After last year's great start to the season, the Blues were beset with injuries to key players and a then burdened with a starting goalie who was playing like his confidence was shaken. They went from a league-leading 9-1-2 record to a 3-8-2 record over the next 13 games.
This year the team is supposed to be different. The goalie has a full year as the starter under his belt and no back-up pushing him for playing time. The defensive and offensive depth were improved so that the team can better weather the inevitable storm of injuries that affect every team. Official leadership was handed over from a departed robot to David Backes, who has been leading the team by actions and words for some time anyway. The management also brought in proven veteran leadership in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to help keep the locker room and after-hours shenanigans to a minimum.
On paper, the Blues management did everything they could to prepare for a repeat of last season's struggles. The time is already upon us to see whether 'on paper' translates to 'on ice.'
Andy McDonald was sent home from the road trip to undergo further testing in St. Louis for a possible concussion he sustained last night in Dallas. So, the first test of the Blues new depth begins Saturday when Evgeny Grachev likely enters the lineup from the pressbox. Grachev is a scorer, so he won't jump onto the fourth line just to fill a roster spot. In all likelihood he will simply step into McDonald's spot on the so-called first line alongside Backes and Langenbrunner.
If Grachev can step in and that line can contribute offensively, the Blues will consider that first test passed. If Grachev fails to compete, expect the team to re-set and put Porter in the lineup on the third or fourth line and Matt D'Agostini will get a promotion to the Backes line. Still a much better solution than last year when injuries completely ravaged the lines.
The second test of the new year is the man back in goal. I hate to quote myself (actually, I love to quote myself it's half the work and good for the ego), but this is the point about Jaroslav Halak that I made after last night's game:
Whether you're an "It's too early to judge" person or a "Halak is a mess" person is irrelevant at this point. What is important to know is that this year is clearly tied to him. If he gets on track and stops being all Chris Mason-like then the Blues will be good. If he continues to let in soft goals and ill-timed goals, the Blues will be bad. There is no other answer. He will not be traded. He will not be benched for Brian Elliott. Ben Bishop will not come riding in on a Ford made in St. Louis with a Chaminade t-shirt on, a bowl of toasted ravs in his lap and a bottle of Budweiser in his hand: the St. Louis kid isn't going to get a chance to steal Halak's job until next summer. This is it. It is Halak or bust. Maybe both.
Personally, I think a vast proportion of what makes a goalie successful originates in his own head. Confident goalies tend to play better, I think, than guys who are playing scared, regardless of which guy has the bigger frame or better reflexes. Too many times over the first three games did I see Halak go to make a save, not stop the puck and then look behind him only to realize that it had missed the net completely. To me, that is the sign of a guy who is doubting himself. He's thinking that if it didn't hit him, it must be in the net.
How do you fix a goalie's confidence? Short of getting him some wins and having him come up with some big saves in those contests, I have no idea. But what seems obvious to me is that Halak is going to have to earn his confidence back by himself. There is no God Wand, no matter what Mike Babcock thinks. No one is going to say, "Jaroslav, have you tried coming out another two feet?" and have that magically fix his game. There will be no trades. There is no help coming.
The Blues have banked on Halak for better or worse this year and the first test of that decision is happening right now. The team seems to be weathering the initial injuries to McDonald, B.J. Crombeen and Carlo Colaiacovo way better than they could have last season. Let's just hope the test of the goaltending works out too.