NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between theSt. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Blues’ season appeared to be over. They weren’t scoring much, they couldn’t get a save and the losses just kept piling up. But since the start of January, they’ve managed to get their season back on the rails. Things started to change for the Blues when they inserted rookie goalie Jordan Binnington into their lineup.
Binnington has allowed two goals or fewer in each of his five decisions. He gave up two goals on 30 shots in Saturday’s victory over the Ottawa Senators. Even though the 25-year-old’s been rolling, it sounds like interim head coach Craig Berube will continue to use Binnington and veteran Jake Allen.
“I’m going to use both of them right now. I truly believe that’s the way to go,” Berube said. “Then we’ve got the break coming up and it gets really busy again, so we’ll need both of them ready.”
Since the start of the new year, the Blues have gone 6-3-1. This recent surge has allowed St. Louis to pull within five points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
David Perron, who missed Saturday’s game against Ottawa, has been red-hot of late. Before getting hurt, Perron picked up at least one point in 13 consecutive games. The 30-year-old has 17 goals and 35 points in 45 contests.
Another player that’s turned his season around, is Vladimir Tarasenko. The 27-year-old is having a down year, but he’s been relatively productive over the last nine games, as he’s picked up eight points during that stretch.
As for the Kings, they’re currently in last place in the NHL standings. Los Angeles is coming off an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
“It was just a pathetic second period,” defenseman Drew Doughty said after the loss. “I really don’t even know what to say. Yeah, they played well but we just played poor. And we left our goalies out to dry again. And we’re sick of doing that. When we win games, we leave them out to dry. When we lose games, we leave them out to dry. It’s about time we play for them.”
The Kings have picked up just 42 points in 49 games this season. Since the start of the month, the Kings have gone 1-3-1 on the road, but they’re 2-2-0 at home. Even though they’re in the basement of the West, they’re still “only” 10 points back of the final Wild Card spot. By comparison, the Detroit Red Wings, who are last in the East, are 15 points back of the final Wild Card spot in their conference.
But let’s be honest, there’s no way the Kings can overcome a 10-point deficit. On top of being 10 points out, they’d have to leap over seven teams to make the postseason. That’s not happening.
You have to think that they have a full rebuild coming in their future.
This is not Brayden Schenn‘s first rodeo with a lot of things this season.
It is his second time playing under Craig Berube as an interim coach and the third time his name has been prominent in trade speculation. For Schenn and the St. Louis Blues, those things are related.
A bad start to the season cost coach Mike Yeo his job in November and started talk that just about anyone from Schenn to star winger Vladimir Tarasenko to young defenseman Colton Parayko could be dealt away. But over the past two month as interim coach, Berube has turned things around – so much so that the Blues could make a run at the playoffs and keep general manager Doug Armstrong from selling ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
”Guys are playing hard right now and (Berube) obviously commands a lot when it comes to the work ethic side of the game,” Schenn said Monday in Washington. ”We’ve had high expectations right from the beginning, we didn’t meet them, then there’s tons of rumors about everyone. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re not winning and you’re not meeting expectations.
”Now we’re in a position – closer, anyways – to make a playoff push, and we feel like we can in this locker room. Now it’s up to us to try and save ourselves, each other, from getting traded and staying here together.”
Berube has pulled the Blues together by getting them back to basics. They’ve gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to move within four points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and can now think about the postseason.
”This is such a good team here, and we’re starting to get back to our game,” leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly said. ”We can get into the playoffs. We can make a difference.”
After trading for O’Reilly and signing forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon last summer, the Blues were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Twelve losses in their first 19 games led to the coaching change, and Berube has instilled some badly needed consistency.
”He’s one of those guys that wants you to make plays, but he demands a lot,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”He wants you to work. And we’re working right now. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re winning hockey games.”
Berube, who also was interim coach for Schenn and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14, has helped the Blues win games by changing their mentality to become more of a north-south team. There was never a shortage of talent, but now the direction of the action is straight toward the net with the kind of direct style more suited to the group’s size.
”We control the puck in the offensive zone a lot,” Berube said. ”We shoot the puck and get to the net. That’s our game.”
It helps that the Blues are getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington and veteran starter Jake Allen of late. Binnington is 3-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his first four NHL starts after getting called up at age 25 and being asked to steady the ship.
”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity,” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”
Blues skaters look at their rough start not as a case of subpar goaltending but disastrous play in front of the net. Schenn said it was ”ugly” early on, and Pietrangelo said the team has done a better job cutting down on rush chances against, which has made life easier for the goalies.
”We’re playing more of a 60-minute hockey game,” said Allen, who has a .910 save percentage this season under Berube (it was .879 under Yeo). ”We were finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot prior to that. We’d play 20 minutes of good hockey, 20 minutes of bad hockey, 20 minutes of mediocre hockey and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But right we’re getting goals and we’re hunkering down, but at the same time we’re still finding a way to capitalize on opportunities.”
More than anything, the Blues need to pile up the points to go from last place in the Central Division at the time of Yeo’s dismissal to the playoffs after missing by one point last season. Berube gets a lot of credit within the locker room for establishing a foundation of success.
”He’s just brought some stability to the group,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”He’s definitely made an emphasis on character and compete. I think that’s something we all needed as a group and something we’re going to need night in and night out.”
You’d still be forgiven if you have no idea who he is while you’re reading this, too.
The 25-year-old had just one NHL appearance under his belt prior to this season, coming in for 13 minutes of relief, giving up one goal on four shots back in 2015-16 with the St. Louis Blues, who drafted the 6-foot-1 netminder in the third round in 2011.
From there, it’s been time spent with three American Hockey League teams, where a steady improvement in his numbers (and the inconsistent play of Jake Allen and his .896 save percentage, and loss of Carter Hutton to free agency) have offered him another chance in the Show.
And while it’s not exactly the largest sample size, it’s offered Blues fans some semblance of hope, a respite in a season that wasn’t supposed to go this way after a summer of retooling.
Binnington turned his first NHL start into a 25-save shutout. That effort will often earn a goalie another outing, which Binnington again took advantage of, stopping 28-of-29 to give him his second win in his second kick at the can.
This leads us into Saturday, where Binnington has been granted a third round with a .937 save percentage now in four appearances this season. It’s hardly a surprise, of course. One goal allowed across two NHL games — regardless of the opponent (which in this case was the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens) — isn’t going to get you sent down.
Binnington, arguably, is in for his biggest test as the hot hand in St. Louis against the Dallas Stars. The latter have worked themselves into third place in the Central Division after two of its best players — Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn — were compared to the excrement of a ranch animal.
Binnington is not expected to save the world, at least not yet.
But what this could be is the start of an AHL journeyman finally making it to the next level and sticking there.
Mackenzie Blackwood in New Jersey is starting to carve out a role for himself. Pheonix Copley has shown some good signs with the Washington Capitals. Jack Campbell has been exceptional when called upon (and healthy) on a lowly Los Angeles Kings team.
Binnington has a long way to go, but there are some signs of life in his game. A couple of big outings when given the chance has spawned confidence.
“I’m just going to try and worry about what’s in my control,” Binnington said. “Just hopefully try and be part of the solution.”
You have the power to name to the expansion NHL Seattle franchise. What are you choosing?
SEAN: Kraken is already a popular choice, and as a fan of hockey history (and their original jerseys) I’d love to see the Seattle group bring back the Metropolitans name. But do you then keep the Metropolitan Division name? The NHL is stubborn for change sometimes, so I doubt it.
Let’s get crazy in this post-Gritty world and go with Sasquatch. It’s perfect for the region (ever watch “Finding Bigfoot?”) and would allow Seattle to welcome back Squatch, the Sonics old mascot. The jerseys would be great. The plushy toys at the arena team stores would be sold out on a regular basis and he’d be a welcomed addition to the annual mascot game during All-Star Weekend.
Squatch is legendary, and with the NBA likely returning to Seattle at some point, might as well get him started before he has double duty. He was a dynamic performer, willing to take big risks to entertain the crowd, and even had his own theme song, thanks for Chris from Presidents of the United States of America:
JAMES: Deep down, my answer is the Sonics/Supersonics, but I’m aware that a ton of people from Seattle are giving me the stink-eye just for bringing that up, so I relent. Go ahead and name the Seattle team after the Kraken, or some other mystical and/or tuff beast.
For my money, the greater battle revolves around the mascot.
Allow me to introduce “Jittery,” an anthropomorphic cappuccino mug with cartoonish arms, legs, and comical googly eyes. Let’s face it; we’re in a Post-Gritty world, so you have to go big – which usually means some combination of garish, frightening, funny, and cute – or go home.
Jittery would have the potential to edge the Golden Knights’ gila monster, with the far-flung dream of at least competing with Gritty for viral potential/mindshare.
The greatest potential would be in what you could put in the Jittery’s head, which, again, is a coffee mug. Would mysterious, coffee-like liquid splash out of its head when Jittery is excitedly celebrating a goal? Would Jittery cry coffee tears upon defeat? Maybe you could fill Jittery’s head with toys/treats for the kiddos, and the young-at-heart. Just imagine Seattle winning a Stanley Cup, but drinking out of their mascot’s head, instead.
This is clearly a bullet-proof, genius concept, and I demand royalties.
ADAM: I know there is virtually no chance of it happening, and I think any reference to it has always been made in a joking manner (or maybe even a half-joking manner), but I am 100 percent on board with the Seattle Sasquatch. I think the biggest reason I like it is just for the mascot possibilities. Look at how crazy everyone went over Gritty. But I think Sasquatch seems to have just as much potential, maybe even more. Think Harry from Harry and the Hendersons.
But given that Sasquatch doesn’t seem to be a realistic option, I think I can accept Kraken. I was originally opposed to the Sockeye suggestion but I’ve even come around on that, too, and I assume Sockeye Salmon hitting the ice will be a thing at some point no matter what. I’m not on board with Metropolitans. I get the history — and I love hockey history — but we need something new, fresh, unique. Sasquatch is the answer.
JOEY: I’m going with Metropolitans. That was the team’s name when they became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917, and that’s the name they should keep. Yes, I realize that you’d have to re-name the Metropolitan Division, but I don’t care. There’s hockey history behind the name and I think it would be pretty cool if they came back with it in 2021.
SCOTT: Seattle Kraken. Scrap the skyscraper odes and all that other garbage and RELEASE THE KRAKEN!
I’m all for this shift in marketing philosophy made popular by the Philadelphia Flyers this year with Gritty. It’s opened the door to other possible ideas that are, well, not just the same old cliche, safe stuff we’re used. Seattle Kraken has so much potential. Incredible jerseys, a ridiculous number of options for a mascot, a title sponsor with the Kraken Rum brand. There’s probably some death metal band with Kraken in their name that could sing the anthems and fit right into the Seattle music scene vibe.
I’m not holding out much hope here. They’ll probably be named the Skyscrapers or something like that with the Space Needle as their logo and some type of fish as a mascot.
We talk a lot about head coaches and hot seats, but what about some general managers who could follow in Ron Hextall’s footsteps out the door?
SEAN: It’s pretty amazing that Marc Bergevin’s seat has cooled considerably when you think about all the talk last season, but the Canadiens are playing better than expected and owner Geoff Molson isn’t close to making that kind of move.
Two GMs who should be feeling the heat are Doug Armstrong and Stan Bowman. I’ve harped on Armstrong since the Mike Yeo firing and am curious how long owner Tom Stillman will wait before making a change. Another season appears to be wasting away and some big names could be out the door by the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Then what? It won’t be a complete teardown, just a retooling if that’s what happens. But does he get one more season to make it work?
The move to fire Joel Quenneville hasn’t gone as planned and Chicago could be another place where big names are dealt, whether by the trade deadline or in the summer. Bowman’s helped construct championship teams and now some of those heavy-term, big money extensions have hamstrung building around the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat. Another playoff-less season won’t make upper management happy and you wonder if the changes won’t stop with Quenneville.
JAMES: Honestly, it boggles my mind that Peter Chiarelli survived last season, so if his Hitchcock Hail Mary falls short, that Oilers era should come to a merciful end. It’s nigh-criminal to accomplish so little with Connor McDavid and a bucket of other high-profile picks (which Chiarelli’s squandered either through trades, bad picks, or stuttered development).
I like a lot of what Doug Armstrong’s managed, particularly since – beyond Alex Pietrangelo – the Blues really haven’t been built by lottery picks. Still, it’s clear that the Blues need a change of direction, and a fresh voice would be more inclined to undergo the painful, necessary surgery to right the ship … which may, in fact, come down to trading Pietrangelo.
There’s also Ken Holland, if the Red Wings truly are planning on moving to Steve Yzerman, but can’t say out loud because of tampering.
Three more who I’d say are less pertinent, but interesting to watch:
• Jim Nill – Yes, he’s made some great trades, not unlike Armstrong. But the Stars also failed to truly take advantage of Jamie Benn‘s former-bargain contract, and seem headed toward the same with Tyler Seguin‘s $5.75M expiring after 2018-19. They’ve made significant missteps in slowing down their style (baffling with Seguin & Co. as their best players), failed to find difference-making goalies despite paying huge money, and have whiffed hard on some key drafts. Nill’s been there since April 2013. It’s fair to wonder about him if Dallas can’t make big strides.
• John Chayka – The Coyotes are in a much better place than they were when Chayka took over, and it would be nice to see him get some more time to bring them to the next level.
Sometimes sports can be especially cruel, however, and there are factors that make you wonder about Chayka. For one, the Coyotes have made some bold moves to get better, yet they seem on track to miss the playoffs once again. Ownership might grow impatient.
Let’s not kid ourselves, either: the ownership situation is often in flux, and if that changes, they might want to bring in “their guy.” Hopefully Chayka gets at least a bit more time, but it’s something to watch, either way.
ADAM: My answer earlier this season was Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton, but the Oilers have gone on enough of a roll and Ken Hitchcock seems to have them doing something right (mostly playing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl until the wheels fall off) and I think that is going to buy him some time.
I think now we have to look over at the Central Division and either Doug Armstrong in St. Louis or Stan Bowman in Chicago.
The Blues spent a ton of money and gave up a ton of assets this summer after missing the playoffs a year ago, and now they stink. They already fired the coach, so that card has been played, and the next logical conclusion is the guy that built the team. Other than a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2015-16 this has been a first-or second-round team at its best (usually a first-round team) and now is on track to miss the playoffs for a second year in a row. Not a great sign for the GM who has, again, already played his “try to save the season” card by changing coaches.
This might be a controversial position to take, but I think if Stan Bowman were named Stan … Smith. Or Stan Johnson. Or anything other than Stan Bowman his seat would probably be a LOT warmer than it is now. His track record in Chicago is obviously great, but it’s been a few years now since the Blackhawks have been a Stanley Cup team, they missed the playoffs a year ago, are currently one of the worst teams in the league, and it didn’t really have to be THIS bad. I know they had salary cap constraints and they have some big contracts, but he has made a lot of questionable to bad moves over the past couple of years. Then he went and fired the most successful coach in franchise history and one of the best coaches in NHL history and the team has completely sunk after that. Not sure the Blackhawks are going to make a change now or even after this season, but if this season keeps going as it is and they do not get better next season they might consider doing something.
JOEY: You can’t mention general managers being on the hot seat without bringing up Doug Armstrong’s name. Last season, he traded Paul Stastny away because he felt his team was a year away from being a serious threat, but that hasn’t been the case in 2018-19. He pulled the trigger on a major deal for Ryan O'Reilly over the summer, and although O’Reilly’s been good, the team simply hasn’t been. Armstrong has fired a coach this season and if the Blues can’t turn it around, he’ll be next. With Jake Allen struggling for the most part over the last few seasons, Armstrong hasn’t found a solution to the problem between the pipes. This might be it.
Stars GM Jim Nill is also likely on thin ice. His team has some high-end talent, but depth has been an issue for them since he’s taken over. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg can only carry the team so far. Getting contributions from the rest of the team has been an issue. As of this moment, the Stars are on the outside of the playoff picture. If they were to miss the postseason again, you’d have to think that someone will play the price. It won’t be new head coach Jim Montgomery, so who else can it be but the GM?
And you can’t forget ‘Pistol’ Pete Chiarelli. Like Armstrong, Chiarelli also made a coaching change to try to get his team going. The Oilers are currently sitting in a Wild Card spot, but if they were to fall out of the playoff picture again at the end of the season, you’d have to think that Edmonton’s decision makers will want to make a change. You can’t just keep wasting all of Connor McDavid’s great years.
SCOTT: It would seem that Peter Chiarelli has bought himself some time after bringing in Ken Hitchcock to be the team’s savior. Edmonton is in a playoff spot, which isn’t something you would have uttered a month ago.
Of course, a losing streak of four or five games would change the above narrative, so Chiarelli is still certainly in the conversation and is by no means out of the woods just yet. He’s done little to improve this team since he arrived and still probably needs a miracle to happen if he’s to be in the same position this time next year.
Sticking in the west, Doug Armstrong’s leash must be retracting a bit. There were a lot of people who believed the Blues won the summer. But as we approach Christmas, we now know that wasn’t the case.
The Blues don’t look half bad on paper, but their on-ice product has been truly poor this season. Maybe the Blues just need to head in a new direction.
The last guy I have on a hot seat is Stan Bowman. If Bowman’s last name wasn’t Bowman, he’d probably already be gone.
I suppose he bought some time firing Joel Quenneville, but it’s clear Quenneville wasn’t the problem. Jeremy Colliton has been tasked with the impossible and it hasn’t worked out so far.
Bowman did well to win the Stanley Cup three times (partly due to drafting done before he got there), but there’s little coming up through the system these days that provide any hope for better times ahead. And trades to get picks and younger assets don’t seem to be in the cards either (see: Brent Seabrook contract). All the “bad” contracts are shrouded with no-movement clauses.
• Superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko apologized afterward for the team’s poor play at Enterprise Center, which has seen one Blues victory there since Nov. 11 (1-4-1).
• With tensions high around the team, forward Zach Sanford and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo let some emotions out and engaged in a bit of a scrap during Monday’s practice.
This isn’t the spark that general manager Doug Armstrong envisioned for his team when he fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Berube. A 3-5-1 record since the change hasn’t helped the Blues climb out of the bottom tier of the Western Conference standings.
Under Berube, the decline that began during Yeo’s time in charge has continued. Their goals per game is down from 2.95 to 2.44; goals allowed is up from 3.11 to 3.78 per game; and the power play went from a 24.2 percent success rate to 20.8 percent. Also, four of those six losses have been by three or more goals, so they’ve been busy fishing pucks out of their net.
Empty seats. Boos. The f-word thrown around. Apologies. Fights at practice. What’s got to change? From Berube’s perspective, nothing. He’s just going to keep hammering home his message until it gets through — if it ever does.
“The way out is the same thing we preach day in and day out,” he said. “You have to go into every game, no matter who you play, and you gotta be committed to giving 100 percent effort and compete as hard as you can, every game. … We’re going to keep at it, we’re going to keep pounding it in their heads until they get it. That’s it.”
Armstrong also added that there are only so many changes that can be made before that group gets torn apart.
“The core group’s equity that was built up is gone,” he said. “That’s what I have to say. I guess I could say it again that with the next head coach, if we’re having this same conversation, they’ll be players gone.”
Speaking with the Post-Dispatch this week, Armstrong expressed his frustration at a lack of consistency in the Blues’ play and their inability to find another gear when needed. When adversity strikes, it snowballs and there isn’t enough resiliency in the group to fight back.
So where do the Blues go from here? Their already thin playoff hopes are hanging by a string and it doesn’t appear that a turnaround is going to happen thanks to some extended winning streak. Fourteen points back in the Central Division and 11 points out of a wild card spot, Armstrong will have some tough decisions to make in reshaping this roster going forward.
If his patience was already thin when he made a coaching change, what’s left nine games later when the move hasn’t shown itself to have made a positive impact?