of the mountain. I love the top of our mountain. I think it’s quite high. We score easy, we do things at pace, but I think our valley is still a little bit too low for a good team. I think we have to get that little bit higher.”
9) OVERALL THOUGHTS ON THE TEAM AT THE BREAK?
“I’m pleased,” Armstrong said. “I think that we had to bounce back through some adversity and we got through it and learned a lot about ourselves. We learned a lot about our depth. I think it’s a feather in the cap to our to our pro scouting staff and our amateur scouting staff combined when we can bring up players like Nathan Walker, who gets a hat trick, and then younger players come up like Alexei Toropchenko have an effect on our team. And to have a goaltender like Lindgren (helps us.)
“And so it’s been a learning experience of who we are and it gives us a real good feeling that we have good depth. And it also gives us some indication that for the future we have some good players and it’s great to see the next generation of (Jordan) Kyrou and (Robert) Thomas be a huge part of our team right now. And then our veterans players are finding their groove too. So we’re, we’re in a good spot. If we went to the All Star break every year in this spot, I’d probably be pretty happy.”
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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.