Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
It has already been three weeks into the season and the St. Louis Blues are overcoming adversity right off the opening face-off, returning home after an extended road trip of six games with 8 of a possible 12 points in the bank. Even in a disappointing shutout loss at Montreal (Carey Price made 38 saves, not including a weird disallowed goal), the boys in blue showed grit and determination in all six games, despite uneven officiating and some occasional bad vibes from the hockey gods. And now the Note has five straight games on home ice to pile up points and stay atop the Central Division, the best in the NHL due to the great starts by Dallas, Nashville, Winnipeg and Minnesota. And Chicago and Colorado are not far behind.
The Blues' success for the most part has been without #1 center Paul Stastny, All-star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and rookie forward Robby Fabbri, who scored in his first NHL game. As of October 21, the Blues were fourth highest in the league with 18 man-games lost to injury; only San Jose, New Jersey and Boston have had more. Even this early in the season, the Blues' great organizational depth has paid off, with only one player, defenseman Chris Butler, being recalled from the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. And he hasn't even skated in a game due to the exceptional play of Robert Bortuzzo (+2, plus/minus rating) and rookies Joel Edmundson (+2) and Colton Parayko (+3). The only minus players on the Blues are veteran forwards David Backes (-2), Alexander Steen (-1) and Scottie Upshall (-1).
Overall the positives far outweigh the negatives after seven games. Led by new multi-millionaire Vladdy Tarasenko's five goals, the offense is producing an average of three goals on 33 shots per game. Led by a rejuvenated Brian Elliott, the defense has not allowed more than three goals in any single game, averaging two and a half on only 27 shots against per game. Despite both losses, Jake Allen has played well enough, more the victim of triple and double-deflections and screened shots he was unable to see. Although the power play has suffered without Stastny and Shattenkirk and has dropped off somewhat, the penalty killing has been excellent (24/29). An excellent transitional defense corps has contributed to the offense, scoring four goals, 11 assists on a whopping 61 shots on goal. The Blues' shot leaders are Tarasenko with 32 and Alexander Steen with 26. Newcomers Troy Brouwer (two goals, four assists, outscoring the departed T.J. Oshie), Upshall (two goals in five games), and Scott Gomez (one assist in three games) have all stepped it up and contributed as well. So, if the Blues can play as well during the upcoming home stand as they did on the road, the points will start to quickly pile up.
The most noticeable negative so far has been the play of Captain David Backes, who has only registered two points (both assists) and is a minus player after seven games. Of course, slow starts are nothing new for Backes, yet he has not looked himself so far, apparently lost in a fog of some sort. Nor has line-mate Dmitrij Jaskin scored a goal yet. Jaden Schwartz has not scored either, yet his four assists are certainly commendable. And it would help if the fourth line could contribute more than Kyle Brodziak's one goal. Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves are pointless.
Perhaps the most significant negative is the concussion Fabbri suffered and what effect it could have on his career. Although a natural center, the Blues management has him playing on the left wing, and it is not certain that his size (5'10", 180 lbs.) enables him to handle the pounding he takes along the boards and in the corner. As Kelly Chase told the Ryan Kelley Morning After CBS radio show audience, "We haven't seen much from Robby Fabbri. All I know is twice he's been up with the big club and twice he's been hurt. And both times he was playing wing when his natural position is center. He's got tremendous hockey sense and the ability to be an NHL player, but I question whether or not he should be playing center. If they're going to make him into a winger and he's going to continue to take a beating on the wall that goes with that position, he's either going to have a short career or a lot of time on the shelf." No official announcement has been made concerning Fabbri's status, although he was skating as of Wednesday and might possibly be available tonight. That would be a blessing indeed since Paul Stastny has a broken bone in his right foot and will be evaluated in around five or so weeks.
And there is possible help up front available on the farm in Chicago. In three games so far, winger Ty Rattie has scored four goals and three assists, while enigmatic Magnus Paajarvi has two goals and three assists. Rookie center Ivan Barbashev has two goals and two assists, as well as veteran winger Danny Kristo.
The Blues will be busy with seven games (five at home) in the next two weeks, almost a game every other day, ending with road games in Chicago and Nashville. Yes, it will be good not to see injured Duncan Keith in Chicago and weird to see Barret Jackman wearing #5 for the Predators.