For the second year in a row, the Blues experienced a playoff crash-and-burn. Sure, there were plenty of extenuating circumstances — more than any sports team should have to bear.
But the Blues haven’t been the same team since entering the Edmonton bubble for the 2019-20 season postseason. The team is 29-30-10 since then. Sub-.500 hockey for a team that won it all two years ago.
So there are lots of questions for general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Craig Berube in the offseason.
Is a retool or a rebuild in order?
How much should injuries and COVID issues be factored in to avoid an overreaction?
Why have Colorado and Vegas, who were looking up at the Blues in the Western Conference just a year ago, zoomed past them this season?
And perhaps most importantly, is the window of opportunity closing more rapidly than anticipated on the Blues as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?
There were times during the regular season when the Blues had seven players on injured reserve, encompassing $30 million of payroll. And it wasn’t just the number of injuries, it was the fact that many were sidelined for long periods of time
And while teams with COVID issues got to postpone and reschedule games, the injury-depleted Blues got no such leeway. They had to keep playing. But there’s this peculiar thing: At the height of all the injuries, the Blues were 14-8-2.
It was only when the injured players started returning, starting with Vladimir Tarasenko, that the team began slumping. Over the middle part of the season, they won only five of 21 games (5-11-5), threatening to fall out of playoff contention.
It’s up to Armstrong and Berube to figure out why that was the case. It took the team forever to develop chemistry with most of its lineup intact, going 8-1-3 down the stretch.
Until the 54th game of the season, the Blues could say — with some pride — that they had avoided the COVID issues that seemed to bother just about every other team in the league. The only Blues to show up on the NHL COVID list until then — Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford — were false positives.
Then, just as the rest of the NHL, and the United States in general, slowly started turning the page on COVID, Jake Walman tested positive May 10. Nathan Walker showed up on the list a few days later. And then the biggest blow of all — on the day the team left for Denver and its playoff opener against Colorado, leading scorer David Perron showed up on the list and didn’t play again.
If it were the regular season, the Blues could’ve simply postponed games. But there was no leeway once the playoffs started.
We will avoid the obvious here in terms of bedrock players Ryan O’Reilly and Perron.
What a huge step forward for Jordan Kyrou, who was an every-game NHL player for the first time. Kyrou’s speed can be dazzling. He has shown himself to be a deft passer, and has a goal-scorer’s mentality. He isn’t hesitant to shoot the puck or charge the net, which can’t be said about all of his teammates.
Yes, he sometimes gets too fancy with puck-handling. His defense and checking still need work, but this was a breakthrough season.
After a so-so debut with the Blues in 2019-20, Justin Faulk was easily the team’s top defenseman this season. He logged heavy minutes, especially during the late-season playoff push. He was a more physical presence, gave ground grudgingly, and rediscovered his offense.
Losing him early in the third period of Game 2 against Colorado on Nazem Kadri’s cheap-shot hit was another blow to any chances of an upset.
The silver lining to all the injuries on the blueline was the opportunities it gave Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman. Mikkola needs to add more strength and bulk; his passing and puck management need work. But he has some snarl to his game and has the long reach of Blues D-men of recent seasons.
Walman may be the fastest skater on the team other than Kyrou, and has the puck-handling skill to get out of trouble. He isn’t shy about shooting the puck, or asking for it. He needs to refine his defense and guard against being over-aggressive at times in terms of moving up the ice.
It took a shutout by Ville Husso on the second-to-last day of the regular season to prevent this from being the first Blues squad to allow three goals per game since the 2006-07 team finished at 3.02. The ’20-21 Blues squeaked in at 2.98 after a 7-3 win over Minnesota in the final game with Jordan Binnington in net.
Even with improved play over the second half of the season, this defense did not come close to the standard of excellence set by its predecessors over the past decade. Did the Blues miss Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester that much?
As was painfully obvious in the playoff series against Colorado, the D-corps wasn’t stout enough net front over the course of the season. Opposing forwards, too often, were allowed to set up shop in Binnington’s lap.
There were too many coverage breakdowns and communication lapses on the back end. Zone exits frequently were adventures.
Binnington was strong down the stretch, with a 2.41 GAA and a .921 save percentage since April 7, both of which ranked seventh among goalies with at least 10 appearances over that span. His 8-3-3 record in that span helped get the team in the playoffs.
However, he was middle of the road for the full season, ranking 14th in goals-against (2.65) and 15th in save percentage (.910) among goalies with 25 appearances or more.
His playoff numbers continue to be a mess. He has lost nine straight postseason games since Game 7 against Boston in 2019, with a 4.19 goals-against and .875 save percentage. Regardless of the circumstances, those are alarming numbers.
Ville Husso ended his rookie season on an upbeat note with that 31-save shutout May 12 against the Wild. He improved as the season went along and could be in line for more work next season backing up Binnington.
The addition of “quarterback” Torey Krug and sniper Mike Hoffman during the offseason was supposed to propel the Blues’ power play to new heights. Although they finished as one of the league’s top units in the regular season — 6th at 23.2 percent — it took forever to get there.
As late as April 8, or more than 2/3rds of the way through the season, the Blues lagged at 24th in power-play efficiency at 17.5 percent. But with Krug getting comfortable on the first unit, and Hoffman getting hot after (finally) getting regular duty on the first unit, the power play took off.
From April 9 through the remainder of the season, the Blues led the league in power-play percentage at 39.0.
The penalty kill dug itself a huge hole when it gave up five power plays to Colorado in the second game of the season, and never could dig out despite improved play late. Injuries to key PK personnel such as Oskar Sundqvist, Tyler Bozak, Ivan Barbashev and Robert Bortuzzo didn’t help. Even so, the unit appeared too passive in times, sitting back in a shell and allowing the opponent to dictate.
The Blues ranked 25th in the league in PK efficiency, and their 77.8 percent kill rate was the franchise’s worst in nearly a third of a century. The 1988-89 squad finished at 76.7 percent.
Scoring the first goal is so important in hockey, and it was a trait that escaped the Blues for the most part this season. Even though they improved in this area down the stretch, the Blues trailed first in 33 of 56 regular-season games.
That was the most among all playoff teams and tied for third-most in the entire league. In comparison, West Division heavyweights Vegas and Colorado trailed first in only 20 regular-season games apiece, tying for the league low.
It was more of the same in the playoffs. Colorado scored first in three of the four games, and the Blues led for only 7 minutes 12 seconds in the entire series.
Given the fact that the Blues were involved in so many one-goal games — a league-high 31 — getting off to quicker starts was even more critical for them this season.
Scoring by defensemen has been part of the success formula for the Blues in recent years. In four of the previous five seasons, they were among the NHL’s top 10 in defensemen goals.
The 2019-20 Blues led the league with 45 goals by defensemen; the 2018-19 Stanley Cup champs finished second with 46.
This year’s team dropped all the way to a four-way tie for 15th with just 23 goals by defensemen in 56 games. Faulk led the way with seven goals; Vince Dunn had six despite missing 13 regular-season games and all four playoff games. No other Blues D-man scored more than three goals, with Torey Krug and Colton Parayko way off their usual production (two apiece).
During their four playoff games, the Blues got no goals and a modest four assists from the back end.
For all the talk about roster depth, when the injuries mounted — which was often — the impact was felt deeply on the fourth line.
Fourth-line scoring was down 43 percent this year compared to the 2019-20 season. Fourth-liners combined for 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists).
In the first 56 games of last season, the fourth line had 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists).
The Stanley Cup team got 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) from the fourth line in the first 56 games.