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.