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Will the Blues’ Seven-Game Homestand Be the Last Stand for Mike Yeo?

After strengthening the center position and adding quality depth to their forward lines, the Blues probably didn’t expect to be lurching along with a 2-3-2 record through eight games.

As the Blues open a stretch of seven consecutive home games with Thursday’s meet-and-greet with Columbus, they boys have some work to do. They have a lot to clean up. It’s a good idea to bring plenty of mops.

The (coming up) short list:

* Good grief, settle down and stop freaking out in the third period. When the Blues blew a couple of tires in the  oss at Winnipeg, it was the latest in a sequence of third-period crackups. After the game, goaltender Jake Allen said the Blues were playing scared. Wednesday, center Brayden Schenn told reporters the team was  “panicking when we have the lead.”  Five times already this season, the Blues had a lead, or were tied in the third period. They went 0-2-3 in those tests.  And this is still a veteran-heavy team, so this shouldn’t be happening on a regular basis. Leadership, anyone? 

* The Blues’ best players must perform up to a level that matches their salaries and reputations. We could cite many names right now, but let’s limit it to a few including defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, forward Vladimir Tarasenko and goaltender Allen.

Tarasenko has two goals this season but both came in the same game — meaning that he hasn’t scored in seven of his team’s eight games so far,  and he has a plus-minus rating of minus 6. Going back to the final quarter of last season, Tarasenko has scored in only nine of the previous 30 games and is minus 12. Pietrangelo (minus 6, and one assist) seems to be lost in space. Center Tyler Bozak is a minus 4 with a goal and an assist.  Among the NHL goaltenders that have logged at least 200 minutes so far, Allen ranks 27th out of 29 in both overall save percentage (.893) and high-danger save percentage (.768.) Allen is one of the reasons why the Blues have been outscored 15-8 in the third period.

* Coach Mike Yeo has to go with his best players.  The Blues fell apart at Winnipeg earlier this week, going down 5-4 in overtime after possessing third-period leads of 3-1 and 4-3.  A central figure in the collapse was increasingly immobile defenseman Jay Bouwmeester — a great pro, longtime clampdown defender, and excellent penalty killer. But at 35,  Bouwmeester is a slow-motion example of the wearing effects of age and injury.

* Yeo has to move away from his overly dependent reliance on some veterans, especially Bouwmeester.  Yeo played Bouwmeester for 10 shifts and a ton of minutes in the third period at Winnipeg, quickly draining the player’s limited fuel tank. Bouwmeester was on the ice for all four of Winnipeg’s regulation goals. With Bouwmeester so creaky and mistake prone this season, there is no excuse to be using him so extensively at the expense of young defenseman Vince Dunn, who looks good. Young defenseman Jordan Schmaltz has made enough headway to earn more ice time. Yeo really has to show that the criticism of him as the coach of the Minnesota Wild — he’s impatient with young players and strongly prefers veterans, even if the veterans aren’t playing well  — is false.

* I’ll go ahead and repeat the obvious cliches that everyone is putting out there: Win the puck battles … pile up the hits … block more shots … play a full 60 minutes and then some if required … stay out of the penalty box … don’t be so careless with giveaways … play for each other … yada yada yada.

In other words: Blues 4, Toronto 1 this past Saturday. And really, except for awful breakdown in that third period in Manitoba the other night, the Blues have been on their game for five of the last six periods.

“For the majority of games right now, it’s starting to look the right way,” Yeo told reporters on Wednesday. 

The seven-game home stay may determine Yeo’s future — or at least go a long way in (A) reinforcing the emerging “Hot Seat!” narrative or (B) reshaping the narrative into the story about the hard-working and persistent coach who survived adversity and is secure in his seat.

Because the Blues aggressively upgraded the roster this past summer,  there’s more pressure on Yeo, and that won’t go away anytime soon. If this group continues to underachieve and squander leads, a change is inevitable, and management can’t fire all of the players. With many NHL franchises, the coach is always the first disposable part. If you want to argue that President of Hockey Operations Doug Armstrong is more at fault then go ahead and make the case. But also understand this: Blues chairman Tom Stillman isn’t going to fire Armstrong, so you’ll be wasting time and oxygen by howling at the planet, star, moon, or media person of your choice.

As my friend and colleague Randy Karraker reminds us, there is a precedent for sacking a Blues coach early in the season. Back in the formative stages of the 2011-2012 campaign, Davis Payne was fired 13 games into the schedule with the Blues wallowing at 6-7. Ken Hitchcock replaced Payne and led the Blues through five-plus seasons of damn good hockey. No, not championship hockey. But after Hitchcock took over Blues led the NHL in regular season wins and were second overall in winning percentage through 2015-2016.

Moreover, Yeo is at the center of multiple down-arrow trends.

1. The winning percentage is going the wrong way. This one has made the rounds so I’ll update and throw it out there:

  • In Yeo’s first 40 games after replacing Hitchcock, the Blues had a games-won percentage of .700
  • In Yeo’s next 40 games, the games-won percentage was .550.
  • In Yeo’s most recent 42 games, which includes the eight games played this season, the  winning percentage is .429.

Not good.

This follows a pattern reminiscent of Davis Payne’s trajectory.  Payne had a games-won percentage of .595 after replacing Andy Murray 39 games into the 2009-2010 season. In 2010-2011, Payne had a full-season winning percentage of .530. But that Blues’ team went 11-11-9 after Feb. 21 and missed the playoffs. Payne returned for 2011-2012 but was dismissed after 13 games and a .462 winning percentage.

Payne coached the Blues for 137 regular-season games.

Yeo has coached the Blues for 122 regular-season games. By the end of the homestand, Yeo’s regular-season total will be up to 129 games as STL’s coach.

2. Once upon a time, the Blues were a dominant home-ice team. Those days are gone. And the Blues have to find a way to reestablish strength at home. The uninterrupted block of seven consecutive home games at Enterprise Center will give Yeo and the players plenty of time and opportunity to practice, practice, practice — and sharpen up. But if the Blues aspire to make it back to the playoffs, they can’t continue flopping at home.

From the start of the 2011-2012 season through 2016-17, the Blues had the No. 2 overall home-ice winning percentage at .623, and it ranked No. 1 in the conference. With 148 home wins over that time, the Blues were tied for second overall, and tied for first in the conference.

Since the start of last season, the Blues are a flat 25-19-1 at home for a winning percentage of .526. That ranks 17th overall, ninth in the conference. And the mediocrity at home has hurt the Blues in the Central division; since the start of last season only Chicago has a worse home record than St. Louis. Check out the home winning percentage for the best Central division teams since the beginning of last season:

Winnipeg,  .740,  No. 1 overall

Colorado,  .663,  No. 4 overall

Minnesota,  .648, No. 6 overall

Nashville,  .647, No. 7 overall

To put a finer point on this to make it more representative of the more recent trend, the Blues have a record of 16-16-1 in their last 33 home games; that includes a 6-8-1 mark in the last 15 as well as their 1-2-1 start at home this season.

Here’s the weird thing: Since the crank-up of last season, the Blues are 21-16-8 on the road for the the league’s 13th best road winning percentage. That road win percentage was lessened because of those eight overtime losses. But in games decided in regulation since the start of last season, only five NHL teams have fewer road losses than the Blues’ 16.  So why are these guys so shaky at home? Makes no sense.

3. The Blues are no longer taking care of business in head-to-head division matchups. So far this season the Blues have played four games within the Central, two against Winnipeg and two vs. Chicago. They carved out only three of a possible eight points. Since last Feb. 13 the Blues are 2-8-5 against their fellow Central residents. Last season the Blues were 11-12-3 in the division. And it hasn’t gotten any better early on this season; the Blues are 0-1-3 at Enterprise Center.

From 2011-2012 through 2016-17, the Blues had a winning percentage of .582 against division rivals and  a .590 winning percentage against Western Conference teams.

Since the start of last season the Blues have a losing record (11-13-6) within the division; that’s a .367 winning percentage. And in Western Conference games over that time, the Blues have gone 24-24-8. Because of the eight overtime losses, that computes to a winning percentage of .429.

These are terrible trends that must be reversed if, indeed, the Blues are capable of doing so.

I believe, as Yeo said, the Blues are close to finding their form.

Over the next seven games, Yeo and the Blues have a chance to change the trends and reset their season. If they fail … well, you know the rest. Home stand, last stand, and all of that. And the puck will stop on Armstrong’s desk.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie

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