While the Ottawa Senators are often mentioned as a Flames comparable, the Blues also kind of mirror the Calgary’s struggles this year: both teams are relatively strong at ES in terms of possession, neither has good special teams and both are clawing for the final playoff spot in the West.
To be fair, the Blues come by their struggles a bit more honestly. Once upon a time one of the big spenders in the NHL, an ownership boondoggle and a slashing of the budget cut the legs from under the franchise and they’ve been trying to regain their footing ever since. John Davidson has been steering the ship more or less correctly since he was hired as the team’s president, but the Blues have yet to consistently re-establish themselves as contenders.
With the addition of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in the summer, this was supposed to be the year that the Blues stepped out of the WC basement for good. Things started out well enough for St. Loo when they won nine of their first 10 starts, but the wheels have mostly fallen off sine then for various reasons. Primary of which is injuries: the club has played without David Perron, TJ Oshie, Andy McDonald, Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak and Carlo Coalaiacovo for large stretches of time this year. In fact, only 8 Blues skaters have appeared in all 48 games this season.
The other issue is Halak has struggled relative to expectation so far. His .907 SV% is the lowest of his career (ignoring the 16 games he played as a rookie), and his .914 ES SV% is surprisingly below average given the .933 rate he put up for the Canadiens last year in 45 games. Halak is just 25 years old and he’s been a pretty good puck stopper for most of his time in the league. It wouldn’t surprise me to see his save rate creep back up as the year progresses.
Up front, the Blues (again, like the Flames) make do without a truly elite player. They have some quality depth however and the team is currently paced by big winger David Backes, who has 16 goals and 37 points. Jay McClement is St. Louis’ well kept secret: a center who gets buried against tough competition night-in and night-out. McClemment is the reason guys like Patrick Berglund and Alexander Steen can play against second and third lines and have zone start numbers in the 58-65% range.
TJ Oshie might be the best of the Blues kids and he’s just returning from a long lay-off. David Perron remains sidelined by a concussion, but he’s a guy who made the club as a teen and potentially has a high ceiling should he ever take a step or two forward. The rest of the forward corps is filled out by capable enough players like Brad Boyes, Vladimir Sobotka, Matt D’Agostini and Brad Winchester. Cam Janssen plays the role of fighter/cheap shot artist/dude who can’t really play hockey when he’s not in the press-box.
On the back-end, the Blues sport a mix of decent veterans and kids with high pedigree. Barrett Jackman, Eric Brewer, Colaiacovo and Polak make up a solid if unspectacular core. Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo are both former top-5 picks who are still finding their way at this level, the latter more than the former. Johnson had his entire 2008-09 season wiped out by a off-season golf cart incident so he’s a year behind the curve. His results to date are okay and he’s playing 20+ minutes a night, but I suspect the Blues were hoping for a bit more out of a first overall pick when they took him in 2006. The path to stardom for blueliners can be a little rockier, though, so it may be a few more years before the 22-year old starts to pay real dividends. The other kid just turned 21 and is getting the same treatment Dion Phaneuf did at that age: middling opposition and tons of offensive zone face-offs and power play time. His 5 goals and 23 points lead the Blues back-end in scoring as a result.
Both clubs are bottom-third in the league in terms of special teams, so tonight should be an ES battle. St. Louis is going to war with less than a full compliment of guys so the advantage should be in Calgary’s favor. A win means another step down the improbable path towards 8th place.