In reading some of the prognostications from NHL scriveners scattered around North America, I hadn’t realized that the Blues had either gone out of business, or relocated to Saskatoon.
OK, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. But most hockey authors have dismissed the Blues as a factor in the rodeo for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Which, if we want to be honest about it, isn’t an unreasonable view from an outside perspective.
And then there’s the popular firing-squad narrative. Blues coach Craig Berube has been portrayed as a leader on life support. And there may be buzzards circling above GM Doug Armstrong,
“The GM has played fast and loose with hefty contracts, which has landed the Blues in big trouble on the back end,” The Daily Faceoff wrote. “The top four defensemen for a team that surrendered 298 goals last season, one fewer than a Chicago Blackhawks team trying to lose games, are back on high salaries and with term. So is goaltender Jordan Binnington, who just limped through the worst campaign of his career. Like their old rivals in Detroit and Chicago, the St. Louis Blues may soon discover the cost of holding on for too long. If Berube cannot rehabilitate everyone from Binnington to Colton Parayko, he and Armstrong will feel their seats heating up in that order; Stanley Cup rings can only delay accountability for so long.”
“Winning the big one buys a coach plenty of rope, but Berube is down to his last centimeter in St. Louis,” the Daily Faceoff added.
It’s been nice knowing these gentlemen. Let’s thank them for the Stanley Cup and wish them the best in their next endeavors. We’ll always have 2019.
Of course, I’m being facetious here. I can understand the natural order of things – especially in a league where teams fire coaches the way the rest of us casually order breakfast. The Blues shocked the NHL by winning the Stanley Cup four years ago, have won just one postseason series since then, and missed the playoffs last year. The payroll has been strained by unfortunate contract investments and there isn’t much headroom. The Note missed the playoffs altogether last season. This is enough to sound the alarm, give up all hope, move the Blues to the NHL’s underworld, and put them out of sight as the flames surround them.
An alternative and more rational view is this: the Blues were overdue for – pick a term – a retooling, a rebuilding, a transition, a remodeling, a reckoning. It’s difficult to sustain success over an extensive period of time, and reality will eventually arrive and prompt the front office to shift the focus.
The Blues have been damn good. Since Armstrong’s franchise-changing appointment to the GM gig in 2010, the Blues are fifth overall in the NHL, and first in the Western Conference, for most regular-season victories and points. But last season’s 37-38-7 ledger symbolized the inevitable decline that management had avoided for a while. But this has been overstated.
Armstrong and company are entitled to find their way back. Last season’s disappointment was frustrating but hardly a catastrophe. It wasn’t the Bill Laurie strategy of tearing everything down, trading any warm body that can be moved, and nuking the Blues into the previous century. Good grief, the 2022-2023 Blues lost one more game than they won. One. Some of the Blues may have skated and competed like zombies last season, but this was hardly the NHL version of “The Walking Dead.” Darryl Dixon wasn’t centering the third line, OK?
Armstrong’s miscalculations with his defense group were costly, but he’s earned the right to reanimate the Blues after the downturn. The team has moved into a holding pattern.
The Blues are not elite. They are not excrement, either. Our town’s beloved hockey team can be respectable this season. This brand of Blues could be surprisingly pleasing, and more fun to watch. There’s sunshine through the clouds. Promising young talent is being raised on the farm. The stockpile of prospects has increased. There will be light.
Rather than destroy all that remained from the Stanley Cup thaumaturgy, Armstrong chose pragmatic over drastic. It’s OK to be in the middle – stay competitive in the present, and do it without tampering with the future. Don’t take any short cuts. Take the long cut. And yeah, I’m going to do something hokey by quoting the lyrics from the Uncle Tupelo song.
Now if it’s to be, if you still believe
Come on let’s take the long cut
I think that’s what we need
If you wanna take the long cut
We’ll get there eventually
One reason for optimism: in terms of goal prevention, the Blues can’t possibly be worse than they were last season. They allowed 3.63 goals per game in 2022-2023, the ninth-worst average in the 55 seasons of Blues hockey. We have to go all the way back to 1986-1987 to see a larger invasion of the Blues’ goal; that team was shredded for 3.66 goals per game.
A massive problem was the severe downfall of penalty-killing performance. Last season’s PK success rate (72.4%) was the worst by the franchise since PK numbers first were officially tracked by the NHL in 1977-1978. That’s a 45-season stretch, and the 2022-2023 Blues were the worst.
The collapse in goal prevention was stunning considering the Blues’ sustained excellence in this area. From the 2010-2011 through 2021-2022 – that’s 12 seasons – the Blues ranked third in the NHL with an average of 2.56 goals yielded per game.
I’m a believer in the simple “improve from within” concept. You can get better with the same people on the job just by putting the emphasis on what needs to be fixed. The Blues brought in a well regarded new assistant coach, Tom Weber, to reorganize and reposition the defensemen and tweak the system. His fresh voice and ideas should help.
Two seasons ago, 2021-2022, the Blues ranked 11th in the league with a goals-against average of 2.89 per game. That’s not top five … but it’s good. That 2021-22 had a defensemen group that included Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Robert Bortuzzo, Nick Leddy, Marco Scandella, Nikko Mikola, Jake Walman and Calle Rosen.
If we look at the roster that will open the regular-season schedule on Thursday night at Dallas, you’ll see most of those names. Six are still here: Parayko, Faulk, Krug, Leddy, Bortuzzo and Scandella. Mikkola and Walman are gone. And Rosen is opening the season in the AHL. Scott Perunovich and Tyler Tucker are additions to the mix.
Why can’t this crew collectively raise their performance level? Among the most veteran players that remain from two seasons ago, it’s not like they’re all 37 years old and physically incapable of rebooting their games. Again, this was an effective group two seasons ago.
It isn’t crazy to expect this bunch to be better – considerably better – than the mess they made last season. Close the gaps in the quadrants around the goal, and reduce the number of high-danger shots by opponents. This isn’t complicated.
And to work, the goal-suppression comeback also depends on the enigmatic goaltender Jordan Binnington. The Blues have young goalie Jake Hofer in place to take on a much larger role if Binnington’s headwires snap again. Binnington has responded well to direct competition, and Hofer’s presence should keep Binnington’s mind in proper working order.
I’ve seen plenty of examples how a team can address the malfunctioning parts. Here’s one: in 2018 the Cardinals were a fundamental disaster in their defense and baserunning. The manager at the time, Mike Matheny, had let those two areas slide for several years. When Matheny was fired right before the All-Star break, bench coach Mike Shildt took over and told his players that the first order of business was to clean up the defense and baserunning. Shildt and the coaches would take them back to school, and put a lot of work into it. And that’s exactly what happened after the All-Star break. The Cardinals made substantial improvement in both departments and the results were clear. Before the firing the Cardinals had a .505 winning percentage. After Shildt took charge – managing the same players – the Cards went 41-28 for a .594 winning percentage. Yes. You can improve from within.
There are two other reasons why I think the Blues can be exceed expectations and perhaps finish as high as third in the Central division:
1. This collection of forwards is more suited to play Berube Hockey. More physical, more of a forechecking force, more intensity and energy. The work ethic will strengthen the foundation and the commitment.
2. The locker-room vibe should be more positive. Last season wasn’t ideal for fostering unity and a shared purpose. Last season the room had numerous lads – impending free agents – thinking about the trade deadline and their next destination. It was more of a problem than most realized at the time. The 2023-2024 Blues should become more of a family, and new team captain Brayden Schenn has the respect to show the way.
Obviously this team has a lot of questions and we’re familiar with the questionnaire.
* How will Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas handle their big new contracts and use the Blues’ show of faith as a motivational force to become better all-around players?
* Can pickups Jakub Vrana and Kasperi Kapanen sustain the performance that we saw from them over the final 20+ games last season? Vrana had 10 goals and 14 points in 20 games. Kapanen scored eight goals and wired six assists in 23 games. The Blues went 11-9-2 after Armstrong added Kapanen and Vrana in early March. Moreover, the Blues had a winning record with a productive Sammy Blais in the lineup after they acquired him from the Rangers in the Vladimir Tarasenko trade.
* What impact can the Blues expect from forward Kevin Hayes? The veteran, entering his 10th NHL year, had 18 goals and 36 assists for Philadelphia last season despite being treated like a chinook dog by the acidic head coach John Tortorella? What can Hayes do in a more positive environment?
* Will the fourth line be as effective as the Blues believe? If they click, Oskar Sundqvist, Alexey Toropchenko and Jake Neighbours will give this team a nightly shot of adrenaline and make the Blues more difficult to compete against.
Good luck to the Blues.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my hockey columns are sourced from NHL.com, Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.