The Blues broke our hearts again. Some fans have had this happen 46 times now. They are called, even by their most ardent supporters, the Cubs of hockey, and it’s hard to come up with a comeback for that.
Even when the Blues appear to have the best team in the NHL, as they did for five months this year, disaster is impending. And it was for the second straight year. The Note bucked the odds, which have teams leading NHL playoff series 2-0 winning 86 percent of the time, by dropping the last four to Chicago.
With that said, the Blackhawks were the better team. The two teams played 11 games this year, and Chicago won six. Each Blues victory came in overtime or shootout, while Chicago picked up four of its six wins in regulation, with dominant performances on March 19 (4-0), April 6 (4-2) and Sunday (5-1). Chicago’s nucleus has two Stanley Cups, and the Blues have none.
Troubling for the Blues is that the six highest-paid players under team control for next season – David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk – average 27.6 years old. At the beginning of next season, Bouwmeester will be 31, Backes will be 30, Steen will be 29, Oshie will be 27, Shattenkirk will be 25 and Pietrangelo 24. There are players who aren’t too far from heading downhill.
The Hawks’ top six, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, average 29.1. But if you remove the 35-year-old Hossa, the other five average 28. Yes, the Blackhawks’ nucleus is about the same age as the Blues. Are the Blues going to be able to win with this group? Goalie Corey Crawford is 29. It’s hard to imagine that Chicago is going to regress.
That’s the big picture. Let’s narrow it down to this season. The Olympics and resulting schedule hurt the Blues more than the Blackhawks. Chicago may have handled it better, or perhaps it was a fluke, but the Blues had injuries after the break to Olympians Backes, Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Vladamir Tarasenko and Steen. At times, they all took big hits. Toews and Kane dealt with late-season injuries, too. Sometimes fatigue can cause an inability to react the way a player normally does. After the Sochi games, the Blues played a league-high 25 games in the final 47 days of the season – and they looked like they were on fumes in the last stretch and the six games of the playoffs. If fatigue leads to injuries, the correlation seems logical for this team.
The aforementioned last stretch of the season cost the Blues the division championship and the chance to play Minnesota in the first round. While the Wild are giving the Avs a run for their money, Minny doesn’t have near the skill of Chicago. Winning one of their last six would have vaulted the Blues to the division crown. The Blues will have to pace themselves better next year if they want to be ready for the run to the Cup.
After a terrific first half, the Blues quit scoring. Losing Tarasenko to injury on March 15 was a huge blow. He had goals in his last two games before having hand surgery, and six points in his last five games. After the injury, the Blues scored two or fewer goals 12 times in 15 games, and four or more twice. In the last 15 games before his injury, the Blues scored two or fewer goals six times, but four or more seven times. In the last four games of the Chicago series, they were shut out once, and scored one, two and three in the other games, with Tarasenko scoring two of those goals in Game 4. The Blues need a healthy Tarasenko and another strong scorer to match Chicago’s quartet of Toews, Kane, Hossa and Sharp. Jaden Schwartz has a chance. Backes scored 30 goals, and Oshie has a chance to ascend. But the Blues need another sharpshooter next season.
General manager Doug Armstrong’s Ryan Miller trade was a disaster. The Blues didn’t win back-to-back games in regulation in their last month of play, covering 15 games. In his first eight games, the Blues won seven, and Miller never allowed more than two goals in regulation. After that, Miller played 17 games and won five. He allowed three or more goals 14 times. He allowed four or more seven times. Hitchcock admitted at one point that Miller needed to be more competitive, but his competiveness looked consistently inconsistent. He flopped like a fish on a boat floor much of the time. Miller and Steve Ott cost the Blues a good prospect in William Carrier and a couple of premium choices (including a 2015 first-rounder), in addition to Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart. Ott never scored for the Blues and was an astounding minus-12 in 23 regular-season games (minus-38 overall) and minus-3 with two assists in the playoffs.
Much like Tony La Russa in most of his Cardinal career, Ken Hitchcock uses young players only when forced. It’s hard to imagine that kids couldn’t have played better than some underachieving veterans in this series, and it’s something the Blues will have to address.
The Blues would be smart to take a page from the Cardinals (with Ty Wigginton) and Rams’ (with Cortland Finnegan) books and cut their losses. Miller is going to be 34, hasn’t won a playoff series since 2007 and has a young goalie in Jake Allen ready to take over for him. They should let he and fellow unrestricted free agent Ott, who’ll be 32 next season, walk. Same for their former Sabre teammate, Derek Roy, and for Brenden Morrow. Armstrong would be well-served to get youngsters Allen, Dmitri Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi and Ty Rattie into the lineup, and start to get younger.
Hitchcock, a brilliant hockey mind, also must find a way to sustain power-play success. After leading the league in power-play efficiency for much of the season, rolling along at a 25 percent clip, the Blues couldn’t get rolling in the last couple of months. In the playoffs, they went 2-for-29 (6.9 percent) and wouldn’t take Chicago’s offer to take the series. We know they can do it; it’s just a matter of setting the tone with the power play.
Speaking of setting the tone, one thing Joel Quenneville’s teams always do is play fast and aggressive. They always race to pucks, always give max effort, and many times get the puck because they don’t get outskated. When Quenneville and Mike Martz were both coaching in town, they shared a phrase: “Play fast and be aggressive.” These Blues need to be more consistent in that regard if they are to be on the same plane as Chicago.
There may be some mending of the fences to keep Brian Elliott. After acquiring Miller, he was an afterthought. If an organization has no faith in a player and shows it so clearly, why would he want to return if there’s an option? If I were in Elliott’s shoes and could go to another team, I would.
This is the most devastating playoff loss I’ve had as a Blues fan. In 1981, there wasn’t a year-by-year build-up to excellence, and we thought that club had a future. In 1991, we could feel defeat coming after the ill-fated trade that cost the Blues their second line. In 2000, even with the Presidents’ Trophy win, the Blues were really young and immature. Last year, they had lost Halak to injury and had a fixable malady: missing a ton of shots after the Kings Jonathan Quick had left an open net.
Now, seven years into a rebuilding project and three seasons into Hitchcock’s tenure, they still have the goalie problems and still can’t hit an open net in the playoffs. The Blues led the league in hit goalposts and missed shots. And now they’re not a young team anymore. They’ve wasted a couple of years of their prime getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
I’m resigned to the idea that I may never see the Blues win a Stanley Cup. I know about the disappointment Cubs fans endure and, before them, what Red Sox fans went through. If it wasn’t to be in 2013-2014, perhaps it just isn’t to be.