The St. Louis Blues seemed primed to pick up where they left off last season after starting the 2016-17 campaign 4-1-1. However, fans have seen a much different team take the ice over the past month, which has done more than just raise some eyebrows.
The current state of the Blues
Now that the season is approaching the end of its first quarter, which is in just four games, many fans want answers as to why the Blues have been unable to generate any consistent offense, and why their defense isn't the solid foundation of old.
The problem with the current Blues team begins with too many penalties. The Note currently rank fifth overall with 12.5 penalty minutes per game (PIM/G), which is staggering considering that mean that 21% of each game is wasted away simply trying to kill off penalties (and keep in mind that the Blues notoriously have problems scoring shorthanded goals). But what's even more shocking is that the Blues currently rank first overall in total minors against (76), and are tied for second overall with three bench minors already this season.
For comparison's sake the Note have averaged only 7.5 bench minors a season over the past four years, yet are on pace to serve over 15 bench minors at their current rate. When the team has trouble stringing together a successful line change it's no surprise they are also having trouble burying the puck.
Lack of heart
Though some of the Blues' scoring woes stem from over-tired legs thanks to so much time spent on the penalty kill, a lot of their inconsistencies also stem from the team losing a lot of its heart. When former Captain, David Backes, and crafty vet, Troy Brouwer, went their separate ways this past summer it left the Blues without some noticeable size and grit, but more importantly without a large piece of their heart. Backes was always known for his compassion for the game, but could also keep the team focused and ready to come back from anything with his in-game intensity and overall will. Brouwer kept the team level-headed and led by example (for the most part).
When any team loses such big pieces to its success there's sure to be a learning curve moving forward, but this goes beyond that. With players like Alex Pietrangelo, Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, and Kevin Shattenkirk trying to fill the void that's left it's come at a dire price. Shifting the Blues' stalwart style of play has left too many holes defensively, which then forces teams to try and push ever harder for offense, a big reason why fans have seen a couple of 'blowouts' already this season.
It will take more time to get used to the way things are, but when one of your new Alternate Captains has been at the top of trade rumors over the past year-plus, and others are noticeably the 'silent leadership' type, it's hard to find that balance for the team, especially early on in a season.
This is where the coaching conundrum comes into play. It's been well documented throughout professional sports that athletes (and their organizations alike) find it troublesome to have a coach in waiting. Though Head Coach, Ken Hitchcock, and Assistant Coach, Mike Yeo, have said all the right things (regarding their approach to this season), it seems as if there may be some disconnect already. Though that disconnect may not be between Hitch and Yeo it is certainly an issue in their communication with the players (hence all the bench minor penalties already).
It's a coach's job to keep things in order on the bench at all times, just as it's a player's job to get things done on the ice. It seems as if Hitch has reverted to his extreme line juggling ways, which doesn't allow players to get a true feel for where their line-mates will be in certain situations. This usually leads to missed opportunities and more specifically, poor transitions out of the defensive zone. Both of these have had a direct effect on the Blues' last several games, which is why the teams' 4-1-1 record has turned in to 7-6-3 (.531 point percentage).
How the Blues will get over this 'slump'
So many transitions in one summer is never an easy thing to overcome, especially when you have them at almost every level of your organization. The Blues are still a good team and they will find a way to battle through this tough stretch soon enough. Before talking about a coaching change, or another meaningless line-juggle, the players need to focus on doing all the little things correct each and every shift.
This means keeping their feet moving at all times, winning puck races/battles, playing defense first (and not leaving the zone early in transition), blocking more shots, and simplifying the quick transitional game they are trying to employ this season. This will lead to more quality shots being taken for rebounds that cause havoc (and therefore scoring chances) in front of the opposition's net.
Focusing on being as efficient as possible on the ice will not only increase scoring chances, but will help ignite some of the secondary scorers the Blues are looking for so that Vladimir Tarasenko, Shatty, and Steen get better looks at the net each game. This will lead to less goals against as a direct result, which will boost morale and confidence, not to mention plus/minus stats (Tarasenko, Shatty, Lehtera, and Jaskin are currently the only regular players who aren't a 'minus' on the season).
This will also help give both Jake Allen and Carter Hutton better looks at pucks hurled towards them so these questionable goals and weird bounces fans keep seeing become a thing of the past. Lastly, once the secondary scoring starts to contribute its fair share Tarasenko, Steen, Jaden Schwartz, and possibly even Robby Fabbri will really be able to heat up.
Though times may be rough right now fans, fret not, for it's a long season. The Blues are still a playoff team, and once that season begins anything can happen. They just need to focus on their own end first, and then create opportunities to capitalize upon after a successful transition from defense to offense.
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