Three observations on the Blues’ inconsistent start

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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.

NHL All-Star Skills 2020: Barzal tops McDavid to win Fastest Skater

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ST. LOUIS — Mathew Barzal won the 2020 Fastest Skater competition with a time of 13.715 during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition Friday night. The Islanders forward ends Connor McDavid‘s three-year reign as champion.

Of the eight competitors, Barzal and McDavid were the last to go and each beat McDavid’s best time — 13.310 seconds — of the last three years.

Barzal finished third last year in San Jose with a time of 13.780. If he’s named to an All-Star roster next season he’ll be able to defend his crown at the BB&T Center when the Florida Panthers play host.

FINAL RESULTS
Mathew Barzal 13.175 (winner)

Connor McDavid 13.215
Chris Kreider 13.509
Jack Eichel 13.540
Nathan MacKinnon 13.895
Anthony Duclair 14.005
Travis Konecny 14.113
Quinn Hughes 14.263

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bettman responds to IIHF president’s Olympic decision deadline

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The 2022 Beijing Olympics remains a hot topic between the NHL and NHLPA with the league seeing participation as disruptive and the players eager to represent their countries.

During his All-Star Weekend press conference, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that while the league was comfortable with not going to Pyeongchang in 2018 he wouldn’t definitively shut the door on 2022.

“I can’t say that with certainty, not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. “I know the Players’ Association still maintains a strong preference for going. I know the IIHF still is focused on engaging with us and I think even wants to have a meeting at some point in the not too distant future. From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season. I won’t take you through the litany of reasons why, you’ve all heard me say it. I know it maintains itself as a priority for the Players’ Association, but having said that we were very comfortable with not going Korea.”

IIHF president Rene Fasel said earlier this month that he’d like an answer from the NHL by August. Bettman isn’t ready to give him one any time soon.

“[Fasel] also said last summer he wanted an answer by December and he didn’t get one,” Bettman said. “We’re going to have to see. I actually think the deadline is really more one that we would have to impose, in terms of logistics. My guess is at a point in time we said we wanted to go and we could handle the timing of it, my guess is the IIHF could as well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take Rene seriously, but as I said he already gave us one deadline and it came and went.”

Among the many logistics that need to be worked out if the NHL were to go includes the schedule, which is created well in advance of the season. When would Bettman see a potential deadline set by the league laid down? He isn’t sure.

“I don’t know. I’ll know it when I see it, when we get there,” he said. “Obviously, first and foremost, it has to do with releasing a schedule. That’s the game-changer one way or the other.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Florida Panthers to host 2021 NHL All-Star Game

2021 NHL All-Star Game
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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Friday that the NHL All-Star Game will be making its return to Florida next season when the Panthers play host to the 2021 game.

All-Star Weekend 2021 will take place at BB&T Arena on Jan. 29-30. Bettman hinted during his Friday press conference that the event may have an “international flavor” to it. Talks with the NHLPA are still on-going.

It will be Florida’s second time hosting the All-Star weekend after previously hosting it during the 2002-03 season.

That game was notable for a couple of reasons.

For one, it was the first time an NHL All-Star Game (or any NHL game for that matter) was decided by a shootout with the Western Conference winning by a 6-5 score. It was a sign of things to come as the league would eventually transition to that tie-breaking procedure for the start of the 2005-06 season.

Atlanta Thrashers forward Dany Heatley scored four times and was named MVP.

It was also the year that Panthers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, voted into the game as a starter, was traded by the host team just two days before the All-Star Game. While he played in the game, he did not participate in the Skills Competition because he did not want to wear the jersey of a team (the Panthers) he no longer played for. You can read all about that entire series of events in this previous PHT Time Machine. Ozolinsh was one of two Panthers in that game, joining Olli Jokinen.

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.

Crosby, Kane, Ovechkin highlight NHL’s All-Decade Team

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As part of All-Star weekend festivities, the NHL has announced its All-Decade Team, featuring many names you’d expect to see on such a list. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane lead the forward group on the First Team, with Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty on the blue line and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.

The Second Team features Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, and Steven Stamkos up front, Erik Karlsson and Zdeno Chara on defense, and Henrik Lundqvist in net.

Per the NHL, the two teams were selected by a panel of NHL general managers, NHL hockey operations staff, NHL.com writers and on-air talent from NBC, Sportsnet and TVAS.

FIRST TEAM

F Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 299 goals, 796 points, 635 games played, two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies, one Hart Trophy, five-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, two Rocket Richard Trophy, two Ted Lindsay Awards, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold medal.

F Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 447 goals, 791 points, 777 games played, one Stanley Cup, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Hart Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, three Pearson/Ted Lindsay Award, six Rocket Richard Trophies, eight-time NHL All-Star, four-time First Team NHL All-Star, two World Championship gold medals.

F Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 318 goals, 814 points, 752 games played, three Stanley Cups, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three-time First Team NHL All-Star, eight-time NHL All-Star, one Art Ross Trophy, one Ted Lindsay Award, one Hart Trophy.

D Duncan Keith, Blackhawks – 62 goals, 434 points, 757 games played, three-time NHL All-Star, one First Team NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals.

D Drew Doughty, Kings – 101 goals, 440 points, 780 games played, two Stanley Cups, one Norris Trophy, two-time First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

G Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins/Golden Knights – 325 wins, .9167 save percentage, 2.45 goals against average, 43 shutouts, three Stanley Cups, five-time NHL All-Star, one Olympic gold medal.

SECOND TEAM

F Evgeni Malkin, Penguins – 278 goals, 710 points, 613 points, two Stanley Cups, one Art Ross Trophy, one Hart Trophy, one Ted Lindsay, one First Team NHL All-Star, five-time NHL All-Star.

F Steven Stamkos, Lightning – 367 goals, 731 points, 672 games played, two Rocket Richard Trophies, six-time All-Star.

F Patrice Bergeron, Bruins – 251 goals, 596 points, 728 games played, one Stanley Cup, four Selke Trophies, one King Clancy Trophy, two-time NHL All-Star, two Olympic gold medals, one World Cup of Hockey gold medal.

D Erik Karlsson, Senators/Sharks – 133 goals, 593 points, 705 games played, six-time NHL All-Star, two Norris Trophies, four-time First Team NHL All-Star.

D Zdeno Chara, Bruins – 98 goals, 312 points, 728 games played, two-time NHL All-Star, one Stanley Cup, one First Team NHL All-Star, three Norris Trophies.

G Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – 299 wins, .919 save percentage, 2.49 goals against average, 42 shutouts, one Vezina Trophy, one First Team NHL All-Star, four-time NHL All-Star.

The NHL already announced winners of eight others All-Decade categories in the build up to the reveal of the All-Decade team.

Save of the Decade: Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final
Coach of the Decade: Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks
Franchise of the Decade: Blackhawks
Playoff Series of the Decade: Kings-Blackhawks, 2014 Western Conference Final
Game of the Decade: Bruins-Maple Leafs, 2013 Round 1, Game 7
Event of the Decade: 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium
Moment of the Decade: 100 Greatest Players Gala, 2017
Goal of the Decade: Patrick Kane’s Stanley Cup winner in Game 6 of the 2010 Final

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.