It was not so long ago that the St. Louis Blues were winning an unusual amount of games and creating endless amounts of surreal joy for their fans. They’d lose a few, but then go on an eight game winning streak. And even when it wasn’t as good, they’d salvage a point or put together a home point streak or something over a couple week span.
Those wonderful things are a thing of the past right now. The Blues are stuck in a true tailspin. What makes it a real tailspin? When you are ahead in your division and conference by 10+ points, and suddenly witness that cushion disappear inside two weeks. That’s when you know.
As the sun came up this morning, the Blues are now tied atop the Central Division and West with the Colorado Avalanche with 74 points apiece. For months, the Blues held off the Avalanche despite a rough record head to head, but that levee has broke in the new year. Ever since 2020 kicked off, the Blues have looked like a different team; a much more average group.
Yes, one could say this team is having the opposite cycle they endured last season. It was around Jan. 2 that the team took off on their Cup-winning quest in 2019, but this time, it’s looking to be their undoing. The need for Doug Armstrong to make a move isn’t in suggestive phase anymore; it’s a necessity.
What’s wrong exactly? Let’s diagnose the issue with a few things.
5) Jaden Schwartz’s defense, enigmatic offense
While the winger only has six points in his last 12 games, it’s his usually sound defense that has hurt this team lately. Looking at a +/- rating for a non-defenseman can be a reach, but not when it’s a marked difference from the player’s norm. For years, Schwartz has kept a solid rating, but this year, it’s -13. He may be snake-bitten at times with the puck, but it’s his overall defensive play that’s lacking. He plays important minutes and can be a multi-faceted package on the ice, and while his overall stats are solid, he hasn’t been great as of late. Once again, it may be a reach to call out Schwartz, but he’s an important cog in this team’s overall game.
4) The penalty killing unit continues to drop
Remember the days when the Blues were among the top teams in the NHL at killing penalties? Back in the 2015-16 season, they ranked third in the league. In 2016-17, they were 7th. Swell times. Over the past few seasons, it’s gotten worse. They were 15th in 2017-18, 13th in 2018-19, hanging around the middle of the pack yet staying respectable. This year, they are 18th in the league, and have looked bad in the past six weeks. Marc Savard has come in and given a problematic power play a true boost (they are a top 5 NHL unit), so this offseason could see Doug Armstrong try to address the PK unit. Or else, the Blues need to stop taking bad penalties. Shitty referee work can hurt certain situations, but you can’t blame the whole season on the zebra crew.
3) Jordan Binnington isn’t looking elite
Sunday was Binnington’s best game, save percentage wise, since Jan. 9 against Buffalo. He stopped 92% of the shots yesterday. Binnington isn’t getting constantly destroyed in net, but he’s not stealing a lot of games for the Blues as he did a year ago or even in November. Binnington allowed three or more goals in eight consecutive games. You’d have to go back before Thanksgiving to find his last shutout.
With Jake Allen playing better for the majority of this season, Binnington’s decline wasn’t as prevalent. Binnington’s 2.74 ranks 10th in the NHL in goalies that have played 35 games or more. The .909 save percentage ranks 9th. That should inform you it’s not bad, but definitely not as good as his game-saving work a year ago. Allen has looked a lot better these past six weeks, which could lead to some more time for him in net eventually.
What’s troubling Binnington? It could be pure workload, or maybe the league is catching up to him. Sophomore campaigns can reveal that. The reality is his play picked the team up last season, but has helped bring them back down this season. He can still make the huge save, but he doesn’t have the 60 minute game takeover ability he found last season.
2) Vladimir Tarasenko is finally being missed
There was a time when this team wasn’t missing the elite scorer out there. David Perron and Brayden Schenn were putting together career-best seasons, and the roster was all pitching in. Those days have grown gray hairs, as the team has struggled to be a consistent force on the offensive end of the ice.
Whether it’s a barrage of passing or just a lack of confidence or creative thinking with the puck, this team has looked more predictable and capable of keeping in check. The Blues rank 13th in goals scored and goals scored per game, which isn’t bad, but needs to improve if this team has a shot of repeating.
Tarasenko is back skating with the team, but until he can take a few blunt shots to the boards, he will be a non-factor. It’s unwise to push him due to his contract and overall impact on this team’s future. But the Blues will need scoring to make up for him, not that the rest of the NHL has found a way to keep the other Blues in check. The Blues can’t lean on a Tarasenko savior campaign in April or May. They also can’t rush him back.
1) The defense is sloppy
This unit used to be a force to reckon with. They’d suffocate opposing teams, knock them around, and force them to make mistakes. That has gone away lately, right with the penalty kill. It seems like they are more capable of breakdowns inside the D-zone, giving up point blank chances and easy looks for the other team. In five of seven games this month, the Blues have allowed three goals or more. In 11 January games, they allowed three goals or more in seven of them.
It’s not all Justin Faulk, ladies and gents. Vince Dunn can look great one night and bad the next. If you thought Jay Bouwmeester’s work on the ice can be easily replaced, pay more attention. Bouwmeester was strong since the midway point of 2018-19, and he played at least 20 minutes a night. Alex Pietrangelo has looked steady, but has put up a few rough games of his own. Colton Parayko can be a force, but hasn’t looked great in certain games. The defensive depth on this team isn’t outstanding and could be something they address at the deadline. They rank 10th in goals allowed and goals per game allowed overall, but over the past 6-8 weeks, it’s gotten ugly.
Here’s the thing. The Blues have been hit with injuries of the hardcore variety all year, so sitting where they currently sit is impressive. They lost their best player early on and survived, but the faulty elements of this team are starting to show. They have lost eight of their last ten games, gathering just six out of a possible 20 points.
Their goaltending is human and the defense is problematic, but worst of all, they fall asleep for long stretches of games. My dad joked that there are times when it seems like Craig Berube forced the entire team to do espresso shots during the intermission, and he’s not wrong. They can look very beatable for periods before pulling it together to come up short. The bright side is they aren’t getting clobbered, instead losing games by two goals or less. They need to improve the penalty kill and get the goal-scoring more consistent.
People will say it’s better to get this play out of the way now instead of March or April, and they aren’t wrong. But it’s a brand new day out there in the West. The point lead is closer and more varied, with the Nashville Predators stepping back into contention.
Last February, it was a home and away sweep of the Predators that truly locked in the Blues’ winning streak and sent them on their way. Let’s hope the home and away sweep at the hands of Nashville doesn’t doom them this year.
The Blues look like shit right now. Plain and simple. They need something. The trade deadline is a week from today. The Blues play four times before then. Let’s hope they can rebound.
Coming out of the gate stronger and finishing more soundly sure could help.
Pass me the bourbon while we wait.