The St. Louis Blues, at this stage of the season, are not good. I wish I could just blame Jaroslav Halak, take a picture of my dog duking on a Stop Sign t-shirt, call for the ascendance of the feared Brain Elliott-Ben Bishop duo and be done with all of this nastiness.
Alas (I've always wanted to use 'alas' and yet, alas, I have not yet been able) this is not so. If you were dumb enough to watch the Blues play the Oilers on Sunday night rather than get to bed early to get a real jump on the week, trooper!* then you got to see the Blues get outplayed by a team that really shouldn't outplay them for a couple more years.
As the Oil took a 4-1 lead I could anticipate what I was going to see and read in the coming day: clearly Halak had let the team down again. But that wasn't so. As others have noted, Halak kept that game from becoming a blowout. The skaters actually let Halak down on Sunday - the goalie's first start in 10 days. As disappointed as the players and fans have been in Halak since the season started, he must have been just as disappointed in his teammates in that game. They scrambled around, chasing the puck like a bunch of mini-mites chasing a blue puck for most of the second period. Rather than skate and engage Oilers forwards, they made feeble stick checks from behind as odd man rushes developed.
Even one of our favorites, Alex Pietrangelo, got caught trying to take the easy way out at his own blueline and helped create a two-on-one that Halak ended up stopping with a desperation (read:lucky) kick save.
I'm no insider, but I think I can read clues, and all of the clues the Blues are leaving behind are that they aren't that interested in Halak being their franchise goalie. If you could get a couple beers into any of the players or trainers or media guys who hang out with the team a lot (we're looking at you, Jeremy Rutherford - you look like you'd enjoy swilling a few beers on the Game Time tab), I'm willing to bet you'd hear that Brian Elliott is more popular with the boys than Halak is.
In fact, let's let the unspoken words unspeak for themselves, shall we...
Davis Payne, on who is "good" and who "gives our team success" (via Rutherford):
We know Jaro is a guy that we're going to continue to lean on, he's a good goaltender, and he's going to get that chance to go back in. But right now, we're making decisions based on what gives our team success tonight.
Jamie Langenbrunner, on Elliott vs "the other guy" (via Rutherford):
We're all happy for (Elliott), and we're all going to continue to try and play well in front of him, but we're going to make sure that no one thinks we've given up on the other guy either.
Corey Hirsch on Elliott... is there a comparison to Halak? (via Rutherford):
[He] is extremely professional and he's always working on his game. If you watch him in practice, he battles for every puck.
Brian Elliott on one of his wins (and Rutherford's editorial comment about it):
"Everybody wanted that win and everybody was pulling together to do what it takes to get it."
(Rutherford): Some might say pulling together for Elliott.
Your conclusion might not be the same as mine, but it seems like the players and coaches and even media guys all think that Elliott is the popular goalie and Halak is not.
Now, of course, winning fixes all locker room problems and Halak isn't winning much these days, but when you get terrible support like he did in the second period Sunday, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: The goalie played like shit because we played like shit in front of him because we knew the goalie would play like shit. Besides, we clearly like Elliott, who speaks English better and is Canadian like us and is a better dude anyway.
OK, that last bit might be overly editorialized by me.
Regardless, while I clearly think that Halak played poorly enough in his first five starts and Elliott played well enough in his first four starts to justify a shaking up of the netminding situation, I do feel like this team's struggles can't be completely attached to Halak's struggles and Elliott's surge. Look up and down the lineup and the problem becomes obvious.
The top line guys are not carrying the load.
The top three scoring forwards are Alexander Steen (9), Jason Arnott (8) and Matt D'Agostini (6). That is the third line. The next forwards down the line are T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Backes with five points each. Five, for the record, is less than one half of a point per game or, as TSN's player pages would let you know, is on-pace for 36 points for the season if they play all 82 games.
Chris Stewart? Maybe it's time for him to remember that Colorado traded him because they thought he sucked. His two goals and one assist are half of Erik Johnson's six points in 11 games. And Johnson, as we all know, is an irresponsible defenseman. That's just ridiculous.
The defense is just fine. Except for the one guy.
The Blues made the mistake of benching Kent Huskins for Nikita Nikitin to start the year. When they took the skittish Russian out and put old faithful in, they started winning. Now that Huskins (2g, 2a, plus-6) is out with a cracked ankle, we're set watching a risky Russian bobble pucks in his own zone and do little in the offensive zone instead (0,0, minus-5).
The other guys? They've been great. Pietrangelo (five points, plus-1), Kevin Shattenkirk (six points, plus-3), Carlo Colaiacovo (three points in six games, plus-2) and Barret Jackman (two pints, plus-3) are better than any collective blueline group since before the lockout. Plus-16 as a group (including Huskins)? How is that possible for a team that is under .500?
So, what's the problem, then?
Two things: one is apparent while one is a rumor, a whisper, an allegation. The apparent problem is that this team is relying on certain players to score and they just are not scoring enough. When most NHL teams assign players to the top two lines they assign those six players to score goals. The Blues, for years now, have not been able to count on those six guys to stay healthy and score those goals.
Take away the injuries to Andy McDonald and David Perron, which definitely hurt, but the top guys in Backes, Stewart, Berglund and Oshie need to let the coaches know who, exactly, who should be on top of the heap. While those four have rested on their popularity and waited for the injured two to come back to the lineup, the supposed third line has kicked their asses in points.
The second reason, the implied inability to trust Jaroslav Halak is just as big of an issue. Halak is a better goalie than Elliott. If he plays the game that he played against Edmonton with a fully functioning group of skaters in front of him, he might just get the win.
If these supposed stars don't get going and the rest of the team doesn't stop blaming Halak and start playing as hard for him as they do for Elliott, this season is headed right down the same path as every season before it since 2006. With a new owner (from Chicago) on the doorstep and likely wanting to make some noise and win some games and a Cup (like Chicago), all these young stud forwards might want to get it going. The Blues shook up the roster with a big trade of a seemingly-untradeable guy last year; the same move seems even more likely this year if things don't change.
*Sometimes moms say weird shit that just stays with you, right?