The 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement agreed upon by the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association five years ago included many figures, one of which was the mandatory five-day bye week that was implemented last year and continued this season. The St. Louis Blues have completed theirs and take on the Toronto Maple Leafs this evening at Air Canada Centre, but the bye week’s conclusion conjures minimal big-picture excitement.
The Blues reported today that Jaden Schwartz went for a skate yesterday, and aside from noting that -- after a four-week lineup absence -- he still holds the number-three points spot on the roster, there’s not much in the way of the grand scheme happening there either. Understand that when he returns and begins tearing up the ice again, that will make for a great story.
Head Coach Mike Yeo’s announcement that Carter Hutton would start in net tonight -- tempting as it may be -- is not great blog-post fodder, either, especially considering that Blues fans agree that the jury is still out on Hutton’s ability to be a full-time starter, and that entering that forum likely goes the direction of inquiry regarding the oddity of Jake Allen and the month of January.
Writing about the fact that the Note has not yet had the opportunity to snap itself out of a three-game skid lends itself to a certain level of depression so we’ll spare you those predictable column inches. For today anyway.
The focus of today’s piece has everything to do with the team returning from their break to play just under a half of a season before the playoffs start. No one has a crystal ball to look into and so no one knows how the Blues will be playing in mid-February or mid-March, just as no one can know how the rest of the league (or Central Division) will be playing at either of those points. What remains evident today, however, is that tonight’s opponent has 53 points, two fewer than does St. Louis.
Thursday night’s opponent, the Ottawa Senators, have 39, and beyond Thursday are the 27-point having Arizona Coyotes. After that the Note witness a return in the other direction with contests against the Boston Bruins (56), the Buffalo Sabres (31), and then -- already two games into February -- St. Louis will play division opponents in three straight and in 14 of their final 27 games of the season.
Tonight’s game then, can and should be viewed as a primo opportunity to show that the bye served the purpose of clearing their heads, of laying out the canvas on which this team must paint its season identity. The primary curiosity for what that finished product will look like hinges on whether or not the Blues have figured out or can figure out how to play clean, crisp hockey for 60 minutes a game. Without exception.
Said curiosity is far from insistence that the outcome of every contest must result in two points. Instead, it means that the club can win, lose, or split the points as long as their effort looks ironed and full of effort.
Those three games Philadelphia, Washington, and Florida were nothing shy of an abomination, and hopefully the club took its collective short-term-memory pill before scattering prior to the start of the bye. Their efforts against the Capitals weren’t terrible and the scoreboard in the Panthers game wasn’t the best reflection of what their play looked like, but that stretch began against the Flyers and the Blues were simply not present for that game.
They had a sub-par in-net outing from Allen, turned the puck over in the defensive zone, lost battles in all four corners, appeared to have a hockey language barrier in the neutral zone, and their poor play in those two areas of the ice made it near impossible for them to establish any offensive-zone presence, let alone create space for scoring chances.
In short, it was a brand of hockey that -- were it projected out across the entire first 41 games -- would mean missing the post-season. By a lot.
So the Note has a ton to prove to both itself and its fan base tonight and the same could be said for Yeo, who will be upon his one-year anniversary at the helm quicker than a one-timer.
This club has a lot of second-half questions to answer, but those hopefully answer themselves in the coming weeks. For the seven-day period ahead, however, they’ve got to check themselves mentally, sharpen their fundamentals, and remember what playing good hockey feels like and looks like.
Toronto’s top-five producers have 57 goals and 157 assists among them. Those’re not jaw-dropping numbers but their roster depth stays decently strong beyond that group.
The Blues have hockey savvy. They have skill. They have speed. Their ability to demonstrate all three of those huge assets must begin tonight or St. Louis fans will begin an all-too-familiar head-scratching habit that spans five decades and this is something -- on the heels of a General Manager Doug Armstrong contract extension -- that this fan base will not and should not tolerate at this juncture in the team’s existence.
It’s time to demand more out of everyone, from Armstrong to the bottom of the roster all the way down to the minor-league affiliates.
Defeating Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs is not an unreasonable ask. Nor is the supposition that most of the contests on the schedule prior to that big division-play run are winnable.
It’s a matter of mental preparedness and will. So far, in January 2018 play, those critical elements have been missing in St. Louis hockey. A return from the bye presents the perfect opportunity to correct that. It’s a gift-wrapped springboard that should land this club in the position to play at the level at which they’re capable.