Contender or Pretender: Goaltending, injuries will determine Blues season
Now that we are closing in on the halfway point of the 2020-21 NHL season and are starting to get a sense for what each team is capable of, we are going to take a closer look each week at some teams right on the edge between Stanley Cup contender and Stanley Cup pretender.
We continue today with the St. Louis Blues, one of the league’s best teams the past two years but one that has struggled as of late. Entering Monday’s game in Anaheim the Blues have won just four of their past 11 games, with only two of those wins coming in regulation.
Cause for concern? Or something that a little patience and some minor improvements from within can fix?
We aren’t seeing the real Blues right now
Nothing is holding the Blues back more than the injury situation as they have seven regulars out of the lineup, with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko, Robert Thomas, Ivan Barbashev, Tyler Bozak, and Carl Gunnarsson currently sidelined. That is a significant collection of talent, including multiple top-nine forwards and one of their top defenders. Take that many players out of any team’s lineup and they are going to struggle. Even the best and deepest team in the league is going to struggle to overcome that.
Tarasenko, still the Blues’ most dangerous player offensively, has not played yet this season and is inching closer to a return, and it could not happen at a better time.
It is easy to forget about him since he has played in only 14 games (including playoffs) since the start of the 2019-20 season, but his return will be significant. It is impossible to project what he can do coming back from a major injury, but that is theoretically a 35-goal scorer jumping back into the lineup.
Before the injuries started, they looked great
Excluding Tarasenko, who has not played this season, the Blues’ recent rash of injuries started in early February when Thomas went down with a thumb injury. In the days that followed they lost Parayko, Barbashev, Gunnarsson, and Schwartz to further decimate the lineup.
Before all that happened the Blues were playing like the Blues team we’ve come to expect in recent years.
In their first 10 games they were a dominant team defensively in terms of limiting shot attempts and scoring chances and were decisively outscoring teams during 5-on-5 play. They were doing everything you expect a Stanley Cup contender to do. Then the injuries started, and over the past 8-10 games things have done a complete 180 for them.
The goaltending question
In non-injury developments, the Blues still have a big goaltending question that could potentially make-or-break their season.
Jordan Binnington was a season-saver for them two years ago when he arrived halfway through, secured the starting job, and backstopped the team to a Stanley Cup.
He regressed a bit in his second season and then had a meltdown in the playoffs.
So far this season he has been up and down, flashing moments of brilliance, some struggles, and even a little frustration. This was always going to be a big season for Binnington because he is in the final year of his current contract and is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. He not only needs a big season for the Blues, he needs a big season to boost his own value and prove what kind of goalie he is. The jury was still very much out, and not much has changed right now.
The biggest concern might be the fact that following Jake Allen’s trade to Montreal the Blues do not have a proven backup behind Binnington to give him a break or serve as a safety net if needed. Ville Husso has only appeared in six games so far this season with very mixed results.
Between the two of them, the Blues rank 24th and 25th in all situations and 5-on-5 save percentages. They have the ability to be better than that. They are going to need to be.
Contender or pretender?
They are a contender with a “when” and an “if” attached to it.
When they get healthy, and if their goaltending becomes more consistent.
The Blues are good enough defensively and have enough talent at forward that they do not need a game-stealer in the crease. They do not need their goalies to win them games. They just need them to avoid losing them games. That is not an outrageously high bar.
The biggest issue remains the injury situation. You can not read much into their recent play because the roster is a fraction of what it should be, and what it could be come playoff time. Ryan O’Reilly is one of the best two-way players in the league, David Perron, Jordan Kyrou, Brayden Schenn, and Mike Hoffman are all legit top-six scorers, while Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Thomas are still lurking as returns in the future. It’s a deep forward lineup, and while the defense is missing Alex Pietrangelo following his offseason departure to Vegas, they still boast a strong blue line.
In the short-term, they should be able to stay afloat in the division and secure a playoff spot. The division is top-heavy with Colorado and Vegas at the top, but the rest of the division is full of rebuilding and flawed teams that should not be much of a threat to pass them. If they can scratch and claw their way through this shorthanded stretch and buy time until they get players back, you are going to see a vastly different team come April, May, and June. A contending team.