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Diagnosing Justin Faulk: What’s wrong with the veteran defenseman?

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There is no standard return policy, folks

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Blues traded for and extended Justin Faulk last September, I was very impressed with Doug Armstrong.

The general manager was hungry to win another Stanley Cup, so he did what any smart executive would do: fortify the team defense as well as creating a safety net just in case Alex Pietrangelo bolted after the following season. The second part seems laughable now, with Pietrangelo putting together a Norris Trophy campaign and Faulk enduring his worst season as an NHL player-but with contract talks stalled between #27 and the team, the link on that chain still doesn’t ring false.

The problem is, Faulk’s play continues to resemble someone who fell off the bus between San Antonio and St. Louis. Fans are calling for a return just about every game for the guy, checking the receipt like a mom who got tricked on the price of a toy, which was placed on the wrong rack.

Up until the 2019-20 season, Faulk was a money player, putting up at least 35 points per season, and offering a team a heavy shot that fired 200+ lasers on net as well as power play efficiency. Faulk put up double-digit power play points in the last five seasons, including 12 goals in 2015-16. What he’s done this season is put up four goals, 14 points, and just three power play points. That’s not what you expect from a guy making top dollar.

Faulk is indeed a rich man, so excuse me if I invoke the high salary amendment here. I know this is where Jake Allen loyalists used to get testy, because the salary is not everything. But in this case, it’s big. When it comes to what Faulk is and isn’t doing, salary is a huge deal. He’ll complete the previous contract negotiated with Carolina this season, costing the Blues $4.8 million towards the cap. But next season, it gets worse.

Faulk signed a seven year, $45 million extension in September, with a full no trade clause for the first five seasons. He’ll cost the Blues $6.5 million towards the cap for the next five seasons before a modified no trade clause kicks in for the final two seasons, starting in ... wait for it ... 2025! At that point, Faulk gets to pick 15 teams, half the league basically, that he won’t go to.

This places the aged-out Jonas Brother lookalike in a lovely position as a player. He’ll make bank until he turns 35 on March 12, 2027. The man could literally dance the jig, clear some pucks, try to grow a real beard, and keep producing the same results he is this season and get paid. The worst nightmare a fan can imagine is the Faulk contract throwing a wrench into the road of re-signing Pietrangelo instead of merely acting as insurance. But it’s more than that. The Faulk contract could hinder a lot of future deals, even with money falling off the books next season and the season after.

That is, unless Faulk rebounds and figures it out, becoming the guy Armstrong traded for. So what’s going on with him? The batteries are in, there are no injury concerns to worry on, and he hits the ice every game seemingly ready to contribute. What’s derailing his play? Let’s pop the hood and take a look.

Faulk isn’t shooting enough

The man has a big shot and he likes to use it ... usually. In four of the past five seasons, he’s put 200+ shots on net. He seems gunshy out there, sending a weak wrist shot towards the net instead of unloading a heavy slap shot. I can’t tell if it’s the system Craig Berube uses or something personal with Faulk in his first season with the team, but it has to stop. It’s the same thing I telepathically tell Colton Parayko: shoot the damn puck. Shoot it often. Don’t cycle it down or overthink the idea. Just shoot.

A power play specialist can’t find the power play

In Carolina, Faulk routinely played the majority of power play minutes. Here, on Sunday, Faulk recorded just 13 seconds of power play time. With no offense to the young and capable Vince Dunn, Faulk should get some of that time. One of the main reasons the newcomer doesn’t feel like himself is he isn’t being used properly. He’s a smart player with a good shot and nice instincts who can help a team on the power play. Yes, the Blues extra man unit ranks in the top five in the NHL, but that doesn’t mean you keep the defenseman with the longest term contract out of sorts. Faulk is going to be here, so use him out there.

Give him more offensive zone face-offs

Here’s a tricky stat any fan can find on Hockey Reference. Faulk is getting less offensive zone face-off time and more defensive zone face-off time. Now, I wouldn’t call Faulk a defensive liability, but he’s also no wizard on the defender side of the game either. He’s getting around 5% less time in the offensive zone than he did last year with Carolina, and about 5% more time in defensive zones. For a guy with a big shot who likes to use it, a few more offensive zone face-offs could do a lot of good.

New Town, Stanley Cup aspirations

People may roll their eyes at this one, but it’s legit. Faulk played his entire life for the Hurricanes where, let’s be honest for a minute, there aren’t a lot of Stanley Cup hopes. Carolina won the Cup in 2006, but since then they’ve won four playoff series in the past 13+ years. Faulk got a good whiff last spring with the Hurricanes advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, but that’s it. He comes to the team that knocked off the Boston Bruins, whom his former team couldn’t get past.

And now the team is running and gunning for another Cup, tied for the conference lead on Feb. 17, but struggling to stay atop the rest. Don’t forget Faulk was traded right before the regular season started, giving no time to acclimate himself with the roster. For a team that is very close, that’s not easy to step into without much time to get comfortable. Faulk is trying to carve his place out, and everything he’s doing isn’t helping. One can only hope the nerves fall away for a veteran defenseman.

The problem with Faulk is he isn’t being used properly and his defense, which wasn’t great to begin with, is being called into question. A week or so ago, Faulk was dusted by an opposing player, who skated past him and scored the game-winning goal. On Sunday, he didn’t block a shot that would change the game. Hamstrung on offense, Faulk’s defense isn’t doing him any favors.

The good news: With Jay Bouwmeester going on LTIR, there could be more minutes for Faulk. There’s still time for him to turn this around.

The Bad News: If not, he’s here for SIX MORE YEARS at a high cap number and a no trade clause.

Let’s hope Justin Faulk figures it out, and does it soon. The Blues need all the help they can get.