Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
In 2012 and 2013 the St. Louis Blues’ archenemy was the Los Angeles Kings, who bounced them out of the Stanley Cup playoffs both years. In 2014 the Blues lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of postseason play. In 2015 the Minnesota Wild eliminated the Note in six games of the opening round and last season the San Jose Sharks knocked St. Louis out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals. It would appear that now in 2017, the Blues’ biggest enemy is themselves.
Please forgive me while I trot out the old canard about the abused child who was placed in the protective-services system because both his mother and father kept beating him. With no other relatives available, the court awarded custody of the boy to the Blues because they seem to be unable to beat anybody.
The 2016-17 season was going to be a restructuring one for the Note as veterans David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott departed and Coach Hitchcock and his new associates/assistants adapted to the new NHL by stressing speed and offensive recklessness coupled with a transitioning defense to emphasize scoring without losing defensive superiority due to the Blues’ great depth on the blue line. Also helping would be the steady development of Jake Allen as the number one goaltender and the addition of a capable veteran, Carter Hutton, to back him up.
As we are all too painfully aware, things have just not exactly gone according to plan.
Last season St. Louis established a reputation as a superior road team that could also win most of its games at home. At this time last year, the Blues had a record of 27-15-7 for 61 points in 49 games played, with 126 goals for and 123 against. That ranked fourth in the NHL at the time. Washington led the NHL with 74 points, followed by Chicago and Dallas. Not far behind were the Penguins and Sharks, both of whom turned it up during the playoffs and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, with Pittsburgh the new NHL champion.
Back to the present and this conundrum: what happened to the Blues? The answer is simple: they seemingly can’t score, nor can they play adequate defense, allowing far more goals against lately than they are able to score. After 49 games this year, St. Louis has a record of 24-20-5, three fewer victories, five more losses and eight fewer points than one year ago at this juncture. They’ve scored 138 goals, 12 more than they did last year in 49 games, but have allowed 152 goals against, 29 more than last year. That means from plus-3 last year to minus-14 this year. Yikes!
It’s easy to point fingers and beat up on Jake Allen and Carter Hutton, blaming the goaltenders for all the defensive woes. Critics will point out lousy statistics, especially save percentage, while ignoring the real cause of the club’s defensive demise: a lack of back-checking by forwards, poor defensive coverage in the slot and the inability of Blues’ defensemen to clear opponents from in front of the crease.
The numbers don’t lie: Fabbri, minus-15; Shattenkirk, minus-13; Tarasenko and Steen, minus-11; Perron, minus-10; Bouwmeester, minus-9; Berglund and Gunnarsson, minus-8; Upshall, minus-7; Yakupov, minus-6; Lehtera and Pietrangelo, minus-5; Brodziak, Edmundson, Stastny and Parayko, minus-2 (that’s 16 minus players in case you’re not counting). Bortuzzo leads the club with plus-5, followed by Schwartz and Jaskin at plus-4 and Reaves at plus-2 (a total of four plus players). Ouch!
All of which prompted a desperate coaching staff and management to recall Pheonix Copley from the minors and give Allen a short rest. It didn’t matter much in Winnipeg as the Blues fell to the Jets, 5-3, with Copley making 24 saves, several quite spectacular. Carter Hutton got the next start and played well in Pittsburgh as the Blues surprised everybody, shutting the Penguins out, 3-0. However, things got a lot worse in St. Paul for Hutton as the Blues were once again blitzed by a potent offense and fell to the Wild, 5-1. At least Jake Allen came in during the third period and didn’t allow a goal. Add it all up and since the Winter Classic, the Note is 4-7-0, including four losses on home ice.
The Jets are three points behind the Blues, and a loss to the visitors tonight would bring Winnipeg to within one point of St. Louis in the Central Division. A pitiful Colorado team is 25 points behind the Note, so at least Blues Nation can rest easy about not finishing in the division cellar. And for those trying to find something to really smile about, it is possible St. Louis could end up with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft (Las Vegas is locked into the third pick) given the way things have been going this month. The worst teams in the Eastern Conference (New Jersey, Detroit, Buffalo, Carolina, Tampa Bay, the Islanders and Florida) are all within striking distance of the Note, as are all the worst teams in the Western Conference except Arizona and Colorado.
How about using that draft choice to select Michael Rasmussen, a big (6’6”, 215 lbs.) scoring center who has potted 30 goals in 46 games for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL. With centers Ivan Barbashev and Jordan Kyrou and center/winger Tage Thompson waiting in the amateur wings, the Blues just might have the number-one center they have been missing.
Time to suck it up, or time to tank? Which would you rather see?