The 2010-2011 St. Louis Blues have devolved into an amorphous blob that now looks on most nights like a three-hour old soup sandwich. Sloppy, messy, unappealing. They played a game against Anaheim where they looked re-born after a post-midnight trade sent Erik Johnson and Jay McClement to Colorado in exchange for Kevin "stop calling me Kirk" Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart, putting up nine goals against a decent Ducks team (with bad goaltending).
Since that game, however, the Blues have gone 1-8 and have beaten only Edmonton, the worst team in the NHL. Or, I should say, the team with the worst record in the NHL. If not for the Blues' incredible 9-1-2 start to the season, they might just have the worst record in the NHL.
Because they are certainly playing like they're the worst.
The Blues have struggled in all three zones, have had problems with bad turnovers and blown coverages on odd-man rushes and except for Stewart, haven't had anyone consistently putting the puck in the net. The Blues have had to battle big injuries to big players. They've had to deal with a compressed second half schedule that sees them playing an average of every other day for the entire month of March.
But the biggest problem has appeared just recently. The Blues are playing like they just don't care.
This seemed to coincide with the trade that send Brad Boyes to Buffalo for a draft pick, but I have a hard time believing that Boyes was the quiet leader of the locker room - the team's glue. I don't know if the players have simply perceived that the trade of Boyes, Eric Brewer and Brad Winchester for draft picks only were a sign that the management had given up on the playoffs, so it was OK for them to do so too, but it sure seems like something happened with the whole group.
On paper, the Blues are still a team that can compete. Moving Boyes out simply meant more ice time on a scoring line for Matt D'Agostini. This shouldn't be much of a dropoff, as D'Agostini has 13 goals, one more than Boyes had when he was sent packing. Sure, Boyes had more assists by a bunch, but he was supposed to be the trigger man on his line.
The Blues still have two lines worth of players who should be counted on to score goals in D'Agostini, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Stewart, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Alex Steen. Any of those seven should be able to be mixed and matched to create two scoring lines. Granted, an AHL-quality line of Ryan Reaves, Cam Janssen and Adam Cracknell isn't going to do much for the team offensively, but they should be able to hold down 5-7 minutes easily enough. Chris Porter has shown that his top end in the NHL is probably on the fourth line, but he should be able to help out on the third line, especially when paired with the always hard-working B.J. Crombeen.
Defensively the team has been prone to breakdowns in their own zone and most of that should come from having so much youth back there. Unfortunately for the easy answer, it's not the youngsters that are making the glaring mistakes. Alex Pietrangelo and "Don't call me Kyle" Shattenkirk have been the best blueliners on the team - Pietrangelo all season and Cap'n Shattenkirk since his arrival. Roman Polak, while only 24 years old, is a three-year veteran now and should be better than he has been, though it's hard to know how much this season's wrist injury has affected his play, as most of his errors tend to be because of poor stickhandling or passing.
Ian Cole is still rough around the edges for much NHL icetime, but Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo are getting over 20 and 17 minutes per game, respectively, and they have been prone to as many brain farts as the youngster has.
In goal, the inconsistent play and then absence of Jaroslav Halak has been disappointing for fans and players alike. In just his first year as a bona fide No. 1 netminder, Halak has learned a lot of lessons about how much more difficult the job is than playing back-up. I'm not ready to give up on him because, at age 25, he still has plenty of room to improve and next year should be better for him.
But Ben Bishop and Ty Conklin have done nothing but show everyone why they are back-up quality talent at this point. Both have looked great in some starts and then absolutely awful in others. Consistency tends to be the big line of demarcation between starters and back-ups; neither Bishop nor Conklin have had any consistency this winter and spring.
As for the coaching, I'm still confident in Davis Payne. When he had a full lineup at the start of the season, it was obvious he had made some tweaks to game tactics to introduce a more dynamic transition and offense. Taking advantage of the skill of his younger and most creative players, the Blues were hard to defend. Once his lineup started depleting itself via injury, the team didn't have the talent to operate as creatively and had to play a more conservative, defense-first game. Changing coaches only further de-stabilizes a team and keeping Payne is still the right thing to do for this team. As for the assistant coaches, I am no expert. However, Brad Shaw is in charge of the penalty killers and they are currently ranked 21st in the league. Ray Bennett is in charge of the power play units and they are ranked 19th in the league. Both coaches were leftovers from the previous regime. maybe it's time for Payne to bring in "his" guys.
Doug Armstrong has shown in his first year as the decision man that he can make bold moves. The trade for Halak addressed a specific team need. His trade of Johnson for Stewart and "Sweet Stache" Shattenkirk was bold and shocking. Barely two weeks removed from the announcement of that trade, most hockey minds are saying Armstrong fleeced the Avalanche. His hands are clearly tied by the Blues' current financial situation, but Armstrong has made an impact on this team already by addressing team needs and shipping out bad contracts attached to scapegoat players.
The owners, for their part, have gotten a pretty easy ride from the fans over the last five years. But that is changing. With Dave Checketts clearly struggling to find some billionaire to step in and foot the bill on 75% of the team costs, it is now starting to affect the on-ice product. If the Blues are unable to secure some deep-pocketed owners before this summer's Free Agency period opens, the team will be hard-pressed to sign any kind of impact player to boost the team. If these rebuilding Blues struggle again next year with a payroll near the bottom of the league, the sellouts will cease and the barking from the fans will only get louder.
You could argue that the Blues' trades last month were seen by the players as salary dumps and a signal to them that ownership and management had no confidence in them to make the playoffs. Or maybe the players just did the math themselves and realized that the season is essentially over and they're just playing out the string.
But wouldn't you think that the players would at least be motivated to help themselves by getting their personal stats up? Isn't it reasonable to think that guys like T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, both of whom will be looking for pay raises this summer, would be out there trying to pile up some points for themselves? Alas, that ain't happening.
The Blues malaise is clearly running throughout the locker room right now. The injuries are an old story. Trying to get the coach fired is a trick they've pulled off once before and won't be allowed to use again. The breakdowns in their game are amateurish and should be easily corrected, but they keep happening.
The problem with the Blues? Why, after all this analysis, it's simple: They have quit. The season is done and so are they. They no longer care if they win and they no longer care if the fans love them. In fact, most of them probably don't even care if they get traded this summer. It's obvious that the players' love affair with the fans and the franchise and the city has ended. They don't care anymore and they're now daring us to do the same.