The Blues are in trouble, serious trouble. And all that matters right now is finding a way out, finding their way back.
A two-game weekend set at Colorado is a brutal place to start. The Avs have the NHL’s best record (14-2-3) since Feb. 26, outscoring victims 81-41. If you prefer a smaller sample, here you go: in blazing to a 10-0-2 record since March 10, Colorado has outscored opponents 57-22 overall and 43-15 at 5v5.
Blues at Avalanche.
This will be … challenging for the visitors. But backing down is not an option for a struggling team that comes out of a four-day break with a lot to fix and much to prove.
Basically the Blues are in a state of emergency, with their chances of making the playoffs down to 26.3 percent based on game simulations at MoneyPuck.com. The Note’s playoff odds are even worse at other places; I’ve seen a postseason probability as low as 20%.
If the Blues continue to suffer through the goal shortages that cost them so many games, the crisis will escalate. They’ve played better hockey, but haven’t gotten the goals — or the results. That doesn’t help them in the standings.
The current malaise began oozing into their season 25 games ago, on Feb. 4. The Blues are 9-11-5 since that point, ranking 25th in the NHL with a .460 points-collected percentage.
During this stretch the Blues’ share of goals scored at 5v5 is a lackluster 37 percent; only one team, Buffalo, is more helpless over the last two months.
The Situation: The Blues are clinging to fourth place (and a playoff spot) by a single point, with Arizona and Los Angeles in close pursuit. The Blues have six games to go before the NHL trade deadline, so if the players have a message for GM Doug Armstrong, it’s time to send it. Not by text or email. They’ll have to do it with their performance.
The Terrain: The Blues will play 17 of their final 21 regular-season games against West division superiors Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota. The fourth-place Blues are clinging to a one-point lead for a playoff spot, with Arizona and Los Angeles in close pursuit.
The Trend: While the Blues were staggering through this 9-11-5 stretch, Colorado was going 16-5-5, Minnesota 16-6-2, and Vegas 19-8-1. Since Feb. 4 only the Blues and last-place Anaheim have losing records in the seven-team West.
The Controversy: Blues coach Craig Berube benched forward Mike Hoffman for last Sunday’s overtime loss to Anaheim. The healthy scratch was part of an embarrassing weekend for the home team, with the Blues coming away with one measly point in two games against the Ducks, who have the league’s third-worst points percentage (.378) on the season.
Subtracting Hoffman from the lineup was fine, and now we’ll see if he responds by producing goals. That’s why the Blues are paying him $4 million this season. But Hoffman has only three goals in 406 minutes of 5v5 ice time this season. And only one 5v5 goal in his last 24 contests. Needless to say, that’s horrendous.
Berube and Hoffman haven’t meshed in style of play. But Berube deserves some of the blame here. Hoffman isn’t a worker bee. Never has been. He doesn’t buzz and bomb on the forecheck, or bulldoze opponents along the wall in puck battles.
Among Blues forwards Hoffman is fifth in 5v5 minutes and fourth in power play minutes. But both figures are misleading; Hoffman’s playing time would be lower without so many forwards missing along the way because of injuries.
Hoffman has one power play goal this season. This is incomprehensible for a sniper who averaged 13.5 PP goals over the past four seasons with Ottawa and Florida. But you can’t bury the guy. You need goals. And relegating Hoffman to the second PP unit — where he’s been for much of the season — isn’t the way to increase his goal production.
The Blues gave defenseman Torey Krug a big free-agent contract: seven years, $45.5 million. They gave Hoffman a one-year deal for $4 million. Both were touted as power-play enhancers; their previous teams deployed them extensively on the top units.
Do you know how many minutes Krug and Hoffman have been on the ice together during the power play this season? Answer: 12 minutes and 25 seconds overall, and only 9:55 on the 5-on-4 PP.
This makes no sense.
No one is happy with Hoffman’s performance. But Berube has no choice here; the coach needs more finishers to increase goal production and pump up the power play.
Hoffman can make a difference in both areas. We know this because he’d scored 20+ goals in six straight seasons before coming to work for Berube. Instead of getting mad at Hoffman, Berube must try harder to maximize Hoffman’s proven goal-scoring potential. Other coaches got plenty of goals from Hoffman. Probably because they knew his strengths and weaknesses and made the smart decisions to play to Hoffman’s strengths. The trade-off produced a payoff: Goals.
The Injuries: Absolutely, the damage was severe. You can’t go without defenseman Colton Parayko and forwards Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robert Thomas, Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev for extensive stretches of schedule and avoid repercussions.
But the boys have been healing up; Tarasenko, Schwartz, Thomas and Bozak are back. Barbashev returns Friday night in Denver. Parayko remains sidelined with a back injury; his imminent return seems more wishful than realistic. The Blues are also playing without forward Oskar Sundqvist (knee) for the remainder of the season.
Though much of the talent taken down by injuries has been restored, the Blues are sliding. In 26 games (combined) since reentering the lineup, Tarasenko, Schwartz, Thomas collectively have 3 goals, 7 assists and are minus 17.
The Blues have a losing record since each man returned: 2-5-4 with Tarasenko; 2-3-1 with Schwartz; 0-3-1 with Thomas; 1-2-1 with Bozak.
Yes, it takes time to sharpen and get acclimated. It takes linemates time to reestablish chemistry. But how much time? The Blues don’t have the luxury of patience. And we can’t moan about the many players lost to injury and use that as an excuse — only to make excuses when the Blues continue to flop after players return to action.
The Goaltending: I wrote about this a few weeks ago. Yep, goaltending is still a problem for the Blues. Jordan Binnington has slipped, and rookie Ville Husso remains erratic.
For the season the Blues rank 29th at all strengths with an .890 save percentage. Their save percentage (.909) at 5v5 ranks 27th. Those rates have dropped even lower over the 25-game stretch.
The Reality: The Blues need their best players to step up. There’s no need for me to type out the names because this applies to virtually every Blue that’s been part of the success.
Example: over the last 25 games, among 11 forwards that have clocked at least 149 minutes at 5-on-5, only one, Ryan O’Reilly, is on the plus side of the goals for and goals against accountiing. The Blues have outscored opponents 14-12 with O’Reilly out there at 5v5; the other 10 forwards are all on the minus side.
The Blues can’t overcome every problem that confronts them — especially a physically unimposing group of defensemen that gets overrun. But across the board, the Blues talents that have performed at a higher level in the recent, happier past must get back to that level.
A great time to start is right about now, during the weekend checkpoint in Denver. It could be a turning point for a Blues uprising. Or it could be a burning point for the Blues playoff hopes.
Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend…
Please check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.