Expectations are a tricky thing in sports, especially hockey. Expecting a team to finish high can result in rapid disappointment. When you expect them to do poorly, the chances of being surprised are higher, but you spend the entire season depressed. Where is the middle ground?
Are fans expecting too much from this year’s St. Louis Blues team? Do the Blues really have a shot at the conference finals this year? It’s an interesting perspective that needs examination.
The Blues were a few wins from Stanley Cup play two years ago, and last year they were eliminated in round 2, making it that far due to out of his mind play from Jake Allen. This year, they started white hot, winning a lot (unbeaten at home!) and surging off one line’s production and above average play from Allen. On Nov. 1, the Blues were 10-3 overall despite injuries to a few top players.
Since late November, things started to even out. There were ugly losses against the Islanders and Calgary, and some disappointing outcomes at home against Philadelphia and Anaheim. December started with more nasty defeats, including Los Angeles and Minnesota. A four game winning streak was deflated by losses to Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Calgary (AGAIN!), and Edmonton.
So, looking at the first three months, here’s the Blues month to month record:
*Yes, I am excluding the soft as baby shit overtime loss column. Let’s simplify by using wins and losses.
The stranglehold on the division and conference was gone, and Allen’s handle on the net was completely shattered. Without Carter Hutton’s goaltending the past six weeks, the Blues are scratching for a wildcard spot. Hutton is a big reason the Blues went 7-4 in January, because the team wasn’t a consistent scoring team.
February has started off less promising, with a pair of losses to playoff caliber teams in Boston and Minnesota.
The Blues have struggled in games against higher caliber competition. They were simply out-matched by Anaheim twice, Minnesota, and Boston, but they dropped embarrassing games to Florida, Calgary, and Edmonton.
Goal scoring is a general problem for the team..again. The Blues currently rank 23rd in the league in goals per game. This can be attributed to a piss poor power play, but it’s a trend that hasn’t lost steam in years. The Blues strength is goal prevention, a place they rank much higher in the NHL.
They can’t score enough, and leaned too hard on a hard to maintain output from the defensemen early on and one line in Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, and Jaden Schwartz. Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund have been missing in action for long stretches of play, and Tarasenko’s past two months haven’t been as lethal as before.
Younger players like Tage Thompson and Vince Dunn have helped when given the chance, but others like Ivan Barbashev and Dmitrj Jaskin have been less than impressive. Should that change?
The large question is simple: are the Blues one more away from being serious Cup contenders, or is 2017-18 a retooling season? A year where the team is competitive and not giving in, but waiting for contracts to expire and certain players to grow?
The Blues got high quality goaltending from Jake Allen in December and lost more games than they won. They have received high quality goaltending from Carter Hutton since Jan. 1 and are 8-6. That’s it. A different goaltender won’t change this team. As much fun as it is dissecting the Allen versus Hutton situation, it isn’t the real problem.
The real problem the Blues don’t have enough talent this year to win the Stanley Cup. They may get into the playoffs, but will be demolished by a team quickly in the first or second round. A great goaltender can win you a series, but they can’t win you a Cup.
The kids are alright. Thompson should be playing every game. Dunn is getting better with more responsibility and minutes on the ice. I don’t think they can-or were designed to-make a game changing impact this season. They are gaining experience as older models (Paul Stastny, Jay Bouwmeester) are phased out.
What could hinder this team is the reliance on aging veterans like Steen and Berglund. Sooner or later, those guys are third line players. Expecting more out of Vladimir Sobotka, Scottie Upshall, and Kyle Brodziak wouldn’t be wise.
Next year, Robby Fabbri returns and the lines instantly get deeper. Doug Armstrong could make a deal in the offseason to bolster the team like he did with the acquisition of Scheen. Young prospects like Klim Kostin, Robert Thomas, and Jordan Kyrou may get looks next year.
2017-18 simply isn’t that time. Armstrong could trade for Pat Maroon, Mike Hoffman, or even Rick “Diet” Nash, and give the team a small lift, but it wouldn’t make them Cup contenders. The Blues need more work to reach that level.
The truth is they fell off that level after the 2015-16 season, when the San Jose Sharks deflated their Cup crazy hopes. It’s been a rebuilding regimen since. Just look at the moves Armstrong has made.
David Backes, Brian Elliott, and Troy Brouwer were sent packing immediately. Armstrong brought in Schenn, who is only 26. Contracts like Steen and Bouwmeester will be digested uneasily while Stastny’s contract is unloaded this summer. The team is slowly but surely getting younger. Acquiring Nash (34 this summer), Hoffman (29 this November), or Maroon (30 this April) doesn’t fit into those plans anyway.
We’ve always demanded that Doug get a plan. Maybe he does have one, even if it does have a long reaching arc.
The Blues don’t have the pieces to make a run this year. They are 32-22 overall, but have taken a turn for the worse since Nov. 15, have a problem scoring goals, and don’t play well against top teams. They have been looking up at Winnipeg and Nashville for a long time.
I don’t think another bag skate or two will turn this team around. I don’t think Alex Pietrangelo skating for the entire 90 minute optional practice Wednesday will ignite a fiery turnaround. I don’t think a Mike Yeo tough luck speech will do much. This team is in transition. Playoffs are possible, but a participation trophy is all this team walks away with.
Keep 91-10-17 together. Play Thompson. Allow Hutton to properly lose the goaltending job, not pulling him after a period of rough play. Slowly transition young kids in and give them a shot. If Bouwmeester has to sit, so be it.
If you take this as me trashing the Blues, you’re wrong. I am simply being realistic. There’s still a lot to love about the Blues, even if they aren’t winning anything this season. Go watch this team and fill the seats at Scottrade Center. If you don’t show up, I wouldn’t expect Tom Stillman to improve team. Be patient and good things will come.
Just don’t expect them this spring.