After the St. Louis Blues’ hot start, they started to coast on their early “success” and soon found themselves drifting towards the back of the Western Conference. Then the seven games of hell happened. Starting on 2/11/2018, the Blues lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, then an overtime loss to Nashville, and then a string of 5 more losses with the last loss being an 8-3 drubbing by the Minnesota Wild. It was a two week period that had fans howling and booing in the stands, Yeo issuing exasperated statements, and ultimately culminated in the trading of one the team’s top six forwards, hometown boy Paul Stastny.
After their hot streak at the beginning of the season, the Blues were coasting along earning a point a game with a 50% goals for (all strengths). Basically, the mediocre team we have all come to both love and be frustrated with all at the same time. Then the Pittsburgh game happened. Blues took the lead in the 2nd period, scoring the first goal of the game. After that, it was all Penguins. They scored four unanswered goals and won the game 4-1. Two days later, the Blues faced off against Nashville. The Blues were up 3-0 going into the third period. The Predators scored 3 in a row taking the game into overtime, where they scored the winning goal on a penalty shot during 3-on-3. During the next 5 games the Blues were shut out in back to back games and averaged just over a goal per game during the 7 game stretch.
What went wrong? We have seen mediocre Blues teams in the past with a mid-season slump, but this seemed to be the worst we have seen in a long while. Watching the games, we saw a team that lacked energy and effort. Goaltending struggled, but it is difficult to pin all the blame on the net minders when the team stood around flat footed in their own zone and couldn’t score at the other end of the ice.
The raw shot based metrics from Corsica.Hockey has the team at 51% Corsi For during their 7 game slump, but adjusting for score and venue, it drops to 49%. That stat isn’t ideal, but it isn’t alarmingly awful either. Their adjusted Corsi Against per 60 was 47.51 for the seven game slump while the adjusted league average is currently 50.1. So even when adjusting for score and venue, the team was still suppressing shots at a rate better than league average. This all contradicts what we were seeing on the ice and what the score sheet was telling us at the end of each game. So what exactly happened during these seven games?
Let’s start by looking at the defensive side of the equation, because we already know the Blues struggles with goal scoring this season. The stats I pulled are all 5v5 non-adjusted from Natural Stat Trick. Starting at the top, we see that their average shot attempts against per 60 and their scoring chances against per 60 during their slump were under both the league average and the team’s average for the season up to the start of The Slump. Of course their goals against per 60 was off the charts compared to league average and team’s average up to The Slump. If the team was suppressing attempts and chances, where were the goals originating? The Blues were allowing more high danger chances than they did up to that point of the season. The result, was a 121% increase in the rate of high danger goals scored during The Slump when compared to the season up to that point. Additionally, high danger goals made up nearly two thirds of the goals scored against the Blues during The Slump. How does this translate to what happened on the ice? When I see most of the goals and chances happening from high danger areas, I am inclined to think opponents are getting behind defense, breakaways, or missed defensive assignments.
So I took a look at all the even strength or short handed goals against during The Slump, excluding the Minnesota game because Game Center doesn’t have the goal clips uploaded for some reason. There were 13 short handed or even strength goals against, 10 of these goals were right in front of crease without a Blues player between the shooter and the goalie. A couple of the goals were the result of giveaways or takeaways. Some of the goals were the results of defensemen not picking up a player. There were 4 goals where a Blues player was alongside the shooter, but the Blues player failed to challenge the shooter even slightly. No bump, no stick check, not even a dirty look. Even though I wasn’t able to review all the goals against in the Minnesota game, we know that the Blues truly had bad mojo that game. Pucks going in off a guy’s chest. The Wild converted on 2 of 6 power play opportunities. Even when the Blues manage to score more than two goals in a game, they get outscored by 5 goals!
Speaking of scoring, the other end of the ice is a similar story for the Blues. Comparing the Blues season up to The Slump against league average, the Blues were performing at or above the league in terms of corsi, scoring chances, and goals for per 60 minutes of ice time. But as we start drilling down and looking at higher quality shots, they lag the league in high danger chances per 60 as well as high danger goals per 60. Of course during The Slump, all of their shot and goal metrics were below team average prior to The Slump and league average overall. Except for one. Apparently, the few goals the Blues did score at 5v5 were mostly high danger location goals. Otherwise, the Blues lack of scoring can be summed up as lack of a net front presence. They are not attempting shots from those dangerous locations and therefore not scoring goals from the “dirty areas” in front of the crease. This isn’t ground breaking news. Fans have been saying this, broadcasters have been saying this, and ex-Blues players that still hang around St. Louis are even saying it. The team has got to get in front of the net to start scoring more goals. The other option is to generate turnovers in the neutral zone (they were really good at that at the beginning of the season) to generate odd-man rushes. Whatever they do, they need to get the puck into those high danger areas, and let loose. Otherwise, this team’s season will end in April.
Back to the question at hand. What can we point to as the underlying cause for The Slump? The Blues had a complete breakdown on defense. Pure and simple. And it can’t be pinned on any specific person. All the goals against I watched involved different players. The players were either out of position, not aggressive on the puck carrier, or not back checking. I would like to take a moment to say, it is a shame the goaltenders are on the receiving end the fans’ wrath because of The Slump. After watching the goals against, I can see why Tarasenko stood up and said what he did. The Slump was on the team, and really had nothing to do with goal tending. Everyone hopes the goalies could “steal” a game or two, but it is difficult to steal a game with a team that lets opponents waltz right up in front of the crease uncontested. Not even the most elite goalies of the modern day NHL could have handled what Allen and Hutton were faced with during these seven games. Then you add the lack of scoring in the mix? It is a perfect recipe for missing the playoffs.