I Worry About the Blues

The St. Louis Blues made the playoffs 25 consecutive seasons from 1980 to the 2004, the last season before a disastrous NHL lockout. The streak started before I was born, and included several different star players – Brett Hull, Grant Fuhr, Brendan Shanahan, Wayne Gretzky, Adam Oates, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Pavol Demitra, Pierre Turgeon, and Keith Tkachuk.

Almost all of those players, excluding Demitra and Tchachuk, have a Stanley Cup on their resume, of course none of those came with the Blues. When I think about the Blues glory years, I go to the Joel Quenneville coached teams of the early 2000s. One of those teams did make it to the conference finals one year, 2001, and were promptly swept by the Colorado Avalanche.

In that entire 25-year streak, the Blues made the conference finals one time. They never even played in the Stanley Cup Finals.

One of my enduring memories of the Blues is the president trophy winning team in 1999. That team, with its best record, lost in seven games to the eighth-seeded San Jose Sharks. I was at that game seven and clearly remember the vitriolic reaction of the home fans throwing beers onto the ice.

I say all this with the realization that I am currently watching the best Blues team I have seen.

After a 6-2 win over Columbus on Saturday, the Blues have 63 points, just three behind the league-leading and Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, and a record of 29-7-5. The Blues are second in the league in scoring, fifth in goals against, which amounts to a league-best goal differential of +55. The Note also boasts a top 10 power play and penalty kill.

After a few leans years after the lockout, the Blues put together several stellar drafts that built the best farm system in the NHL. The only draft-day miss in that time happened to be the No. 1 overall pick, Eric Johnson in 2006. Before his true status as a bust could be realized, the Blues flipped him for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shatenkirk in what has become one of the best deals in franchise history (I was wrongly against it at the time because Johnson was finally starting to play to his potential, making the U.S. national team in 2010).

Johnson of course was seen as the new Chris Pronger, the monster defenseman, a archetype nearly obsolete in the new NHL. With the exception of 6-foot-9 monster Zdeno Chara, NHL defense is played by much more mobile, nimble players, Defenseman who can join the attack, artfully guide lead passes up through the neutral zone to initiate offense, and use the poke check as their primary defensive weapon. This is the strength of the Blues team.

Through the draft and some trades, the Blues have built a stable of such players. Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, and Ian Cole are clones on the ice, equally skilled and tenacious. Shatenkirk may be the best of the group, leading them with six goals and 23 assists.

The Blues are also incredibly deep with speedy forwards and centers. Former Toronto first round pick Alexander Steen is third in the NHL with 24 goals. Blues draft pick and former North Dakota Souix T.J. Oshie leads the team in assists with 27. Jaden Schwartz, the 14th pick in the 2010, draft has 31 points. Those guys are at the top of the St. Louis leaderboard but David Backes, Stewart, Brendan Morrow, Patrick Bergland, and Derek Roy are more than capable of putting the puck in the net.

The goaltenders have been great too. The Blues, to the envy of many NHL teams, have two net minders – Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot — talented enough to be a team’s No. 1 goalie.

Holding everything together is coach Ken Hitchcock, the team’s best coach since Bowman (apologies to Quenneville who has two Stanley Cups). Hitchcock teams always play hard, always.

Ironically, that’s my worry with this current team. Most sports fans want their team to play as hard as possible, but the NHL regular season is a marathon not a sprint.

The Blues offensive numbers are somewhat misleading. The Note scores many of its goals through a labyrinth screens or creating chances by cycling teams off the puck like mad men. 

What I always hated but respected about the Redwings teams led by Nik Lidstrom was that they found ways to win when they were getting outplayed. It is very hard for this Blues team to win when they get outplayed.

Of course, that has not happened very often this season, but two of those losses have come at the hands of San Jose, a team that hockey pundits would say is more talented than the Blues on paper.

Of all of those players I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, none of them is a great talent like a Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, or Alex Ovechkin. The teams that win Stanley Cups usually have at least one player at that level. The last team that didn’t was the 2011 Boston Bruins. The Blues are built extremely similarly with a ton of good players, but perhaps no great players.

When the playoffs come, can the Blues defeat Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago to make the finals? In the playoffs, everybody plays hard; it’s impossible to outwork a team completely in a seven-game series.

There is one Blues player I haven’t mentioned, 2010 16th overall pick Vladimir Tarasenko. Every game I’ve watched, Tarasenko has improved little by little. He has the puck handling skill and scoring talent you can’t teach. The Blues playoff chances may hinge on the young Russian transitioning into a transcendent talent.

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