20 games into the season and the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues are struggling. The team currently stands at 10 – 8 – 2 which is good enough for second in the West Division. However, the Kings, Coyotes, Wild and Avalanche all have games in hand on the Blues. Even more alarming are the last 10 games where St. Louis has gone 3 – 6 – 1. These losses include games against the Sharks, Coyotes, and the Kings and while it is true that in the NHL any team can win on any given night, the Blues latest performance do have some cause for concern.
So how is it that a Stanley Cup team from just 2 seasons ago as well as a team that was fourth on ESPN’s power rankings to start the season, is struggling so much in a division where four teams finished with a top 10 draft pick last year?
Cause for Concern Among the 2020-21 St. Louis Blues
Part of the equation is certainly injuries. The team has been without key Top-9 contributors in forwards Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas for an extended period of time as well as a more recent back injury to workhorse defenseman Colton Parayko. Wednesday’s game against the Kings leave Jaden Schwartz and Marco Scandella sidelined with DTD injuries and Ivan Barbashev is now ruled out until at least April after his ankle surgery. This is not even considering Carl Gunnarsson’s season ending injury announced earlier this week. These injuries, especially to Colton Parayko for the last two weeks, have certainly played a role in St. Louis’ struggles this season.
However, despite the injuries this season St. Louis’ issues are rooted in one main factor. Their special teams (most notably their powerplay). This aspect of the game alone has sunk St. Louis this season and is something they must address and fix immediately.
Special Team Standings
St. Louis currently sits at 28th in the NHL in Powerplay Percentage at 12.9 percent and 26th in Penalty Kill Percentage at 73.9 percent. While much of St. Louis’ penalty killing issues can be attributed to major players who have often logged big minutes on the penalty kill for them such as Colton Parayko. The defenseman logged nearly three minutes a game on the penalty kill this season. However, such an excuse cannot be made for the team’s powerplay which has been anemic to start the season.
St. Louis has not been an outstanding even strength team in the regular season as early as last season. In the 2019- 2020 campaign the Blues held only 45.2 percent of the High Danger scoring chances in a game and only 49.2 percent of scoring chances in general. These numbers have stayed rather consistent this season with the team hovering at 45.5 percent for High danger opportunities and 42.3 percent on general scoring chances. This suggests that so far this season while the Blues are generating far less offensive scoring chances, they are still generating the same amount of high danger ones. The difference between this Blues team at even strength is not as big as it may seem; it is the special teams that have sunk them.
Chemistry and Fit
Part of the issue is that this St. Louis team and this powerplay is very different than from previous renditions of the team in years past. Mike Hoffman, Jordan Kyrou, Torey Krug are all major new additions to this year’s Powerplay. It was expected that these powerplay units would take some time to gel and heat up. The only thing is…. It hasn’t gelled and nothing is heating up. The Blues and the coaching staff have acknowledged their issues as early as two weeks into the season, yet weeks later the problem persists.
Krug was signed to a lucrative contract with the expectation to be Pietrangelo’s replacement on the Powerplay. In reality, the two players are simply very different in playstyle. Krug has always been a more pass oriented powerplay quarterback, which made him a perfect fit on a powerplay unit with goal scorers in David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. Pietrangelo is by far the bigger goal scorer on the powerplay with six powerplay goals last year to Krug’s two, in addition to 225 shots compared to Krug’s 144. In theory Torey Krug was a perfect plug and play band-aid to replace a player of Pietrangelo’s caliber; an offensive dynamo who is a bonafide Powerplay-1 quarterback with good offensive instincts. In practice, it has not worked.
St. Louis has loaded their powerplay with a ton of very talented layers, but players like Perron, O’Reilly, and Krug have been primarily playmakers in their careers on the powerplay. 2013 was the only season Perron had more goals than assists on the powerplay and he’s never scored double digit goals on the powerplay. Krug has never had a more than six powerplay goals in a season in his NHL career. O’Reilly had 15 powerplay goals three seasons ago and hasn’t reached 10 since. Brayden Schenn has had one season for the Blues where he’s scored 10 goals on the powerplay. That was last year where he shot a ridiculous 18.1% shooting percentage, a number more than four percent higher than his career average.
This Blues powerplay unit at the moment simply doesn’t have goal scorers. This is where the Blues miss a player like Vladimir Tarasenko the most. They need someone with an elite shot that will find the back of the net on a consistent basis. In his last fully healthy season with the Blues, Tarasenko had 12 Powerplay goals and 275 shots in 76 games.
The Blues struggles have been further exacerbated by a division that was been much more competitive than expected. With the emergence of Cal Peterson in LA and a resurgence in some of the team’s veterans, the Kings are climbing in the standings. The Coyotes, defying expectations, have been playing great hockey. The Wild have shown life as well behind solid goaltending from Kahkonen and the return of Mats Zuccarello. Colorado will also certainly make its surge to the top with four games in hand on St. Louis.
Outside of the East Division, the tightest race for the playoffs could very well be in the West. St. Louis cannot afford to wait to get healthy, and with a core largely in its prime, they cannot afford to let this season go to waste. The Blues must figure out their issues on the powerplay and find a way to generate more scoring chances 5-on-5 if they can’t. It’s been a wild 2020 and 2021 filled with uncertainty and so much of the unexpected. The Blues as well as the rest of the West Division have certainly continued that trend as well.
The Blues have been mired with injuries, impacting them at even strength and the penalty kill. While St. Louis doesn’t have immediate replacements on their penalty kill, they have the prerequisite pieces to make a difference on their powerplay. This starts with integrating their existing weapons such as Mike Hoffman more effectively. Hoffman was on pace for a 254-shot season in a full 82 games with the Panthers last year. He’d only be on pace for 224 this year which would be his lowest shooting clip since 2014. For an elite goal score like Hoffman, that’s simply not enough shots.
However, there is reason for hope for the Blues as they are receiving reinforcements soon. Tyler Bozak has already stepped back on the ice skating by himself and impact players like Parayko, Thomas and even Tarasenko are expected to return to the team before the regular season ends. Regardless of reinforcements, if this Blues team wants to make a true run at a second cup, they have to find their offense. That starts on the powerplay.