For the first time in seven years, the St. Louis Blues aren’t participating in the NHL playoffs, having lost their finale at Colorado and five of their last six games, and finishing a point out in the post-season race.
The 2017-2018 Blues had a LOT of problems for a team that expects to play after the 82nd game, some of them fixable internally, some requiring imports from the outside, and at least one requiring some luck. With that, here are a half-dozen items on Blues President of Hockey Operations-General Manager Doug Armstrong’s checklist for this off-season.
1) Health: The Blues lost 315 man games to injury, which was in the league’s top ten. It wasn’t just the injuries for the Blues though, it was who got hurt and when. Robbie Fabbri suffered another ACL injury early in training camp and never came back, putting him on the shelf for a year and a half. The Blues tried to find a top six forward all year long. They went through Sammy Blais, Ivan Barbashev, Beau Bennett, Dmitrij Jaskin, Patrik Berglund, Magnus Paajarvi, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Scottie Upshall in Fabbri’s role, but none filled the bill of a fast, playmaking 20-25 goal scorer. The Blues also lost Zach Sanford early in camp; he was supposed to be a bottom six forward all year long. During the season they lost their best forward, Jaden Schwartz, for twenty games at mid-season. They found out how important Joel Edmundson is when he was lost for nearly a month to a broken hand. In the last quarter of the season, defensemen Jay Bouwmeester (hip surgery) and Carl Gunnarsson (torn ACL) and goalie Carter Hutton (neck) suffered injuries. Gunnarsson and Bouwmeester were joined in the season-ending injury room by Scottie Upshall. As the Blues lost depth, they lost games. They need better luck in the injury department. It should be noted that the Washington Capitals have lost the least man games to injury in each of the last two seasons, and have won their division both seasons. This year, Vegas had the MOST man games lost, but were able to overcome it and win the Pacific division.
2) Chemistry: Obviously, the injuries lead to on-ice chemistry issues at times. Brayden Schenn was a newcomer to the organization and had to find his way, but he did establish himself as a great player and leader. Shenn’s effort was consistent and commendable, but that can’t be said for the entire team. There were too many games in which the effort necessary to win wasn’t apparent. There were too many nights in which a frustrated coach Mike Yeo had to stand at the podium and tell fans through the media that what he’d just seen was unacceptable. There were too many times that the team’s most gifted player, Vladimir Tarasenko, just seemed to be off. And there were rumblings that Schenn the playmaker became frustrated because he didn’t know where Tarasenko was going to be on the ice. Tarasenko’s apparent lack of desire to play within the system is a topic that must be addressed. One of the reasons for the greatness of the Chicago Blackhawks of recent years is that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are all pulling the rope in the same direction. Same with Pittsburgh, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Kris Letang. Yeo and his staff need to make sure their group is on the same page, heading in the same direction.
3) Leadership: This will help with chemistry. The Blues had great leadership with David Backes and Troy Brouwer three years ago, and had players with the ability to keep teammates accountable. Those nights without effort didn’t seem so numerous or apparent with veteran players that were willing to tell everyone what was necessary to win. Remember when Backes fought Tarasenko in practice in 2014, the day after a lackluster team effort? The Blues need that sort of personality. And, Yeo needs to press buttons. Some players didn’t like Hitchcock because he pushed them and demanded excellence. Yeo needs to find a way to get players to do things they don’t want to do, or don’t think they’re capable of. Leadership from the dressing room and from the coach’s office is a necessity for this team to get back into playoff contention. Players don’t have to like each other off the ice (although that would be nice), but they do need to coalesce once they get to the rink.
4) Special teams: Of the NHL’s 31 teams, the Blues were thirtieth on the power play at 15.5%. In 246 opportunities, they scored 38 goals. The Blues also allowed nine shorthanded goals, so they were only a plus-29 in 246 chances. Notable is that Colorado was thirtieth in the NHL in 2016-2017 with a power play percentage of 12.6%, and improved to eighth at 21.9%, while the Blues last season were eighth at 21.3% and fell to 30th this year. Last season, Ray Bennett was on the Blues staff and worked with the power play before he was fired. This season, he ran Colorado’s. On the penalty kill, the Blues fell from third in the league last season at 84.8% to eighteenth this year at 79.7. The belief is that great special teams add up to 110%. Last year, the Blues were at 106.1, this year they were 95.2. There is a lot of work…almost all of it schematic…to get the Blues where they need to be on special teams.
5) Consistent goaltending: This one is obvious. I’ve chronicled Jake Allen’s struggles for two months each season. Carter Hutton was brilliant this season until his neck injury, but he still led the NHL with a 2.09 GAA and a .931 save percentage. In thirteen games in February, the Blues gave up four or more goals six times. Then down the stretch, they gave up four or more in each game of a four-game skid from crucial games 77-80. For a team that went 42 games between December 5 and March 17 without winning a game in which they allowed three or more goals, the goaltending needs to be great.
6) Better shooting and more scoring: The Blues finished 24th in goals with 223, fifty fewer than Western Conference leading Winnipeg. Of the bottom fourteen teams in goals, the only one that made the playoffs was Anaheim, who finished nineteenth with 231 tallies. Of the top fourteen scoring teams, thirteen made the playoffs. Certainly, injuries played a role in the Blues’ lack of offense, but there was more. Yeo never coached a great offense in Minnesota. The power play certainly was a factor. But the Blues couldn’t shoot. They surprisingly were in the lower half of the league in missed shots (seventeenth, with 987), but were 25th in shooting percentage at 8.3%. How many times did we see them miss an open net, or shoot right into the middle of the goalie? For a team that should have sharpshooters in Schenn, Schwartz and Tarasenko, they didn’t convert nearly enough opportunities. There must be an emphasis placed on getting good shots. Better shooting will lead to more scoring, and the Blues need to work hard in that department.
The pressure and expectations for this franchise are high. Blues fans have been frustrated that peers like the Flyers, Kings and Penguins have won multiple Stanley Cups, and now they’re seeing Nashville, Winnipeg, Minnesota and even Vegas make the playoffs, while St. Louis didn’t. These are just a few of the problems, but they’re the big ones Doug Armstrong needs to address this off-season.