No longer battering ram Blues, St. Louis now relies on skill
These are not the St. Louis Blues that marched to the Stanley Cup in 2019 by plowing through opponents and wearing them down.
If the Blues are going to make another long run this spring, it will be predicated on speed, skill and scoring — a lot of scoring. After watching hockey change drastically the past several years, longtime general manager Doug Armstrong hopes this is the year it’ll be possible to score enough to offset other concerns.
“We’ve just evolved,” Armstrong said. “That’s really going to be the test for a lot of the teams that are built this same way. Is this the year where, having offensive players, can you win with a 60/40 offensive balance? Because usually it’s a 40/60 defensive balance the other way around.”
The Blues are banking on that. They open the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild next week, a series that could be the most entertaining to watch because of the pure offensive output that is possible.
Three years ago, St. Louis might not have fared so well in that kind of situation. With a roster that had more size and strength, the Blues were in the middle of the pack in the NHL at just under three goals a game during the regular season.
Now they rank fourth in the league with an average of 3.77 goals and can thank not only franchise cornerstone and leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko but blossoming young stars Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou and newcomers Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad.
“We’ve never been a team that’s been built on one or two players,” Armstrong said. “We’ve always been a team that’s been built on pack mentality. I think obviously the maturation of Thomas and Kyrou has really helped our organization, and then the steady play of the veterans and adding two plus players in Buchnevich and Saad. I view our team as we have three very good second lines, and that’s a good thing.”
It was a great thing for a long time. The Blues’ franchise-record 16-game point streak that ended Tuesday night included them outscoring opponents by 35 goals and averaging almost five per game.
Craig Berube said the team’s balance of grit and skill is different than in years past, and as a result he has changed how he coaches the Blues.
“You’ve got to go with what you have,” Berube said recently. “From the Cup year, we move the puck better. In the neutral zone, we move the puck through the neutral zone better, and in the offensive zone we score a lot of goals. You got to let guys do what they’re good at.”
This is a blue line that has only Colton Parayko and Robert Bortuzzo back from 2019 and does the puck-moving part of the game much better as a unit. That was by design with Armstrong signing Torey Krug and acquiring Justin Faulk and Nick Leddy, who have combined to replace the minutes the Blues got out of captain Alex Pietrangelo and veteran Jay Bouwmeester — in very different ways.
“We had big players,” Armstrong said. “But, like everything, time marches on and we’ve had to change our outlook. We still have those core beliefs on how to defend, but we understand that the puck is our asset and our ally and we want to get it to our forwards as quick as possible.”
Berube has stressed defending better, an important message for a team with just 10 players back from 2019 and more youthful exuberance. St. Louis is 11th in the league in goals against, and it will always be important to get solid goaltending from Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso, who have so far split starts evenly.
But the path through the playoffs for the Blues won’t be about Binnington or Husso stealing games to win series. It may be about finding a balance between what worked three years ago and what’s winning games for them now — something forward Brayden Schenn pointed out because it’s harder to score this time of year than it was from October through March.
“If you just look from year to year and the teams that win from the previous 10 years or whatever it may be, I think you look at your ability to score but more importantly your ability to defend and play defense and take care of the puck,” Schenn said. “You have to defend harder (and) keep pucks out of your net because games are going to be a lot tighter.”
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