Injuries were a big storyline for the Blues last season, with a battered team straining to score goals and scrounge for wins during a 34-game stretch. From Feb. 4 through April 22, the Blues staggered to a 12-17-5 record and a .426 points percentage that ranked 27th in the NHL over that time.
The Blues scrambled through different lineups to fill in for missing pieces, lost horsepower, and averaged only 2.64 goals during the 34 games. And their foundation – relentless five on five hockey – collapsed. Looking back at this number it almost defies belief: the Blues were outscored 73-48 at five on five over the 34 games. But it’s a fact, and it’s true.
Despite recuperating in time for a late surge that gave them enough juice to claim a playoff spot, the Blues were wiped out by Colorado in the first round – thumped and outscored 20-7 in an embarrassing four-game sweep.
Unfortunately the combination of injuries and Covid is a prominent reality for the Blues again this season, but the tale of woe hasn’t become a horror story in the league standings. So far this season is different from the last because of quality depth that’s soothed much of what ails The Note.
As they get back into action in Dallas tonight, the Blues are 5-1-3 in their last nine games. They’ve done well despite an thick index of injury and illness that sidelined defensemen Justin Faulk and Jake Walman … and forwards David Perron, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak, Klim Kostin and James Neal … plus top two goaltenders Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso.
That’s 11 men down over a relatively brief stretch of schedule – then again, so many Blues have missed games, who can count? And before the recent stretch of schedule that we’ve referenced to here, the Blues competed without center and team captain Ryan O’Reilly and key defenseman Torey Krug for a time due to Covid.
Many words have been written and spoken about the Blues promote, plug-in and play regiment that’s on call at the team’s AHL affiliate in Springfield. But you can’t say or write enough about their performance and impact. Without them the Blues wouldn’t be 15-8-5 and tied for 10th among the 32 NHL reams with a .625 points percentage.
As O’Reilly said late last week: “The energy these guys have provided trickles down our lineup and helps us with just that excitement of coming up and being called up and getting an opportunity of just playing with that energy and excitement. And you see the plays and being aggressive and going at it, it helps us veteran guys give us jump and see that we’ve got to match that, we’ve got to go with it. It’s very impressive the guys that have been called up and what they’ve brought to the table. It’s been a big part of why we’ve been able to squeak out some wins here.”
Last season when the Blues turned to the minors for help, the effects were minimal. Forwards Nathan Walker, Dakota Joshua, Mackenzie MacEachern, Austin Poganski and Kostin combined for three goals and three assists in 47 games. Collectively they were a minus five. Defensemen Walman and Steven Santini were OK in 25 combined games – but also were minus six collectively.
This time around, the Blues have benefited from the stunning production and play from their emergency reserves. That includes Walker and Joshua; after getting looks last season, they’re back in and showing they belong at this level.
Forwards Walker, Joshua, Logan Brown and Michael Peca have combined for seven goals and eight assists in 26 games. Defenseman Calle Rosen was up for only five games and contributed two assists. Top prospect Scott Perunovich was promoted before the injury-illness wave struck hard. But during the hardest crunch, he has three assists and is a plus two in the last nine games.
The goaltending is another story. And a whopper of a story at that. Five have started games for the Blues this season – Binnington, Husso, Joel Hofer, Charlie Lindgren and Jon Gillies. A sixth – emergency addition Kyle Konin – suited up on the Dec. 2 game at Tampa but didn’t play.
During the recent cluster of games Lingren and Gillies have appeared in four games (three starts) and turned in a combined .938 save percentage overall including a .943 save rate at five on five. They’ve given the Blues the advantage in the goaltending matchup – and that’s special when backups can do that.
The Blues have two teams in one.
Team St. Louis.
The depth can be found in these numbers:
– In the last nine games the Blues are 5-1-3 thanks in no small part to 16 different players scoring at least one goal.
– In the just completed 3-0-1 homestand the Blues scored 16 goals coming from 11 different players. Walker, Joshua, Brown and Peca combined for five goals and seven assists in the four games – with Walker, famously, banking four goals that made the Aussie an instant hockey hero in St. Louis.
This rescue isn’t an accident.
A few obvious factors are behind the success:
1) GM Doug Armstrong and his staff have done a fantastic job of identifying potential sources of help and significantly strengthened the depth at Springfield – and, by extension, St. Louis. The Blues may have been short of players – but there was no shortage of solutions. Credit the hockey operations department – as well as the GM and coaches at Springfield – for having guys in place and ready to go when the big club’s roster got ravaged by losses.
2) The call-ups were totally prepared to jump in and do a good job, and they deserve credit for making sure they were making the best of their time in Springfield. There was no pouting over being in the minors – and no resentment after the Blues put them there. They worked, kept a sharp mental edge, and were prepared to give the Blues a hand.
3) The Blues have a healthy team culture that fosters a positive, team-first mentality. Members of the Springfield gang are welcomed with enthusiasm and treated as partners. There’s no snobbery. The veteran Blues do everything that they can to make the new dudes feel valued and appreciated. Remember this the next time your clueless neighbor or the loud guy at the office or a Scotty Bowman impersonator starts whining about O’Reilly’s effectiveness as the captain.
4) Craig Berube is doing a helluva job as coach. His mixing and matching with a shorthanded roster of forwards has been nothing short of terrific. As you know the Blues have competed in recent games without enough players to fill all four lines. And there hasn’t been a downturn. This team is motivated and competes hard. And also remember that the next time your cousin Timmy or some know-it-all dude that plays in a beer league tells you Berube has lost the team the next time the Blues go through a mini-slump.
“It’s a great group of guys,” Lindgren said over the weekend. “The leaders on this team, they welcomed us in and they’ve done such a good job with us. I think a lot of credit goes to the dressing room as a whole as well.”
Gillies co-signed. “Another thing about this place and this team is they really raise your comfort level when you come in,” he said over the weekend. “I’ve been here for five days. Five days or five years and everyone is treated the same.”
The Blues can look forward to the return of their regulars. Faulk and Bozak are in the lineup for Tuesday’s game at Dallas, and Binnington (Covid) is getting closer. But Kyrou, Perron, Schenn, Thomas and Kostin remain sidelined.
In a related note, another prospect-rookie will make his NHL debut for the Blues at Dallas: promising winger Alexei Toropchenko. He’ll form the fourth line with Joshua and Peca. Another reinforcement from Team Springfield.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey or Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted.