Though the Blues head into Tuesday’s late-night contest at Anaheim with a 2-5-2 record in their last nine games — a stretch that has become the point of emphasis for many media and fans — the problems surfaced a while before that.
The Blues have a losing record since Dec. 31.
Their 6-7-3 mark over that time amounts to a points-earned percentage of .469, which ranks 28th among the 31 teams.
Only Ottawa, Detroit and Los Angeles have done worse than the defending champs since we all lifted a glass on New Year’s Eve to say farewell to 2019.
The Blues (32-15-9) still lead the NHL Central by three points, and have the most points (73) by a Western Conference team. They can be located high up, tied for 4th overall, in the top-to-bottom NHL standings.
In that context, the Blues are in good shape — provided, of course, that they get back on a positive track … and soon. After the clash with the Ducks in Anaheim, the Blues will be down to 25 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
There ain’t no panic in my disco, but I think it’s appropriate to wonder: What’s going on here?
Let’s count it out.
In no particular order:
1. SHAKY GOALTENDING: In their 16 games since Dec. 31 the Blues rank 28th in the NHL with an .875 save percentage overall. In the first 40 games of the campaign, the Blues overall save percentage (.920) ranked No. 4 in the league.
Notably, there’s been slippage in the high-danger save percentage. In their first 40 games, Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen combined for the NHL’s best save rate (.870) on high-danger chances; since Dec. 31 the Blues are 14th in the league with a HD-save percentage of .816.
Among 47 goaltenders that have played at least 325 minutes since Dec. 31, Binnington ranks 46th with an overall save percentage of .879. Binnington is also 46th among 47 goalies with a Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) metric of minus 9.23 goals. Meaning that he’s yielded about nine goals more than the average goaltender in his last 11 starts.
Until recently, Binnington’s overall save percentage was down from last season but he made up for it by producing a terrific save percentage on high-danger chances. And I defended him by pointing to those statistics. But the new reality is this: Binnington’s high-danger save rate is eroding.
⇒ First 29 starts: .873 save percentage on high-danger shots, all strengths.
⇒ Last 11 starts: .811 save percentage on high-danger shots, all strengths.
2. MISSING TARASENKO: You didn’t believe the Blues could go through the entire remainder of the regular season without suffering reduced firepower because of Tarasenko’s absence, right? This team has actually done an admirable job of filling the void and getting positive results without having the benefit of Tarasenko’s goal-scoring prowess.
But … at some point, the Blues would inevitably feel the pain of Tarasenko’s shoulder injury and ensuing surgery. No. 91 has missed the last 46 games since withdrawing from a 5-2 home win over Los Angeles on Oct. 24. In the first 37 games with Tarasenko out of commission, the Blues ranked 10th in the NHL with an average of 3.24 goals per contest. But in their current 2-5-2 stretch, the Blues have averaged only 2.78 goals per game.
Blues forwards have mustered only 14 goals at even strength over the last nine games — and haven’t scored over the last two games.
Don’t forget: over the previous five seasons ending in 2018-2019, only Alexander Ovechkin scored more even-strength goals (140) than Tarasenko (135) among NHL players. Moreover, Tarasenko had 33 postseason goals over his past five postseasons.
3. OVERLOADING THE TOP TWO LINES: Injuries hit every team but the Blues have been rocked. The Tarasenko shocker … along with the current injured-reserve status of the valuable Oskar Sundqvist … and there’s the recent 28-game absence of Sammy Blais from a damaged wrist. At least Blais is back. But the Blues are still experiencing some repercussions.
I give my friend and colleague Jeremy Rutherford full credit (*and thank you*) for bringing this to our attention. JR made an outstanding point in a freshly written piece for The Athletic:
“It’s led to a heavy usage of the top lines, with David Perron, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Ryan O’Reilly each logging 16-plus minutes of even-strength ice time (over the past nine games), while the third line is around 12 minutes per game, and the fourth line less than eight.
“In addition, perhaps because of the constant moving parts on the fourth line, the group hasn’t been remotely physical, which is what the Blues have been built on in the past.”
4. THE FATIGUE FACTOR: The Blues insist they’re feeling fine. No Stanley Cup hangover. No mental or physical weariness. Yes, coach Craig Berube has made the effort to get his fellows some rest by canceling some practices and inserting a few extra off days to ease the grind. And while I appreciate the Blues’ refusal to latch onto excuses, I’m not buying it.
Here’s why …
Berube’s preferred style, obviously is physical hockey. Tenacious. Tough. Very aggressive on the forecheck. The “heavy” hockey style is extra intense, requires more exertion, and leaves the Blues with more bruises. It ain’t easy. Especially when you’ve played more games than any NHL team since Berube coached the Blues for the first time on Nov. 21 of 2018.
Including the 2019 postseason, the Blues have competed in 145 games with Berube as the boss, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. Not even close.
As we all know, the Blues were just about dead last season when the calendar reached the end of 2018. The Note was last in the NHL in points (34) entering their Jan. 3 home game against Washington. The Blues prevailed in that one, and took off … it was the beginning of a phenomenal 30-10-5 stretch that lasted 45 games, and into the 26-game postseason.
The competitive peril was extreme; the Blues were out on the ledge, trying to hold on, desperate to save their season — and didn’t have much space to protect them. They could afford to wobble here and there, but couldn’t afford a significant slip that would lead to their demise. And while the Blues were able to survive a 4-5-2 stretch, they didn’t fall.
They got back in the playoff race by winning 11 in a row, endured the 4-5-2 slump, and surged to a 9-1-2 record in their final 12 games … and then it was on to four rounds of playoff action.
We’re talking maximum intensity over five months. Not just the postseason, but the amazing rise and comeback that made the playoffs possible. The Blues simply did not ease up … they could not ease up … there was no time to breath.
The Blues immediately jumped into a postseason tournament overloaded with close games, harrowing moments, true adversity, and the necessity of winning on the road after skidding in too many home games. And the Blue did it, winning 10 postseason road games including three (including Game 7) at Boston during the Stanley Cup showdown. Can we even comprehend the difficulty of that mission and the effort required to survive and conquer?
And then it was on to a summer of fun, which they richly deserved. But it can’t be easy to properly prepare for a new season when you’re the king, and everyone wants to throw you a celebration and give you gifts.
Not only that … the defending-champion Blues have been targeted by virtually every opponent… every opponent that wants to smack down the champ … every opponent that wants to take measure of themselves and where they stand in comparison to the Blues. Not exactly a morning skate.
So if there’s some fatigue or dragging — isn’t that understandable? Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard from a few simpletons who think that it’s weak to make an excuse for the Blues … the “excuse” being the Blues draining max-out intensity that began more than a year ago.
And with so many minutes being put on the backs of the top two lines, the Blues aren’t exactly having a vacation these days.
5. READY, AIM , MISFIRE: When coach Berube recently groused about the Blues’ shooters firing pucks over the net or wide of the net, he wasn’t just venting. Unlike his shooters, Berube was on target. In their first 40 games of the season the Blues had the second-fewest number of missed shots in the NHL, averaging 9.6 per game. Over their last 16 the Blues have missed the net an average of 11 times per game. And it’s even worse over the last nine contests; the Blues have averaged 12.4 missed shots per 60 minutes. That ranks 18th in the league.
Here’s why this matters: though the Blues are still averaging about as many goals per game (3.1) in their last 16 games as they did in their first 40, they could have scored more … and should have scored more. Despite controlling a 52.6 percent of the scoring chances in their 16 games since Dec. 31, the Blues have fewer goals on scoring chances (38) than their opponents (39) over that time.
And yes, some of that has to do with the Blues’ off-form goaltending.
And yes, some of this has to do with the opposing team’s goaltending.
But over the last 16 games, the opposition’s goaltenders have a save percentage of .918 on scoring chances during 5-on-5 situations. That’s far above the league average for 5-on-5 scoring chances. Those goalies have played well, for the most part. But the Blues have made it easier by repeatedly failures to finish. And in a related note, Binnington and Allen have combined for an .868 save percentage on 5-on-5 scoring chances — that’s 50 percentage points under what the other side’s goalies are doing with scoring chances at 5-on-5.
And we wonder why the Blues have flattened out?
6. WEAKER PENALTY-KILL: Since Dec. 31 the Blues rank 26th in the NHL with a kill rate of 72.1 percent. Before that, through 40 games, the Blues were No. 4 in the NHL with a kill rate of 84 percent. Goaltending is big in the PK equation; since Dec. 31 the Blues have an .818 save percentage on the PK. For context, that ranks 23rd among 31 teams over that time.
7. DAMN TURNOVERS: I can’t quantify this, because the league’s accounting of “giveaways” is unreliable and doesn’t take all turnovers into account. But Berube has crabbed quite a bit in recent weeks about his boys committing too many turnovers, and I’ll take his word for it. He doesn’t hesitate to hammer on the turnovers.
8. ARE THE BLUES RAVENOUS? I think they’re still hungry. But are they voracious for more success? That’s the next-level stage of hunger. Wolverine hunger …
I think Coach Berube provided the answer after the disappointing home loss to Winnipeg last Thursday.
“Our mindset this time last year, it was a little different than I think it is now, I think,” he told reporters after the game. “We’ve got to get that mindset back. I talked to the team about it this morning. We can’t be chasing games. Since the break, we’re chasing too many games. We’ve got to reverse that. It’s on everybody, everybody that dresses.
“Last year, we were playing desperate hockey right now for sure, and this year right now, maybe we need to bring in a little more urgency to our game. I think on the defensive side more than on the offensive side, but at the same time, offensively, not playing such a cute game maybe at times, turnovers and things like that that cost us.
“I go back to the stats last year, we were the No. 1 team in the NHL for not turning the puck over. No. 1. So, we’ve got to get that back. We’ve got to get pucks deep, go to work, play that game, wear teams down.”
9. SLOW STARTS CAUSE HEARTBURN: Scoring the game’s first goal has a direct impact on the result. This is true of all NHL teams; get that first goal, get a 1-0 jump on your opponent, and your probability of winning increases dramatically. And here we are … in their 16 games since Dec. 31, the Blues have struck first nine times. Their record in the nine first-goal games is 5-1-3. But in the seven games in which their opponent scored first, the Blues are 1-6-0. For the season,the Blues are 23-1-17 when scoring first.
10. GIVE THE OTHER SIDE SOME CREDIT: During their 6-7-3 downturn, the Blues have lost games (including OT) to Arizona, Colorado, Vegas, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Dallas. There’s no excuse for losing two in a row to Winnipeg, which otherwise has a losing record (6-8-2) since Dec. 31. And Arizona (7-7-3) has played mediocre hockey since Dec. 31.
Having said that, the Blues have encountered some hot teams that proceeded to outplay them. Colorado, Vegas, Vancouver, Edmonton and Dallas are a combined 43-24-9 since Dec. 31.
Thanks for reading…