Goaltender Jake Allen was back in the nets Monday at the Blues’ practice, double-checking his positioning and reaffirming his ability to stop pucks.
The Blues are counting on him to seal up all the holes. This team lacks compelling internal upgrades, as we have seen. Some external goaltending solutions are uninspiring, others are costly — both in terms of acquisition price and salary cap space.
Allen must regain his confidence, quickly, or this team is sunk.
“I have no problem with taking the heat,” he said after practice. “I should be the backbone of the team and I haven’t been.”
But he is not the only Blues employee on the spot as the NHL’s All-Star break nears and the team drifts toward the back of the Western Conference playoff race.
Let’s start at the top. General manager Doug Armstrong needs to play his one big trade chip, impending free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, to balance his roster. This team is deep on the blue line but short on catalysts up front.
Last season the Blues were special. They featured skill, size, grit, experience and depth. All the elements were in place for a deep playoff run, so Armstrong let impending free agents David Backes and Troy Brouwer stay put and play out their contracts.
The payoff was a trip to the NHL’s final four, the first for this franchise in 15 years.
The 2016-17 Blues aren’t as big, gritty, talented or deep as last year’s team, and their team chemistry isn’t as strong. There is no reason to keep the current group intact for the playoffs.
After letting Backes and Brouwer exit as free agents last summer and getting nothing in return, Armstrong must get something for Shattenkirk to keep the franchise moving forward.
Ideally, a sign-and-trade possibility will emerge and allow Armstrong to maximize his return. Shattenkirk would have to approve of both the destination and the contract terms, of course, so such deals are rare.
But if the Blues move him as a mere rental player, they could still gain future assets, plus the cap space needed to bolster their front lines.
Either way, something has to happen. Shattenkirk could get more than $50 million on his next contract, and there is no sensible way to pay that here.
Coach Ken Hitchcock sits on the spot as well. This team is becoming one of the bigger disappointments in the league. With his contract expiring and replacement coach Mike Yeo is already on hand, Hitchcock will either inspire a turnaround or move on to his next career stage.
To end their slide, Hitchcock reiterated Monday afternoon, the Blues must quit gambling while trying to score quick goals.
“This is a brand new experience for me, the way we are trying to come back in games,” he said. “We get it fixed, then it rears its head. We get it fixed, then it rears its head.”
The Blues need to stay disciplined period after period after period, even when they fall behind by a goal or two. “Once the structure leaves with the puck then you end up in a lot of chaotic situations, and that’s what we’ve put ourselves into,” Hitchcock said.
Individually, many players besides Allen have more to give. The shortcoming at center is especially glaring.
If Jori Lehtera can’t produce while playing the pivot with his buddy Vladimir Tarasenko — one of the sport’s most prolific shooters — then he can’t play a top six role. And given his salary cap hit of $4.7 million for this season plus the next two, that’s problematic.
Paul Stastny has been productive lately, particularly with his work down low on the power play. But for whatever reason he hasn’t been a good even-strength fit with Tarasenko, so Hitchcock’s latest gambit was teaming No. 91 with Patrik Berglund.
Who could have predicted that combination at the start of the year?
The constant line shuffling annoys everybody, but it will continue until more players perform more consistently. For instance, Alexander Steen put just 56 shots on goal in his first 41 games this season.
How is that possible? This guy has been a volume shooter, like Tarasenko. From 2013-15, Steen put 434 shots on goal in 142 games. The Blues need THAT Steen to return.
Jaden Schwartz has picked up his production after mustering just three shots on goal during a six-game span. But Robby Fabbri hasn’t scored a January goal while moving from forward line to forward line.
Dmitrij Jaskin and Nail Yakupov help maintain puck possession when they play, but it would be nice to see them actually put it in the net once in a while.
On defense, the wear of 1,000-plus games is showing on Jay Bouwmeester, who no longer stands tall in the tougher matchups. Colton Parayko is shouldering more responsibility, but he could still play bigger along the wall and in the corners.
Robert Bortuzzo is rounding out his game, but veteran Carl Gunnarsson has gone flat. Shattenkirk makes the power play go, but he is far from a shutdown defender at even strength.
The list goes on and on. The current Blues predicament is about much more than Jake Allen.