Risk Factors: St. Louis Blues edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

St. Louis Blues

1. Ken Hitchcock…not the easiest guy to play for

And there are already whispers that some of the Blues players have grown tired of his approach.

No doubt, Hitchcock is a widely respected hockey mind. He coached Dallas to a Stanley Cup in 1999, and he was on Mike Babcock’s gold medal-winning Team Canada staff in Sochi.

But here’s something else to consider: In his last five trips to the NHL postseason as a head coach, he’s won just a single series. Two teams during that stretch, Philadelphia and Columbus, felt the need to fire him mid-season.

“The playoffs tell you everything as a coach,” Hitchcock said in April. “They tell you everything about yourself, they tell you everything about your players, they tell you everything about how close you are … what you need to do better, what you’ve done well … they tell you everything.”

Which is interesting, because that comment came right after St. Louis had been eliminated for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs. First it was to Los Angeles. The second letdown, against geographical rival Chicago, really hurt. Especially considering the Blues had held 2-0 leads in both series, only to drop four straight on their way out.

In May, Hitchcock was granted a one-year contract extension — not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence from management — to remain head coach. A couple of months later, the Blues signed Paul Stastny, arguably the best player available in free agency.

Bottom line: there may not be a team in the league that needs to make a deep playoff run more than St. Louis. Which means there may not be a coach that’s under more pressure than Hitchcock.

“My job is to find more from the group that I’m given,” he said. “So you find ways and you try to create an atmosphere to even get more from your team.”

The risk there? Hitchcock pushes too hard and the players tune him out.

Think there’s no basis to that? Then we’ll leave you with an old quote from Derian Hatcher, from way back in 2002 when Hitchcock was fired by the Stars:

“He had the same message from Day 1. Maybe guys had heard it over and over again and it got to be a little too much.”

 2. Brian Elliott may not be up to the job

True, you could say that about any goalie. Even guys who’ve been up to the job in the past can become vulnerable; that’s just the nature of the position.

Still, there are different degrees of risk that GMs can assume when it comes to their goaltenders, and Doug Armstrong is assuming a pretty big risk with his.

The fact is, Elliott is a 29-year-old who’s spent most of his NHL life as a back-up. His .911 career save percentage is fine. Just…fine. As in, nothing special whatsoever. And if Elliott can’t get it done, the Blues’ backup is Jake Allen, a 24-year-old with just 13 NHL starts to his name.

“Brian wanted a chance to compete for the No. 1 job,” Armstrong said during the offseason. “He has that now.”

And so, once again, Blues fans are left to cross their fingers and hope for the best from their goaltender. Despite the franchise’s tortured history telling them to expect otherwise.

 3. To win the Stanley Cup, “good” isn’t good enough

You need to be great. Which begs the question — do the Blues have any truly “great” players?

A St. Louis player hasn’t won a major award since Chris Pronger took the Hart and Norris in 2000. And based on recent history, there’s a distinct correlation between players that win major awards and players that win Cups.

Sidney Crosby (two Harts) has a ring. So does Evgeni Malkin (one Hart).

Jonathan Toews (one Selke) has a ring. So does Patrice Bergeron (one Selke) and Pavel Datsyuk (three Selkes).

Duncan Keith (two Norris Trophies) has a ring. So does Zdeno Chara (one Norris).

It’s not a perfect correlation. The Kings haven’t won any major individual awards lately, and they’ve got two Cups in the last three years. But not many would argue that Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar aren’t great players.

Now, to be fair, David Backes finished fourth in the 2013-14 Selke voting and Alex Pietrangelo finished fifth in the Norris race.

Then again, doesn’t that sort of prove the point? The Blues have been good. But not great.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.