Jake Allen

How Blues have kept winning without Tarasenko

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When we last checked in with the St. Louis Blues a few weeks ago the defending champs were off to a sluggishly inconsistent start and then got the one piece of news they absolutely did not need — Vladimir Tarasenko, their most impactful player and biggest star, was going to be sidelined for the next five months. It was a disappointing start to their title defense, and it seemed like it could have at least had the potential to put them in another early hole in the Western Conference they would have to dig out of.

Instead, the opposite has happened. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes riding a seven-game winning streak and have climbed back to the top of the West standings, owning what is by far the best points percentage (.750) in the conference.

Considering the injury situation it is an impressive run and quick turnaround. How have they managed to stay so hot, and can they keep it rolling? It is a nice run of success, but there are definitely some red flags that come along with it.

The power play and overtime domination has carried the offense

Two things stand out about the Blues’ current winning streak. The first is that five of those wins have come in overtime, with two of those overtime goals being scored on power play opportunities.

Somewhat related to that is the fact the power play itself is clicking at a 29.6% rate over the past eight games, the second best success rate in the NHL during that stretch. All of that is making up for the fact that the Blues have scored just 12 goals during 5-on-5 play and have one of the worst scoring rates in the league at even-strength (more on this below).

This should be a concern because you can only rely on your power play to carry you for so long, and you’re not always going to get that sort of opportunity in overtime. Overtime itself can be a huge coin flip due to the unpredictable nature of the 3-on-3 situation. Sometimes you will get the bear, and sometimes the bear will get you (this five-game OT winning streak came after losing three OT/SO games in a row earlier in the year).

Jordan Binnington has gone on a roll

This is probably the biggest part of the Blues’ recent run. Binnington has won each of his past five starts and has a .930 save percentage in the six games since Tarasenko went out of the lineup. He was one of the players off to a slow start at the beginning of the year and his recent turnaround has resulted in him putting the team on his back and carrying it.

(We should also acknowledge that Jake Allen has also contributed, winning two games during the winning streak with a very respectable .914 save percentage).

Binnington’s play has been so important because the Blues are not controlling shot attempts and scoring chances like they did a year ago. Even during this recent winning streak (since Oct. 25) the Blues are among the worst teams in total shot attempt differential (28th), scoring chance differential (28th), high-danger scoring chance differential (30th), and expected goal differential (30th). It is a small sampling, yes, but it is also a dramatic fall from where they were a year ago after the coaching change when they were one of the best teams in all of those categories. (All via Natural Stat Trick)

Something to keep in mind: Even though their defensive play isn’t quite as good as it was in the second half and in the playoffs, a lot of their struggles in these differentials have to do with what they are not creating offensively as opposed to what they are giving up. Across the board they have been the worst 5-on-5 team in the league when it comes to generating shots, chances, high-danger chances, and yes, even goals. This is an example of where they are really missing an impact player like Tarasenko, and it really puts a ton of pressure on the goalies to have no margin for error because one or two goals could be too much to overcome.

The results are good, the process is concerning

This is really what it comes down to.

The Blues are winning games right now, yes, but the process behind those wins is concerning when it comes to their long-term outlook. These points they have collected over the past two weeks are important, and they have definitely built themselves a nice cushion in the playoff race, but if they keep playing this way the wins may not be as frequent as they currently are.

At times last year the Blues looked like a team that was doing everything right with the way it played and just needed to fix its goaltending  to get on the right track. They do not have that same feel right now.

If they want to keep getting the same results this year something is going to have to change in their process to generate more offense at even-strength, and that might require a trade to help replace what they are missing with Tarasenko.

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.

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.

Pietrangelo and beyond: Faulk’s impact on Blues’ salary cap future

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It wasn’t all that surprising that the Carolina Hurricanes traded Justin Faulk, but it absolutely was a little stunning that the St. Louis Blues ended up being the winner of that sweepstakes on Tuesday.

In fact, Faulk seemed surprised, too, so it’s not that off base.

Maybe we should have seen this coming, as the Blues were very quiet this summer, and made a big impact last year by landing Ryan O'Reilly. Either way, acquiring Faulk amplified a question people already had: what about Alex Pietrangelo?

When Faulk’s contract extension kicks during the 2020-21 season, it will carry a $6.5 million AAV. It’s a strangely fitting mark, as Pietrangelo carries a $6.5M cap hit for 2019-20, the final year of his current deal.

One cannot help but wonder if the Blues view Faulk as a replacement for Pietrangelo, right down to both being right-handed defensemen who can run a power play.

This is all fair to ask, as Pietrangelo is almost certain to make a significant raise from $6.5M per year. Without a Norris Trophy to his name, Pietrangelo might not command Drew Doughty money of $11M, but who knows? Demand figures to be high for Pietrangelo either way, even though he’ll turn 30 on Jan. 18.

Pietrangelo’s future is the biggest question that springs from the trade-plus-extension for Faulk, but it’s not the only interesting conundrum for the Blues. Let’s consider some of the questions ahead, including how Pietrangelo might fit in.

After 2019-20

Again, Pietrangelo is the headliner, but he’s not the only relevant expiring contract.

Cap Friendly estimates the Blues’ spending at about $65.6M with 16 roster spots covered for 2020-21. If the salary cap ceiling stays at $81.5M, the Blues would have about $16M to work with.

Rob Thomas and Jordan Kyrou could easily fill roster spots on their entry-level deals, which expire after 2020-21.

The Blues could actually do some juggling to keep Pietrangelo, especially if the ceiling goes up. They’d need to make a painful choice or two, possibly letting Schenn walk, but it’s not outside the realm of reason, especially if Pietrangelo takes a little less than his highest market value.

There are also some two-year deals the Blues could try to get out of …

After 2020-21

  • Both of their goalies only have two years left on their current contracts, with Jordan Binnington, 26, costing $4.4M and Jake Allen, 29, at $4.35M. It was a little surprising that the Blues didn’t trade Allen during this offseason, but if they can unload him sometime between now and next offseason, that could open up crucial space for Pietrangelo and/or Schenn. This current arrangement does provide some buffer if Binnington falters after his breakthrough, but the Blues likely don’t want to spend this much on a backup if that’s Allen’s fate.
  • Alexander Steen, 35, carries a heavy $5.75M. His salary is $5.5M in 2019-20, and then drops to $3.5M; maybe that would make Steen palatable for a cap-bribery trade to a team like the Ottawa Senators?
  • Tyler Bozak, 33, is expendable at $5M per year.
  • Jaden Schwartz, 27, could get a raise from $5.35M.

As you can see, there are some situations where the Blues might be able to free up some breathing room, particularly if they can convince someone to absorb Steen’s cap hit (or even a portion of it) for 2020-21.

Between Bozak, David Perron ($4M per year through 2021-22), and other mid-level players, St. Louis could conceivably cut out some inessentials.

This also serves as a reminder that teams should remain careful about giving depth players bigger commitments. If Oskar Sundqvist ($2.75M through 2022-23) indirectly costs the Blues a better player, that could sting.

***

It won’t be easy for the Blues to keep Pietrangelo, as Faulk could create an imbalance with Colton Parayko also being a prominent right-handed defenseman. While Faulk could give the Blues a relevant short-term boost, the long-term implications are messy.

That said, as you can see from the exercise above, there are ways that Blues GM Doug Armstrong can wiggle out of the toughest losses. That would mean waving goodbye to a surplus player or two, maybe even someone very useful like Schenn, but it’s possible.

Beyond seeing the Blues try to repeat, it will also be fascinating to see if they can keep the band together — or at least the virtuoso performers. Check out the Blues’ Cap Friendly page if you want to dig even deeper.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues’ Binnington faces whole new world in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Come out of nowhere, steal the No. 1 job, win a Stanley Cup and get a nice payoff all inside six or so months.

It seems hardly believable. Impossible, really.

Yet there stands Jordan Binnington, a 26-year-old formerly journeyman goalie who, prior to puck drop in a Jan. 7 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, was simply a nobody in the NHL world.

Two-and-a-half hours and 25 saves later, Binnington had his first NHL win in his first NHL start and his first NHL shutout all under his belt. A flash in the pan? Far from it, apparently.

Binnington would feature in 29 games in the second half of the season for the Blues. His 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts during that span would pull the Blues all the way from the league’s murkiest spot in the basement to third-place in the Central Division.

And from there, he’d start all 26 games the St. Louis Blues played in the playoffs on their magical run to the Stanley Cup. Binnington would set rookie records for wins in a postseason and, ultimately, lift Lord Stanley with a 16-10 record, including a 32-save, .970 performance in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to cement the Blues worst-to-first achievement.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | X-Factor]

These things simply don’t happen, and yet Binnington willed it into existence with a ‘Do I look nervous to you?’ attitude that was only backed up on the ice.

Binnington’s emergence earned him a two-year, deal worth $4.4 million annually, making him the highest-paid goalie on the Blues (a mere $50,000 more than Jake Allen) and No. 1 status between the pipes heading into the 2019-20 season.

He’s earned it. And now the hard work begins.

There was no pressure on Binnington last season. Every win was met with awe, not expectation. If he had come in and failed, he wouldn’t have been labeled as a bust. If he had crashed out in the first round of the playoffs, he still would have been considered a success.

Winning the Stanley Cup? It’s still hard to fathom, really.

But now Binnington has some statistics to his name. The bar he set for himself is in the realm of the NHL’s elite. And somehow, he has to now make that translate into a full slate of NHL starts — perhaps as many as 60 next season.

That’s where the pressure lies.

Binnington is unproven as a full-time NHL starter, like Carter Hart in Philadelphia. Both had great seasons, but both only played half the year. So questions remain.

There’s nothing, at least at the moment, to suggest that Binnington can’t handle it. Sure, his save percentage dipped in the playoffs, but he handled the pressure of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final with apparent ease.

He appears to be a true iceman when it comes to that.

Nevertheless, he’s now playing for a bigger payoff in two years after having bet on himself over the next two seasons. His long-term financial gain also hangs in the balance.

Binnington gave fans what they craved and now they’re only going to want more.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Stanley Cup Tracker: Perron and poutine; Allen gives back

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The PHT Stanley Cup tracker will keep tabs on how the St. Louis Blues spend their summer celebrating.

The Stanley Cup got a little French-Canadian treatment this past week as it wound its way through Quebec.

David Perron got his day with hockey’s holy grail and didn’t disappoint, making sure a little French-Canadiana made its way into the Mug.

Poutine, which is a mix of fries, cheese curds and gravy, was put into the cup and then spooned onto plates at Louis Restaurant, one of Perron’s favorite hometown spots in Sherbrooke, Que.

The day began with the Cup being flown into an awaiting Perron, who placed it in the front seat of his car and drove it home.

There, his family sat around hockey’s best cereal bowl and feasted on Lucky Charms,

The day continued, including a street hockey game where the winner’s got to drink out of Cup.


Blues backup Jake Allen took his turn on Thursday in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Allen took the Cup to Camp Wonder, a day camp during the summer months of July and August that provides inclusive activities for children and youth with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The visit was made possible through Allen’s Program 34 foundation, which aims to reduce and eliminate barriers in participation caused by poverty, distance, disability and culture.


Other highlights from the week

Friday was Robert Thomas‘ day.

He received a key to his hometown of Aurora, Ont. and had a parade.

Ah, ice cream. A Stanley Cup staple.

Sammy Blais also go his day.

“It’s really incredible the number of people that are here right now,” Blais told CIMT in French (via NHL.com) “They supported me all throughout the playoffs, and ever since I was a kid, they’ve supported me and have been proud. To see them here today, and to bring them the Stanley Cup, it was really important for me to give back to my city.”

And so, too, did Al Macinnis.


As the Blues have been doing all summer, they’ve complied another short video on players’ days with the Cup.

Here’s Tyler Bozak‘s:

And here’s another from its time in Saskatchewan:

The PHT Stanley Cup tracker

 Week 1: Cup heads to the Canadian prairies
• Week 2: Stanley Cup heads east to Ontario
• Week 3: Pat Maroon takes Cup back to St. Louis for some toasted ravioli
• Week 4: Ryan O’Reilly celebrates with grandma


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck