Three observations on the Blues’ inconsistent start

4 Comments

One of the fascinating things about the St. Louis Blues’ worst-to-first turnaround during the 2018-19 season was always going to be the lessons other teams in the league tried to take away from it. For example, how many teams off to sluggish starts this season would wrongly assume they could repeat what the Blues did while ignoring that the Blues were always built to win last season, and even during their dreadful start were always just one key player (a goalie) away from turning it around.

The Blues’ inability to get saves early in the season was the single biggest downfall for the team and was submarining an otherwise strong contender with a great defense. Once Jordan Binnington got his mid-season call-up and steadied the position everything came together and resulted in their first ever championship.

The biggest question after that was always going to be whether or not Binnington’s second half and postseason performance were something he could duplicate over a full season. As the Blues prepare to play their 10th game of the season on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings the early results have been a little mixed, and the team is once again off to an inconsistent start having won just four of their first nine games.

So what’s going on with the defending champs?

The goaltending hasn’t been there yet

Defensively the Blues are right about where you would expect them to be, sitting among the league’s best teams in preventing shots attempts and shots on goal. Despite that, they still find themselves in the bottom half of the league in goals against and just like early last season the goaltending has been the biggest issue.

So far the duo of Binnington and Jake Allen has an overall save percentage of just .893, a mark that places them 23rd in the NHL. And while that is better than what they were getting early last season it is still not good enough. Most of that is due to Allen’s two appearances (eight goals allowed on just 53 shots), but Binnington hasn’t really been all that consistent yet, either.

For as great as he played late in the regular season, there was nothing in his professional track record to suggest he was ever going to maintain that level of performance every year. To be fair, the Blues don’t really need that sort of performance to win. They are so good defensively and do such a great job preventing shots that even above average goaltending would make them an incredibly difficult team to score against. When Binnington has given them that level of play this year, the Blues have won. When he hasn’t — as has been in the case in three of his past four starts — the Blues have lost.

They’ve surrendered a lot of leads

A somewhat surprising development given their strong defensive structure, but it’s come down to big keys — the goaltending issue mentioned above with a little bit of bad luck added in.

  • In their season-opener on banner raising night they let an early 2-0 lead slip away against the Washington Capitals and turned it into a 3-2 loss.
  • One week later they had a 3-2 lead against Montreal with 28 minutes to play and surrendered four consecutive goals on their way to a 6-3 loss.
  • In their very next game after that they had a 2-0 lead in New York against the Islanders with five minutes to play and allowed three consecutive goals to lose in overtime.
  • In the game after that they had a 3-1 lead against Vancouver with 27 minutes to play, allowed two consecutive goals, and then lost a marathon six-round shootout where only one goal was scored.

There is an element of bad luck to losing three consecutive overtime/shootout games within the first nine games of a season, especially when one of those games comes down to an extended shootout. You’re basically flipping a coin at that point and hoping it comes up heads, while the game-tying goal against the Islanders came on a rather fluky redirection in front (the first and third goals in that game, though, were not good ones for Binnington).

It is way too early to be overly concerned

The big picture outlook is simple: the Blues have received some of the worst goaltending in the league so far, while the quartet of Ryan O'Reilly, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko, and Justin Faulk have combined to score two total goals — a trend that almost certainly will not continue — and the team has still managed to play at a .611 points pace (a 100-point pace over 82 games). We are also talking about a team that is probably one or two bounces away from having one of the best records in the league despite having not yet played their best hockey yet. The defense is still there, the defense is still playing well, and there is still room for some of their top contributors to produce more. As long as the goaltending doesn’t completely fall into a crater this is still a team that has all the necessary ingredients to get back on track.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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

austonmatthews
Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

caufield surgery
David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

matty beniers
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

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

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

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.