There are two paths one can take in analyzing the St. Louis Blues’ start to the campaign, which has been highlighted by heartbreaking losses such as Wednesday’s dying-seconds defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens and full-on dismantlings like the opening-night loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
The first, and the easiest, puts the blame on Jake Allen. Ahead of the season, the belief was that this Blues team could only go as far as Allen would take them, that his own play would be what makes or breaks GM Doug Armstrong’s promising off-season retooling project. In the past, that had been exactly the case, after all, and you need look no further than the 2017-18 campaign for evidence of Allen’s play sinking a talented team. Case in point, there was a stretch in which Allen posted a sub-.900 save percentage in 17 games from mid-December through to the end of February.
Outward appearances, too, would be that Allen is indeed failing to hold up his end of the bargain in St. Louis. Base statistics would indicate as much, certainly. Through five games, Allen has a 1-2-2 record, an eye-watering 3.91 goals-against average and unsightly .877 SP. It’s still early, true, but there hasn’t been a contest yet in which Allen has allowed fewer than three goals. He was beaten by the first shot he faced in Wednesday’s game, a rush chance by Montreal’s Max Domi, and then allowed a back-breaker in the last 10 seconds when Brendan Gallagher poked a puck up and over Allen’s pad following an absolutely brutal defensive turnover by Blues rearguard Colton Parayko.
But if you don’t want to chase the easy narrative, if you don’t want to go the simple route of piling on Allen, there’s another way to look at the Blues’ disappointing start to the season. And that’s to look at the play of the team in front of him, which has been nowhere near good enough. St. Louis hasn’t lived up to what was expected of them coming into the campaign, and while there’s truth to that when it comes to the attack, which has scored only 17 goals in six games despite adding Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon in the off-season, it’s especially true when it comes to team defense, which has been porous at the best of times in the early going.
It’s always difficult to draw any conclusions from a two-week stretch of play, of course, but the underlying numbers in St. Louis are somewhat alarming, particularly when it comes to quality opportunities. To wit, the Blues rank 19th in attempts against (59.5) and 23rd in shots against (32.5) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, according to NaturalStatTrick. It’s not so much those numbers that are concerning, however, as it is St. Louis’ 29th-ranked rate of scoring chance against (31.6) and 23rd-ranked high-danger chances against (12.9) in the same 60-minute segments. It’s not just that opponents are breaking through the Blues’ defensive shell, it’s that they’re doing so with consistency.
Don’t go thinking those numbers haven’t factored into Allen’s play, either. Of the 26 goaltenders who have appeared in at least four games this season, Allen’s 32.1 shots against per 60 minutes is the eighth-highest rate and he’s only narrowly outside the top 10 in saves made over the same span. But no goaltender has faced the barrage of high-danger shots that Allen has. He’s facing upwards of 12 prime scoring opportunities per 60 minutes, the only of the 26 netminders with a workload that difficult. Overall, Allen has faced made more high danger shots than all but the Ducks’ John Gibson this season, and only Gibson, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and Flyers’ Brian Elliott have made more stops on these Grade ‘A’ looks.
Does the workload absolve Allen entirely? Not at all. It could be argued the goal against in the early going Wednesday, a backhand from Max Domi less than a minute into the game and on the first shot Allen faced, set the tone for the rest of the evening after putting St. Louis in an early hole. And underlying numbers don’t entirely let Allen off the hook. For example, Gibson, who is admittedly playing out of his mind in Anaheim, has a 7.5 goals saved above average (GSAA) — stops above that of what a league-average keeper would be making — while facing a similarly difficult shot quality. Allen sits at minus-4.13 through his five outings.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that St. Louis’ performance last season, with a roster that could easily be argued was less talented on paper, was far better than what they’ve shown into mid-October. Coach Mike Yeo had his team top 10 in possession percentages, shot percentages and only narrowly outside the 10-best teams in scoring chance percentages. Under the same coach with an improved roster, it would stand to reason that these Blues should be able to manage the same.
Fact of the matter, though, is that St. Louis is going to need to turn the tide on their slow start and give Allen some help sooner rather than later if they are to succeed this season and get back to the playoffs after their first absence since the 2010-11 campaign.