The St. Louis Blues reached the midpoint of their season Tuesday night with a rather disappointing loss to the Boston Bruins. The Note are 21-15-5 with a -6 goal differential. In the Central Division, the Blues are eight points behind Minnesota (the Wild have two games in hand) and 12 points behind Chicago (the Blues have three games in hand on the Blackhawks).
To this point the 2016-17 Blues have been defined by inconsistency; this is best displayed by the disparity between their home and road record: The Blues are 16-5-4 at home and 5-10-1 on the road. More recently the Blues have shown inconsistency on a smaller scale as they have struggled to even win two games in a row.
This team has many questions to answer before the playoffs roll around. Here are a few of the biggest questions.
- Will the goaltending improve?
Last summer the Blues decided to trade Brian Elliott to clear cap space and receive value for him before he hit free agency; General Manager Doug Armstrong felt comfortable doing this because he felt Jake Allen was ready to take the reins as the clear-cut starter. ‘The Snake’ has started 32 of the team’s first 41 games and has struggled. Allen’s first half save percentage was only .902 and he allowed 2.70 goals per game; those numbers put Jake at 38th in the league for save percentage and 30th in goals allowed average.
These struggles are a new thing to the young goaltender who succeeded at every level before reaching the NHL. Blues fans, known for blaming goalies for all of their team’s difficulties, are already saying Allen is not cut out to be a clear-cut starter who starts more than 60 games per year. While I believe it is way too early to give up on Jake, I do think it is fair to ask why he is struggling.
There’s a chance Jake could have been distracted by his partner’s pregnancy and the birth of his first child. Randy Karraker of 101espn made an interesting point when he asked if Allen’s play is slumping because he is no longer competing with Elliott for starts. Carter Hutton is a serviceable backup, but he is not the type of goalie who could challenge for the starting spot.
While it is likely his struggles are due to a combination of reasons, the most likely cause is how the team is playing in front of him. There are very few goalies who can succeed without help from his teammates in front of him. This leads to my next question…
- What is this team’s identity?
When Ken Hitchcock arrived in St. Louis the Blues were not nearly as talented as they are today, so Hitch did what he was known for: He implemented a hard-hitting, tight-checking system that demanded defensive responsibility and a ‘200-foot’ game. This system fit the team well and led the Blues to the beginning of the successful streak the franchise is trying to continue today. Recently, however, the Blues have built a smaller, more talented team that did not quite fit Hitch’s traditional system. Seeing this new dynamic, Hitch agreed to loosen his system and give players more offensive freedom. This change in strategy, along with the departure of big-bodied Backes, Brouwer and Ott, put the Blues into identity searching mode. They were no longer a heavy, defense-first team anymore. Forty-one games into this season, the Blues still haven’t found an identity.
Is the team’s identity its offense? The new system has certainly helped the Blues offense as it ranks 12th in goals scored; however, the system has also sacrificed defense as the Blues have given up the 8th most goals. The team’s current inconsistency proves the team’s current ways will not lead to playoff success. After the aforementioned loss to the Bruins, Hitchcock had some interesting comments on this topic:
Hitch also said the Blues were ‘defending while moving forward’ and not showing the ‘desperation’ necessary to keep the puck out of their own net. These comments are further proof his team is working harder on offense than defense this season.
The question now is: Can Hitch compel his team to go back to a defense-first style of play? If he can change the style of play, how much would the offense suffer? What is the perfect balance, and can the Blues find it this season?
These questions cannot be answered at the moment, but the Blues will need to find answers with their play not only so they know what type of team they are before the playoffs arrive, but also so they can even qualify for the playoffs in the first place.
The way to find this identity may be the team’s best players stepping up and leading by example. If the best players start to play in one way, the foot soldiers will most likely follow and the Blues will eventually find their identity. One specific leader must improve his play to begin this movement.
- Will Alexander Steen show up?
Alexander Steen came to St. Louis in 2008 in a trade with Toronto. Since then, Steen has been a dependable two-way player whose offense has steadily improved. Steen scored more than 50 points the last three seasons while receiving votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. He and Backes went back and forth as the team’s best all-around player. After Backes moved on this summer, the Blues decided to give Steen an extension. Unfortunately, Steen hasn’t been the same player so far this season. The 32-year-old has only scored four goals, and two of those goals were scored into empty nets. Even more disturbing is his -11 plus/minus rating.
What has caused this slump? Perhaps it is the shoulder he injured last spring and had surgically repaired over the summer. Perhaps the veteran has lost some motivation now that he has signed what will most likely be his last large NHL contract. Maybe his age is catching up with him already.
Whatever the reason is, the Blues need Steen to play well not only because he’s one of their big-money players, but also because he’s a tenured veteran who usually leads the team by example. Unlike Steen, the future of another Blues alternate captain isn’t set in stone.
- What will happen with Shattenkirk?
Kevin Shattenkirk has been patrolling the right side of the blue line for the Blues since 2011 when he was acquired from Colorado for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a draft pick. Shatty has been an offensive force for the Blues and is due to earn a large contract when he reaches free agency this summer. There are several reasons the Blues won’t be able to afford to keep Shattenkirk in St. Louis. A quick glance at the team’s cap situation shows the Blues have very little space to fit another large contract, especially when you consider they will need to pay Colton Parayko and Robby Fabbri in the near future. Speaking of Parayko, allowing Shatty to leave would also allow Parayko to play more minutes; No. 55 has excelled when given more minutes this season.
Knowing they will not be able to re-sign him, the Blues must consider trading the defenseman before he walks away in free agency. Last summer the Blues lost both Backes and Brouwer without receiving any compensation in return. Just like the franchise can not afford to re-sign Shattenkirk, the franchise also can not afford to continue watching quality players walk out of the building without any value coming back in return.
This is a harsh reality, but it must be understood. Unless Shattenkirk agrees to sign an extension before being traded, it is very unlikely the Blues will be able to trade him for someone who will be able to make the team better this year. A team won’t trade away a high-caliber, NHL-ready prospect for a two or three month rental player. However, teams may be willing to trade away a high draft pick or a younger prospect who could help the Blues in a few years. Any return would be better than nothing.
It is understandably difficult for Army to trade Shattenkirk and still tell fans he is dedicated to winning the Stanley Cup this season; therefore, his decision would be much easier to make if the next question can be answered.
- Can this team make a run?
Last season the Blues electrified their fanbase by reaching the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After dispatching their rivals in a thrilling first round, the Blues squeaked by the Stars who were playing without their best scorer. The Sharks put an end to the run, but Blues fans were thrilled to see their team be dangerous deep into the spring. The team had depth at every unit and were dedicated to playing their style of hockey.
This season the Blues do not have the same depth nor the same style—or any style. Of course it is impossible to predict the Stanley Cup Playoffs—especially in January—but if the Blues can find an identity that works in the playoffs and Jake Allen improves his play, there is reason to believe the team can make some noise in April. But if the team does not pull itself together, Army and the ownership need to be honest with themselves and make sure to trade Shattenkirk before he disappears.
There is no shame in realizing this is not your year and instead planning for the future. The Blues know Vladimir Tarasenko is here to stay and any team with a superstar has a chance. Trading Shattenkirk may weaken your team this year, but it may put the franchise in a better position to keep important pieces like Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko. With a young core like that, the Blues will continue to compete and challenge for the Stanley Cup for at least the next few years.
The Blues have 41 games to answer these questions. While it is likely all of these questions are answered before the playoffs start this spring, it is also likely Blues fans may not like some of the answers.