I don’t overreact to regular-season hockey. The 82-game schedule encourages patience. It’s best to stay level and see how things evolve. It’s best to avoid leaping to conclusions when 50 percent of the games haven’t been played.
That said …
After another bad loss — with the Blues exhibiting little urgency and energy in Tuesday’s 5-3 home defeat to Boston — I’ll take a little dip into the panic pool.
Is it time to freak out about your St. Louis Blues?
Well, I can only speak for myself … but I wouldn’t call it panic.
But with the Blues having played 41 games to reach the midway point of their schedule, I’m concerned.
Probably even alarmed.
Let’s begin with an overview look…
Blues’ apologists have regurgitated the company line by pointing out that the team, currently with 47 points, is only three points behind the pace of last season’s Blues’ squad. The 2015-16 Blues had 50 points through 41 games.
OK, that’s fair to mention — but it’s also misleading because of the Blues’ top-heavy home schedule to date. At the halfway mark last season, the Blues had played 22 home games — compared to 25 at home so far this season.
Plus: the Blues’ strength of schedule ranked 16th last season; so far this season the Blues’ SOS ranks 21st.
The Blues have had a favorable set of circumstances (schedule) that’s made it easier to pile up points.
The Western Conference standings aren’t as forgiving …
First of all, the NHL Central Division is stronger at the top.
The Blues’ current points total can’t be viewed as an isolated matter; it is relative to what other teams are doing.
Through 41 games last season the Blues led the NHL Central with 50 points and were No. 3 overall in the West.
Though 41 this season the Blues are in third place in the Central — and the gap is growing. The Blues trail first-place Chicago by 12 points and second-place Minnesota by eight points.
Meanwhile, the Blues haven’t created much space between themselves and the teams chasing them.
Here’s what I mean:
Through 41 games last season, the Blues were 10 points ahead of the No. 7 team in the West …
And 11 points ahead of the No. 8 and 9 teams …
And 12 points ahead of teams at No. 10 through No. 12.
This season through 41 games the Blues are only one point ahead of the No. 7 team in the West …
And only two points ahead of the No. 8 and No. 9 teams …
And only four points above the No. 10 and 11 teams …
And a mere five points in front of the No. 12 team in the West.
When we frame this by using last season’s midway progress report, 2016-2017 Blues are staring at a larger deficit when looking up at the teams ahead of them …
And on the opposite end, the Blues have a much smaller cushion that separates them from teams that sit below them in the conference standings.
And now, for the really disturbing trend …
More than anything the foundation of Ken Hitchcock’s system — goal prevention — is cracking. I’ve talked about this many times already this season, but the flaw can’t be emphasized enough. The situation is getting worse, and it’s a legitimate reason for worry.
Some bullet points for your consideration:
— The Blues’ goaltending is terrible. Jake Allen has basically broken down, getting yanked in three of his last five starts (one as an injury precaution.) Backup Carter Hutton was good in relief against the Bruins, but he’s been mostly subpar in most of his relief starts.
— Over at HockeyReference.com there’s a metric — quality-start percentage — that presents a quick assessment of a goaltender’s consistency. A rate of 60 percent is considered good. Fifty percent (or worse) is considered bad. Allen’s quality start percentage, 50%, ranks 18th among 21 NHL goaltenders that have started at least 25 games. Hutton’s quality-start percentage, 33.3%, is awful.
— Last season Allen had a quality-start rate of 59 percent. Brian Elliott’s quality-start percentage was 68.4 percent. As a tandem, Allen and Elliott had a quality-start percentage of 63.4%. This season, the Elliott-Hutton tandem has a quality-start percentage of 46.3%. That’s a drop in quality of 22.1 percent. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty substantial concern.
— Allen had six “really bad starts” all of last season. (That stat, and phrased, was coined by Hockey Reference.) Allen already has seven really bad starts at the halfway checkpoint this season.
— Allen isn’t coming up big as often in making close-range, high-danger saves. Over the past two seasons combined, on shots fired at him from a distance ranging between 1 and 15 feet, Allen had a save percentage of .847. This season, Allen’s save percentage is .795 on those close-range shots. That’s a significant drop.
— Last season the Blues gave up an average of 1.84 even-strength goals per game; that was tied for seventh-best in the league. This season the Blues are yielding 2.34 even-strength goals per game; that ranks 29th in the NHL and represents an increase of 27.1 percent from last season. That’s another eye-opening number.
— Last season the Blues ranked No. 1 in save percentage at .919; this season they have the NHL’s worst save percentage at .893. Over the last 17 seasons only two Blues teams finished with a worse save percentage. One was the the .887 save percentage posted by the dreadful 2005-2006 team that finished with the third-worst winning percentage in 49 seasons of Blues hockey.
— Last season the Blues surrendered 2.40 goals per game overall; that ranked No. 4 in the league. This season they’ve been invaded for 2.98 goals per contest which ranks 24th.
A more treacherous path on the road ahead …
The Blues are entering a critical stage of the season. A schedule-friendly first half, front-loaded with home games, now flips into an opposite direction, with a load of second-half road games. After having 25 of their first 41 games this season at home, the Blues will play 25 of 41 on the road.
The Blues have been horrible on the road so far, with a 5-10-1 record and a .344 winning percentage that ranks 28th among the 30 NHL teams. The road slog begins Thursday night in Los Angeles, with the Blues opening a stretch of six road games (and two at home) between now and Jan. 26.
Again, this team just isn’t the same, so don’t try to sell me on the idea that it is the same.
Sure-handed goaltending and rigid goal preventions were primary reasons why the 2015-2016 Blues had such a great winning percentage (.671) on the road last season. Only two NHL teams had a more impressive road winning percentage in 2015-16.
Last season’s road save percentage (.920) ranked third. Last season’s road goals-against average (2.46) ranked 6th.
This season? The Blues have the league’s worst road save percentage (.870) and are allowing more goals per game on the road (3.69) than any NHL team.
Wasting an uptick in offensive production …
The Blues are failing to take advantage of an upturn in their own scoring. After ranking 15th in goals per game (2.67) last season, the 2016-2017 Blues rank No. 8 in the league with an average of 2.83 goals per game. Despite scoring more often the Blues are a wallowing at minus 10 in even-strength differential because of their blatantly inadequate goaltending and loose defensive play.
When a team that traditionally specializes in playing tough and keeping pucks out of its own net is suddenly soft and frequently exploited by opponents’ goal scorers, it’s a serious change and a dramatic weakness that will only lead to disappointment and failure.
There’s still plenty of time for clean-up, but the Blues can’t afford to be exposed for much longer.
“He’s not stopping the puck,” Hitchcock said of Allen. “He’s having a tough go of it. We can just jump all over him or rally around him. We have a choice. He’s having a tough time right now … he’s having a real tough go and I don’t think anybody anticipated this, him or us. It is what is, we have to deal with it.”
If the goaltending continues to flop … then what?
If Allen can’t settle in and turn in quality performances on a more consistent basis, Blues GM Doug Armstrong may have no choice but to pull back from his commitment to Allen and acquire goaltending help by the Feb. 28 NHL trade deadline. This would require an embarrassing acknowledgement by team management — that Jake Allen isn’t who they thought he was. But at some point — soon — the Blues will have to have to do an immensely better job of stopping the puck if they want to stop their bleeding.
Thanks for reading …