Contender or Pretender: Goaltending, injuries will determine Blues season

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Now that we are closing in on the halfway point of the 2020-21 NHL season and are starting to get a sense for what each team is capable of, we are going to take a closer look each week at some teams right on the edge between Stanley Cup contender and Stanley Cup pretender.

We continue today with the St. Louis Blues, one of the league’s best teams the past two years but one that has struggled as of late. Entering Monday’s game in Anaheim the Blues have won just four of their past 11 games, with only two of those wins coming in regulation.

Cause for concern? Or something that a little patience and some minor improvements from within can fix?

We aren’t seeing the real Blues right now

Nothing is holding the Blues back more than the injury situation as they have seven regulars out of the lineup, with Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko, Robert Thomas, Ivan Barbashev, Tyler Bozak, and Carl Gunnarsson currently sidelined. That is a significant collection of talent, including multiple top-nine forwards and one of their top defenders. Take that many players out of any team’s lineup and they are going to struggle. Even the best and deepest team in the league is going to struggle to overcome that.

The good news is that some help could be on the way.

Tarasenko, still the Blues’ most dangerous player offensively, has not played yet this season and is inching closer to a return, and it could not happen at a better time.

It is easy to forget about him since he has played in only 14 games (including playoffs) since the start of the 2019-20 season, but his return will be significant. It is impossible to project what he can do coming back from a major injury, but that is theoretically a 35-goal scorer jumping back into the lineup.

Before the injuries started, they looked great

Excluding Tarasenko, who has not played this season, the Blues’ recent rash of injuries started in early February when Thomas went down with a thumb injury. In the days that followed they lost Parayko, Barbashev, Gunnarsson, and Schwartz to further decimate the lineup.

Before all that happened the Blues were playing like the Blues team we’ve come to expect in recent years.

In their first 10 games they were a dominant team defensively in terms of limiting shot attempts and scoring chances and were decisively outscoring teams during 5-on-5 play. They were doing everything you expect a Stanley Cup contender to do. Then the injuries started, and over the past 8-10 games things have done a complete 180 for them.

The goaltending question

In non-injury developments, the Blues still have a big goaltending question that could potentially make-or-break their season.

Jordan Binnington was a season-saver for them two years ago when he arrived halfway through, secured the starting job, and backstopped the team to a Stanley Cup.

He regressed a bit in his second season and then had a meltdown in the playoffs.

So far this season he has been up and down, flashing moments of brilliance, some struggles, and even a little frustration. This was always going to be a big season for Binnington because he is in the final year of his current contract and is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. He not only needs a big season for the Blues, he needs a big season to boost his own value and prove what kind of goalie he is. The jury was still very much out, and not much has changed right now.

The biggest concern might be the fact that following Jake Allen‘s trade to Montreal the Blues do not have a proven backup behind Binnington to give him a break or serve as a safety net if needed. Ville Husso has only appeared in six games so far this season with very mixed results.

Between the two of them, the Blues rank 24th and 25th in all situations and 5-on-5 save percentages. They have the ability to be better than that. They are going to need to be.

Contender or pretender?

They are a contender with a “when” and an “if” attached to it.

When they get healthy, and if their goaltending becomes more consistent.

The Blues are good enough defensively and have enough talent at forward that they do not need a game-stealer in the crease. They do not need their goalies to win them games. They just need them to avoid losing them games. That is not an outrageously high bar.

The biggest issue remains the injury situation. You can not read much into their recent play because the roster is a fraction of what it should be, and what it could be come playoff time. Ryan O'Reilly is one of the best two-way players in the league, David Perron, Jordan Kyrou, Brayden Schenn, and Mike Hoffman are all legit top-six scorers, while Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Thomas are still lurking as returns in the future. It’s a deep forward lineup, and while the defense is missing Alex Pietrangelo following his offseason departure to Vegas, they still boast a strong blue line.

In the short-term, they should be able to stay afloat in the division and secure a playoff spot. The division is top-heavy with Colorado and Vegas at the top, but the rest of the division is full of rebuilding and flawed teams that should not be much of a threat to pass them. If they can scratch and claw their way through this shorthanded stretch and buy time until they get players back, you are going to see a vastly different team come April, May, and June. A contending team.

Related: Contender or Pretender: Is it time to believe in the Edmonton Oilers?

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.

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.