Since this Blues season started, I’ve expected a lull at some point. Playing an extra two months and 26 games in the post-season is taxing, and that’s what the Blues did last spring and summer as they won the Stanley Cup. I believe there is going to come a time that they don’t look like the team we’ve grown to know and love. Despite fantastic performances against Tampa Bay and Calgary last week, it’s not unreasonable to think that lull is around the corner.
The Blues are missing three top-nine forwards due to injury. Vladimir Tarasenko will miss the rest of the season after shoulder surgery, Sammy Blais will miss ten weeks with wrist surgery, and Alexander Steen’s high ankle sprain is expected to keep him out until at least the first week of December. Taking nothing away from the Blues replacements for those guys, you just don’t replace that level of talent, experience and size. With those players out, the Blues are heading into perhaps the toughest portion of their schedule.
Since Steen’s injury the Blues have gone 3-2-and-2 and have scored eighteen regulation goals. Five of those goals came in their 5-0 win over Calgary at Enterprise. None of those came from their top five scorers. In the other six games, as the Blues have scored thirteen, or just over two per game. The trio of missing key forwards has allowed the opposition to more closely defend their top two lines. In the seven games since Steen went down, the Blues top five scorers have had varying degrees of success. David Perron has two regulation goals and three assists for five points in those games. Brayden Schenn has 1-4-5, Ryan O’Reilly 1-1-2, Alex Pietrangelo 0-4-4 and Schwartz 3-1-4. The rest of the goals in those six games have come from defensemen Vince Dunn and Colton Parayko, and forwards Ivan Barbashev, MacKenzie MacEachern, Oskar Sundqvist and Klim Kostin, who have each scored one.
There are a several things at play here then. Last year the Blues got more than a goal every other game from their defensemen, tying for a league high 46. Pietrangelo has six goals, but the rest of the defense has seven. So, guys like Parayko and Justin Faulk are going to be required to score more goals. Another thing that comes into play, without excuses, is the injury bug. A team has six wingers among their top nine forwards. Tarasenko is a top line winger, and Steen and Blais were both top-nine forwards when they got hurt. When you lose half of your expected top-nine wingers, that’s a problem.
It appears that the Blues have a chance to get good production out of the new line of Robert Thomas, Sundqvist and Zach Sanford. Thomas has been a center his entire life, and in his first NHL exposure to the position, Sundqvist and Sanford have had the best games of their careers. Some players possess the ability to elevate those around them, and Thomas just might be one of those players. If he is, the Blues can offset at least part of the loss of production from the injured three.
One other aspect to near-term Blues success is the continued great play of goalie Jordan Binnington. His career numbers are phenomenal: 35-9-5 with a career 2.03 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Those are numbers that will keep a team in any game. Lest we think Binnington was a one-year wonder, he’s 11-4-4 with a 2.23 and a .926 so far this season. It seems he’s for real, and if that’s the case, he’ll be able to backstop the Blues to lots of success.
In addition to Kostin, fellow top prospect Jordan Kyrou has four goals and six assists in ten games at San Antonio. Once Kyrou’s surgically repaired knee is deemed ready for NHL action, he’ll join the Blues and hopefully add some offense too.
There will be some rough waters ahead. There’s a trip to Nashville, Tampa Bay and Dallas. November wraps with Pittsburgh here next Saturday, and then December includes matchups with an improved Blackhawks team, Pittsburgh at their building, surging Toronto, Vegas, Colorado and Edmonton.
It’s not going to be all sunshine and lollipops for the Blues, and if they struggle it December it’ll be understandable. And if they don’t, the rest of the NHL had better look out.