The Blues’ Doug Armstrong Did the Right Thing By Doing Next to Nothing

When the accounting was completed on transactions made before the NHL trade deadline, the Blues were barely visible. You couldn’t find them in the standard “Winners and Losers” reports.

The Blues didn’t make any  “Winners” lists. They weren’t dismissed as sad-sack “Losers” either. The Blues were pretty much viewed for what they are: a surging team, riding the momentum, with no scream-out-loud roster needs or a compelling reason to remix the team chemistry.

And that’s the proper read on the situation. The Blues are 12-1-1 this month; no team in franchise history has won as many games in February. The Note are 19-5-2 and since Jan. 3 for a points percentage (.769) that ranks second in the NHL over that time. If we want to parse it out another way, no team has earned more points (40) than the Blues since the start of the new year.

And the metrics point to a dominant team. In 5-on-5 play over their past 26 games the Blues have the NHL’s best shots-for percentage at 56.3 percent, and rank No. 1 in outscoring opponents by notching 63.3 percent of the goals during 5-on-5 competition. Staying with the 5-on-5 measure, the Blues are also No. 1 in the NHL for largest percentage of scoring chances (63.1) and high-danger scoring chances (61.6.) And their 5-on-5 save percentage (.941) is No. 2 in the circuit.

Why mess with success? After re-emerging from their early-season hibernation, the Blues have turned into unforgiving beasts. In a misleadingly close 2-0 victory Tuesday the Blues thrashed Nashville the other night, controlling 72 percent of the shots, 69.8 percent of the scoring chances, and 71.4 percent of high-danger scoring shots at 5-on-5.

It’s rare to see such a display of unchecked domination of a very good team. This gesture of thanks served a gesture of gratitude from the players to president of hockey operations Doug Armstrong.

“He sees what we have here and he sees it’s finally starting to come together,” forward Pat Maroon told reporters, the morning after the deadline had passed. “I think what he did in the offseason basically sums up making deals at the trade deadline. Now it’s just coming together, guys are starting to play good and the team’s really jelling at the right time.

“You can see the chemistry’s building, the friendships we’re building and how close this team’s really getting. It’s fun to see, everyone’s supporting each other and everyone’s building each other up.

“Obviously when things were bad, everyone was sticking together. That’s how a team is built through the hard times. What we went through the first three months of the year, we went through some hard times. To see where we’re at now says it a lot.”

The Blues did next to nothing, adding left-handed depth defenseman Michael Del Zotto (Anaheim) for a sixth-round draft pick. For those deflated, disappointed, or perhaps disgusted by Armstrong’s relative inactivity, keep in mind that he hardly put his team at a disadvantage as the playoffs loom. Winning the trade deadline — based on gushing media reviews and the rousing thumbs-up approval from fawning fan bases — doesn’t amount to much.

No, really … it doesn’t amount to much. Using Hockey News and USA Today for reference, I went back and reviewed the “Winners” lists from the past three NHL trade deadlines (2016, 2017, 2018.)

Here’s what I discovered:

A total of 23 teams appeared on the “Winners” lists over the three-year period.

Of the 23, only one captured a Stanley Cup (Pittsburgh, 2017.) And two lost in the conference final. (Tampa Bay and Winnipeg in 2018.)

Four of the 23 were eliminated in the second round. Seven were bounced in the first round. And nine failed to make the playoffs.

That’s right … 20 of the 23 “Winners” were all gone by the end of the second round. And roughly 39 percent of these deadline dog-and-pony-show winners were too lousy to qualify for the postseason.

“Going into the deadline, we were content with our group the way it was,” Armstrong said during his Tuesday morning news conference. “I think the guys have done a really good job really since the new year or before that playing well, they’ve earned the right to stay together. We didn’t want to disrupt the chemistry. They’ve earned the right to stay together.

“But also what we didn’t want to do was stagnate the growth of a (Mackenzie) MacEachern or a (Sammy) Blais or (Jordan) Kyrou. If they’re needed, they can come up here and play for us.

“By adding another layer or two up front eliminates the option for those guys. We felt last summer we were starting a new window, what it’s called in the NHL, and we want to make sure we’re giving these guys the proper opportunity to play both on the back end and up front.”

Armstrong made a few meaningful points there.

Here are two:

1. Given the Blues poisonous team chemistry over the first two months of the season, it would be unnecessarily risky to make moves that spoil or otherwise disrupt the present environment. This is a happy, determined, harmonious energy-buzzing team that loves competing. That’s precious.

2. The Blues’ youngbloods and previously unestablished players are putting in their pieces and contributing to this early-2019 fermentation process. During the Blues’ 19-5-2 stretch Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas, Mackenzie MacEachern, Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais and Jordan Kyrou have combined for 14 goals and 19 assists for 33 points. And 12 of the assists were first assists on the play.

When the Blues rolled over the Predators on Tuesday night the fourth line (Blais, Barbashev, MacEachern) posted a collective Corsi rating of 57.3 percent at 5-on-5. (Anything over 50 percent is good.) The Blues’ trio had a 6-2 edge in shots. The Blues’ third line in that win — Sanford, Sundqvist and Thomas — had a preposterous Corsi rating of 73.3% at 5-on-5 and a huge 8-1 advantage in the number of scoring chances.

Seeing the rapid rate of the young Blues’ improvement, this team can grow even stronger. And this can be done without Armstrong handing away valuable assets that are essential for a healthy future.  It’s not as if “Army” had many tradable assets, anyway. No first-round draft pick in 2019, no second-rounder in 2020, and several prospects/kids that are under Armstrong’s protective custody.

One big-name acquisition wouldn’t have been enough to lead the Blues to a Stanley Cup … or into the second round, for that matter. Meanwhile, enjoy this ride back from the abyss. Not only are the younger players gaining confidence, but the Blues brigade will be boosted by the imminent return of injured-list residents Brayden Schenn and David Perron.

Next year, the time may be right to make a power acquisition and find a spot on the “Winners” trade-analysis lists. But not now. Granted, the postseason stage may be too big for some of the newbies this time around, but they’ll benefit from the experience that will prepare them from future playoff tests.

That said,  I wouldn’t rule anything out; this is a special team right now. Coach Craig Berube really has this group going after the miserable and unpleasant start to the season. This is an amazing turnaround, with the Blues moving into a playoff position, and finding tranquility. It’s best to give peace a chance.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie