This isn’t how things were supposed to go for the St. Louis Blues.
On paper, the Blues seemingly had one of the best rosters in the Western Conference, a deep stable of talent up front and a cohort of blueliners that should have been more than capable of powering this team to a post-season return. Additions of Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon to a group that already included Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn made waves and pushed the Blues into the divisional-playoff-spot conversation, saw some peg St. Louis as Stanley Cup contenders and had last season’s playoff miss primed to look like nothing more than an unfortunate aberration.
But the game isn’t played on paper, and the results have in no way reflected the pre-season hype. With 25 games in the books, the Blues sit alongside the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference basement and nine points out of a wild-card spot, and St. Louis’ playoff hopes are dwindling with each additional defeat. Now everyone can’t help but wonder: how exactly do the Blues go about salvaging this season?
It appeared early that the answer was a change behind the bench, and it was the first attempt the Blues front office made at righting the ship. Just shy of the quarter-mark of the campaign, Mike Yeo was fired and subsequently replaced by Craig Berube, who was given support of the front office to take the reins and get St. Louis back on track. And while Berube hasn’t had much time to operate, the early returns haven’t been all that spectacular for the Blues. Matter of fact, the coaching change seems to have done little to spur on success in St. Louis. It’s almost had the opposite effect.
By several measures, the Blues have been worse over the past two weeks under Berube than they were under Yeo. Since Berube took the helm, St. Louis is 2-4-0, suffering a pair of embarrassing defeats along the way — Saturday’s 6-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes and the 8-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets little more than a week ago stand out, in particular — but it’s more than the Blues’ record across Berube’s six games at the helm that’s concerning, as the underlying numbers don’t suggest any significant turnaround is in the offing.
While six games is an admittedly small sample, one would have hoped to see St. Louis beginning to control play or dominate some outings in the wake of Yeo’s firing. Instead, in several key metrics, the Blues have struggled since Berube’s interim tenure began. At 5-on-5 and measured per 60 minutes, St. Louis has generated more shot attempts, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances. However, the Blues have also surrendered a higher rate of attempts against, shots against, scoring chances against and high-danger chances against, which has resulted in a lower shots percentage and scoring chance percentage since Berube took over. St. Louis has also seen a decline in goals percentage, shooting percentage and save percentage.
The primary concern, too, has to be play at 5-on-5, particularly given the Blues have had rather successful special teams units this season. Entering the first full week of December, St. Louis has the NHL’s ninth-best power play, clipping along at 23.8 percent, and the penalty kill, operating at 81.7 percent, also sits ninth in the league. But short of changing coaches again, one has to wonder what exactly can be done to turn things around at even strength, which is what needs to happen if the Blues have any shot at earning a playoff berth.
Finding steady goaltending has no doubt been the overwhelming suggestion, seemingly the quickest fix for a struggling St. Louis squad. It’s not a suggestion without reason, either. Combined, Jake Allen and Chad Johnson have posted an ugly .894 save percentage and 3.32 goals-against average. Individually, the netminders rank 40th (Allen, .896 SP) and 46th (Johnson, .889 SP) in SP among goaltenders with nine appearances this season. But that would be to ignore Allen’s .917 SP over his past 10 games, during which the Blues have a 4-5-0 record. It would also be to ignore Allen’s workload. According to Natural Stat Trick, Allen has faced the ninth-most high-danger shots against per 60 minutes and has the seventh-lowest average shot distance of 38 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played. He hasn’t exactly had an incredible level of defensive support.
There’s a team element to that, to be sure, but it’s also true that the bottom half of the defense corps has left much to be desired this season. That’s to say that while Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo and Joel Edmundson have carried their weight, all while having a heavier slant of defensive than offensive zone starts, the same can’t be said for the trio of Jay Bouwmeester, Vince Dunn and Jordan Schmaltz. Consider that the top three on the blueline have positive relative Corsi percentages at 5-on-5 ranging from 2.4 percent to 3.5 percent, while Dunn, Bouwmeester and Schmaltz, who has the lowest five-a-side ice time at 192 minutes, have relative percentages of negative-1.4 percent, negative-6.9 percent and negative-11.9 percent, respectively. This is despite all three having a heavier slant of offensive zone starts than their top-three counterparts, too.
And while the depth of the blueline needs addressing — and maybe a returning Carl Gunnarsson can help at some point — there may also come a time where the Blues have to seriously discuss the lack of secondary scoring. O’Reilly and Tarasenko have been the only truly consistent contributors this season with respective 28- and 20-point totals, and the only other player with at least two-thirds of a point per game is Schenn, who has 14 points in 21 games. All told, only six players are better than half point per game players. That ranks in the bottom-third of the league and hasn’t at all helped St. Louis’ middling offense.
So, what do the Blues do? They could flip some of their talent up front for some support on the back end, move out a defenseman for additional talent up front or, as some have suspected, make a player on a goaltender that can provide game-saving levels of play. There are options, to be sure, but no matter what approach the Blues take, they’ll have to start working on either a short-term or long-term fix in the not-too-distant future. Time is running out for St. Louis to start the process of saving this season.