The St. Louis Blues enter the all-star break among the NHL’s top teams, sitting fourth in the Western Conference with 65 points.
For the most part it’s been a satisfying season for the Blues, largely thanks to Ken Hitchcock, who took over as coach on Nov. 6.
Prior to his hiring, the Blues struggled to a 6-7-0 start. Since Hitchcock became coach, their record is a phenomenal 23-6-7.
One reason for the improvement is the performance of their goaltenders. Brian Elliott earned a spot in this year’s All-Star Game with a 15-5-2 record, a miniscule 1.69 goals-against average and a stellar .938 save percentage with five shutouts, putting him among the league’s best goalies in those three categories.
After struggling at first, Jaroslav Halak has regained his strong form, with a 14-8-5 record, 2.04 GAA, .920 SP and four shutouts – as a result, he has drawn most of the starting assignments lately.
Under Hitchcock, the Blues have significantly improved their defensive play. They’re currently tied with the Boston Bruins for the second-fewest goals-against, which is attributable to their stellar goaltending, but also to the fact they’ve allowed the fewest shots-against per game.
Despite these positives, however, the Blues have a significant weakness: lack of offensive production.
Though they’re currently eighth overall in shots per game, they’re 20th in goals per game and their power play is third-worst in the league.
One reason for that is the absence of left wingers Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald to concussions, but the Blues also lack an elite scoring forward to lead their offensive attack.
Their offensive woes were on full display during a recent 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, a significant division and conference rival. Though the Blues opened the scoring, the Wings effectively shut them down over the course of the game, limiting them to just 22 shots.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote Blues GM Doug Armstrong is aware of his team’s offensive issues, but intends to wait until Steen and McDonald return to the lineup to re-evaluate the situation.
Miklasz also noted the Blues ownership situation still isn’t resolved, meaning it’s uncertain if the club can afford to take on salary at this time.
For now, it’s a wise move for Armstrong to wait until his two injured scorers have returned. His team is riding high in the standings, 10 points above the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference, so he’s not facing any pressure to make a major move right away.
If Steen and McDonald return to form quickly and display no lasting post-concussion symptoms, they’ll provide a significant offensive boost for the Blues and allow them to improve without having to part with assets to acquire a scorer.
But if those two are slow to return, or struggle to regain their scoring touch, Armstrong will have to consider shopping around for an affordable offensive forward.
Options appear limited at the present time, but Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky, Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu and Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn are three worth exploring as the Feb. 27 trade deadline nears.
Teams with strong goaltending and a stingy defensive system are tough opponents in playoff competition, so St. Louis is a real threat to win one or two rounds – or more.
But as the Blues’ loss to the Red Wings indicated, they lack the guns to compete against deeper, experienced Western Conference teams.
If making the playoffs is the goal for this season, something the Blues have only done once since the lockout ended, Armstrong can stand pat. It would be a shame, though, to see this improved Blues team come up short in the post-season due to a lack of scoring punch.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.