An honest start: it’s not really the midway point of the season, at least officially. The Blues have played 38 games out of the 82 regular season schedule, but since it’s Christmas, I figured a report card was in order as the boys enjoy a break from failing to live up to 50 years of disappointment.
Do me a favor and think about where this team was going into the season back in late September. Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Steen, Zach Sanford, and Robby Fabbri were all down for the count or headed in that direction. The team’s chances of competing for a Stanley Cup seemed more dim than ever. Sometimes, resilience and low expectations can turn into something special, because as the Blues approach the new year, they are atop the Western Conference with 48 points, which isn’t far behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the NHL.
Not bad for a team that few people could read, and if they could, it wasn’t exactly a pretty picture. So, without further delay, let’s break into some observations, reflections, thoughts, and basic yet incoherent ramblings about this 2017-18 Blues hockey team. This isn’t your Jeff Gordon flavored report card. I won’t give Vladimir Tarasenko a B- because he stopped being supernatural these past three weeks, nor will I tell you Jake Allen isn’t elite(hint, he never was). Let’s get started, because it’s 4 AM on Christmas Eve and I’m starting to drift.
The Schwartz tease strikes again. Together with Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn, Schwartz formed a #1 line that even Pittsburgh’s most revered trio couldn’t match. They complimented each other so well. Schenn was the center they never had. Tarasenko was the sniper. Schwartz was the grinder who could do a little of all everything. Then, #17 got hurt in Detroit, and the production of this team plummeted, revealing a reliance on a single line instead of a group effort. While it again makes you wonder if Schwartz will ever have the chance to put it all together, the effect on the team is plentiful. The Blues are averaging two goals per game in December, which explains their 6-7 record and drop back to the clutches of Winnipeg and Nashville. Someone needs to step up. Speaking of which....
What happened to Alexander Steen? #20 signed a big contract extension, and immediately went missing. Sure, he snapped a 17 game scoreless streak in Vancouver with an empty net goal, but tell me the thought of him ripping that puck wide didn’t cross your mind there. He’s been off for nearly two seasons now, falling down like Paul Kariya after a couple years with the Note. It’s Diet Steen. His shot isn’t as lethal or accurate, and he doesn’t have the playmaking ability he once did. The man used to draw traffic. Now he’s just drawing criticism. I’ll die on the hill that states if he starts scoring and picking up the pace, this team will go on a run. Take away the freebie and Steen hasn’t scored since a week before Thanksgiving.
Alex Pietrangelo comes into his own as the leader of not only the defensemen, but the entire team. Petro’s second year as Captain has shown a player displaying a comfort zone that has rubbed off on the entire defensive unit. He’s producing goals, opportunities, and cleaning up the front of the net. Petro is a +12 and he has put as many shots on goal as Colton Parayko (98). He’s more aggressive than ever, and his net presence is gathering more polish. I’ve always liked this kid, but I feel like the naysayers are finally losing the last of their ammo this season. This is the first time where he is a clear Norris Trophy candidate.
Brayden Schenn makes his own appointments. The guy comes over in an exchange involving Jori “It’s getting slow outside” Lehtera, and he could have produced of what the former Flyers center has, and been a steal. Instead, he leads the team in goals, assists, and points. Remember, he’s only 26 years old.
Tarasenko is stuck in the middle without Schwartz. Instead of wondering who is more valuable, the reality may be these two dynamic players need each other to be great. #91 has three goals in 19 games, with one of them being an empty netter and another rolling through a goaltender’s pads. He’s searching hard right now, but let me make myself clear: there’s no need to bench the man. There was rumblings Saturday about how sitting Tarasenko down could be beneficial, and I think that’s bunch of bullshit. He needs to play to fight his way out and also create space for his linemates. If you think the scoring is bad, take Tarasenko out and wait for it. Also, it wouldn’t be wise for Mike Yeo to yank his top gun out of the lineup, especially with so many others not producing.
I actually miss Jay Bouwmeester. If I said this last year, it would have been wise to test me for drugs. This year, the artist formerly known as Iron Man has only played in ten games, but looked very good when he was out there. Jay Bo soaks up a lot of minutes, takes on the top lines, and has paired well away from Pietrangelo this year. He’s all work and zero flash, and the Blues need him back.
Cara Spencer dressed up as Bob Fescoe for the month of November, losing a battle with the Kiel Center group over upgrades to Scottrade. She’s delusional.
Jake Allen is exactly who we thought he was going into the season: a decent, but not great, goaltender who won’t win a Vezina trophy anytime soon. Look, he’s talented, and sometimes is left out to dry by a flawed defensive unit, but there are too many games where he can’t take over and carry his team to victory. A 2.55 GAA and .913 save % isn’t bad at all, but it’s far from elite. This could be who he is. A good goaltender who will never be the player Blues fans wanted him to be once Brian Elliott left.
I love Carter Hutton’s start, but please don’t suggest replacing Allen with the backup. There are job titles for a reason and Hutton should never be a #1. If he went into the action for more than 3-4 games, he’d be exposed.
No has done a better job this season than Kyle Brodziak. The man has six goals, kills off penalties, and makes other team’s lives miserable. Brodziak and Upshall are third line talents playing on the fourth line, and their transition from the Ryan Reaves phase has been smoother than expected. Brodziak doesn’t take the dumb penalties like Upshall, works his ass off, and adds offense that wasn’t counted on in the preseason predictions. He’s so underrated.
Tage Thompson, Sammy Blais, and Ivan Barbashev are going to be special players, but I don’t think they are ready to handle the grind of a full season or produce close to a top 6 type just yet. Each are so young and have plenty of time, but I feel like the team will have to add someone to increase scoring depth. The kids are alright, but could use some support. Doug Armstrong can go big with Evander Kane or get some old fashioned gritty scoring punch with Pat Maroon. I wouldn’t count on the kids making a huge dent this winter.
Magnus Paajarvi is still worthless. I’d say this if he had two goals or owed two goals to the league. Speed is all he has, and the man is dead weight on this team. Bringing on Maroon and ending the Paajarvi era would be wise.
Why are people surprised at Paul Stastny’s production? He’s been averaging right around 52 points per season since the 2010-11 season. Before he signed an expensive contract here, the man was in decline. He will never be what Blues fans want, which is why I wouldn’t re-sign him. He’s 31 years old and entering the Steen mode of disappearing difference makers. Like Steen, he’s not shooting nearly as much as he used to. The forecast calls for underwhelming returns.
Patrik Berglund has five goals in 14 games, is taking more shots than in the past, and still catching flack. That’s the way it is.
Colton Parayko still doesn’t shoot enough and still makes young mistakes, but the man is a brilliant two way player and is only getting started. He can shove guys around in front of Allen, and then create something on offense. He has the big shot, but knows when to distribute the puck. All around smart player. Petro and Parayko are the pillars of this team’s defense moving forward. The emergence of Parayko made Kevin Shattenkirk expendable, and so far that gamble has paid off.
Overall, this team is an imperfect bunch of dudes that found their way to the top of their conference with the help of unlikely sources, and stayed there. Defensemen scoring, great backup goaltending, and a ferocious first line pushed the team ahead, but then it all came crashing down like the Hindenburg. What has been proven is Yeo’s group are resilient, relentless, and not going away. With special teams far removed from stellar performance and scoring becoming more scarce, this team is still 23-13-2. You don’t get there without a foundation of talent that could push back at any time.
All things considered-especially the injuries to Fabbri and Schwartz-the Blues are in a great position. They just need Steen to find a pulse, Tarasenko to become dominant again, and Jake Allen to remain as sharp as possible.
Before you lose your shit, remember the Chicago Blackhawks are now nine points behind the Blues.
That should put a smile on that face.
Thanks for reading,