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Yeah, Injuries. But the Blues Lacked Talent, Toughness and Weren’t Good Enough

The Blues failed to make the playoffs for about a hundred reasons, but let’s keep this simple, OK?

The Blues weren’t talented enough.

Or healthy enough.

They did not play hard enough.

They weren’t good enough.

This 2017-2018 edition was lacking in many ways, but this was no catastrophic failure. The house didn’t burn down. The roof didn’t collapse.  A twister didn’t rumble in to wreck everything.

The Blues didn’t disappear into the abyss; they just sank into mediocrity …

That’s the truth using the standard established over the previous six seasons.

These 2017-18 Blues won 44 games, amassed 94 points, and had a points percentage of .573 that ranked 18th overall and 9th in the Western Conference. By miserably flunking their final test of the season, losing Saturday night at Denver inside Stan Kroenke’s arena to Kroenke’s hockey team, the Blues  missed the playoffs by a single point.

(Update that you really don’t want or need: That’s 50 seasons, on the ice, for Blues Hockey. Sadly, this now makes it 0 for 50 in attempts to win the prize that shall not be mentioned.)

Yep, they missed making the tournament by a single point.

That figures. Because the boys too often missed the point about competing in the rugged Western Conference: you gotta play with intensity, and bring it every night.

Not just when you’re in the mood. But that’s what they were: The Moody Blues.

This wasn’t an awful team … just a team in decline. A team limited by talent gaps and injury cracks on the roster, and a team with too many players not answering the bell on too many game nights.

Accordingly, the Blues slipped and tumbled from higher ground after qualifying for the postseason for six straight seasons beginning in 2011. It was a helluva run, at least over the course of six regular seasons, with The Note ranking second in the NHL in victories and No. 3 overall in points and points percentage (.650.)

This season resulted in a 77-point drop in the points-percentage standard set over the prior  six seasons.

And that fine, time-honored St. Louis hockey tradition is well underway.

LET’S   GO  MAKE  A   SCAPEGOAT  OR  TWO!

Based on the early mewling and the sound of hammers being thrown and clanking as they miss the target, the Blues’ regression was all Jake Allen’s fault, all Vladimir Tarasenko’s fault, all Doug Armstrong’s fault, and there might have been some Jay Bowumeester bombing runs in there too. (Because … Bouwmeester.) Really, it just depends on the particular obsession of the fetishist who’s doing the scapegoating. Just identify the suspect, bring him up on charges and head to Twitter to get a quick conviction.

It’s as easy as …

Allen sucks! Army sucks! Tarasenko sucks! 

May I introduce a radical concept here?

Call me a loon, but …

This  was pretty much everyone’s fault.

A few Blues had terrific seasons, and even though I’ll keep the list short, it’s difficult for me to malign center Brayden Schenn, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, winger Jaden Schwartz, goaltender Carter Hutton. And you had to respect the play of fourth-liner Kyle Brodziak who was asked to do a lot more because of the roster shortfalls. If you believe that I unfairly excluded someone … well, go ahead and make your own list and that’s fine with me.

Here’s my quick-hit review of the fatal flaws:

–Deadened offense: 24th in the league and 9th in the West in goals per game (2.72). In the previous four seasons the Blues ranked 8th overall with an an average of 2.84 goals/game.

— Over their final 51 games, the Blues scored the fewest number of goals, on average, of the 31 NHL teams.  That goals-per-game average was 2.37. And consistent, sustainable success isn’t really possible when your team is suffering from an extremely low goal count. This was the primary reason why the Blues went 23-24-4 over those final 51 games for a .490 points percentage that ranked 22nd among the 31 clubs. During the 51-game period of waning production the Blues scored 3 goals or fewer 41 times (record: 14-23-4). Worse, they eeeked out no more than two in 29 of the 51 games, winning only eight of the 29.  That’s your season right there.

— The special teams were a disaster. The Blues were 30th on power-play success (15.4%) and finished way down the list (18th) in penalty killing (79.7%). This requires additional perspective to understand just how bad this is, so please read on …

— The Blues scored only 38 power play goals, their lowest total in the 41 seasons that had at least 80 regular-season games on the schedule. Despite having 15 more power play opportunities than their opponents, the Blues scored 9 fewer PP goals than their opponents.

— As for shorthanded goals, the Blues gave up four more than they scored, for a minus 4. So if you merge the PP-goal differential and SH-goal differential, that’s a minus 13 on the special teams. In their previous six seasons, the Blues averaged on the plus side (just under +10) in the annual accounting of PP goals for and against, and SH goals for and against.  That’s just  a horrific deterioration of special teams.

— One more note about dramatic decrease in special teams quality: Over their previous six seasons the Blues ranked No. 1 in the NHL in penalty killing with a PK rate of 84.3% … so when you go from a six-season level of being the best in the league and fall down the steps to 18th …  that’s a major regression. And the Blues actually had a good power play before this season; ranking 4th in the NHL  over the previous six seasons with a PP success of 20.1 percent. And they were never worse than 16.7% in a season.

— The Blues let one of the league’s better home-rink advantages slip away. During their six-season streak of making the playoffs, the Blues’ regular-season home points percentage (.692) ranked third in the NHL, and  they were No. 2 in home wins over that time. This season the Blues were a drab 24-17 at home for a .585 points percentage that ranked 19th in home-ice superiority. And with a playoff bid at stake, the Blues went 5-6 in their final 11 home games and were taken down by Washington and Chicago at Scottrade in the final week of the season. So much for a last-stand home stand.

— Jake Allen had a tough, tormented season in goal. We know all about the extreme hot-and-cold stretches. I think this stat is a good way to summarize it.  Over his three seasons coming into 2017-2018, Allen had a Quality Start percentage of .559. And it was .567 over the two previous seasons. But this season Allen’s Quality Start percentage was a terrible .482. For perspective consider this: Nashville’s Pekka Rinne’s Quality Start percentage was .687.  Allen wasn’t THE reason the Blues failed to grab a playoff spot … this team’s offensive inertia was an epic fail  … but Allen certainly was a negative factor.  According to the Goals Saved Above Average metric, Allen was a minus 10.3… in other words 10.3 goals worse than league average. (Rinne by contrast was 27.5 goals better than league average.) The Blues, however, still finished with the NHL’s sixth-best goals-against average (2.71 per game thanks to the excellent patching job done by Carter Hutton.

— Injuries, injuries, injuries, injuries.  And injuries, injuries, injuries, injuries. This was a burden, sure. But the Blues still should have made the playoffs. Remember the beginning of the season, and how everyone fretted over the Blues’ road heavy-schedule and extensive list of injuries to key players? The circumstances were harsh … but they went 21-8-2 and had the best points percentage (.710) in the West before going in the tank. So I don’t want to give this team an easy out by whining over injuries.

— Same with the Paul Stastny trade made Feb 26. The Blues’ record actually improved after the deal. This is a fact. After stinking it up for more than two months, going 13-17-2 in the 32 games preceding the deal that ticketed Stastny to Winnipeg, the Blues made their charge for a playoff destination after the Stastny deal, going 9-3-1 until stalling out over the final six games (1-4-1.)

— Schwartz, one of the best players in the league over the first two months, wasn’t quite the same after missing six weeks with a fractured ankle that felled him on Dec. 9. That wasn’t his fault, and he was still an effective player, and one to count on for the future.

— Vladimir Tarasenko’s goal production went down to 33, and he must raise the total next season. But the intensity of the criticism directed at Tarasenko this season was ludicrous. He had 66 points, was a +15, and his Corsi For rating (even strength) of 54 was his best in a season since 2014-2015. Tarasenko’s shooting provided one of the highest rebounds-created totals in the league this season. But the Blues didn’t get to the net as much as they could have, should have  — they were soft that way — and rebound opportunities went unclaimed.

Closing points:

  • I’m not leaving coaching out of this.
  • Mike Yeo did a good job of holding this flawed team together, and he kept working on their heads as the Moody Blues tried to drive him and everyone else bonkers. But Yeo and his assistants have to own the embarrassing special teams performance this season.
  • Will Yeo be back in 2018-2019?  Ain’t up to me, but I’ll give my opinion on this in the next day or two.

The coaching situation one of the significant questions facing Blues manager Doug Armstrong as the franchise goes dark instead of gearing up for postseason hockey.

We’re in for one of the most critical offseasons for the Blues in a long time, and Armstrong will face considerable scrutiny and pressure to make things right.

The Blues have many needs, substantial judgments to make, and have to find a way to change the culture. I too am excited by the prospects that are making their way here, but pointing to The Prospects as saviors isn’t going to cut it. Unless they signal an intention to initiate a massive rebuild, the Blues need more than that.

I’ll be getting into this — Part Two — in my next Blues’ piece.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie