The Central Division is arguably the best in the NHL, and the St. Louis Blues entered the 2015-16 season looking to challenge for the top spot for a second consecutive year. Gunning to build off of a 51-win campaign in 2014-15, the Blues made some changes this summer to address consistent playoff struggles.
This is a team that hasn’t made it out of the second round since 2001. General manager Doug Armstrong decided to shake up his roster after watching them fall 4-2 to the Minnesota Wild in the postseason — the second straight year the Blues took a 4-2 loss in the opening round.
Fan favorite T.J. Oshie was shipped to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley and third-round pick in the 2016 draft. Longtime Blue Barret Jackman was also allowed to walk via free agency to open up room for a handful of younger defensemen who were pushing for playing time.
On paper, the offense looks more balanced than it has in recent years and there are a number of young players making an impact in St. Louis. The results have been a bit of a mixed bag though. The Blues are among the better teams in the Central, but they’ve been inconsistent as the campaign has progressed.
Let’s take a look at the Blues’ season through 45 games played.
There are strong MVP cases to be made for both Jake Allen and Vladimir Tarasenko. The former has emerged as the team’s No. 1 netminder, while the latter has evolved into one of the top goal-scoring threats in the NHL. At this point we’ll give the nod to Tarasenko.
While Allen’s five shutouts and .924 save percentage aren’t to be taken lightly, scoring goals is the most valuable skill in hockey. Tarasenko performs this task with aplomb, backing off defenders with his speed on a nightly basis and giving the Blues the kind of offensive bite they’ve been missing since Brett Hull left town.
The 24-year-old has 24 goals and 22 assists through 43 games played and is among the league leaders in goals (fourth), points (fifth), power-play points (seventh) and shots (seventh).
Tarasenko’s offensive production is particularly important since the team has, at times, struggled to finish their chances this season.
BUT WHERE HAVE THE GOALS GONE?
You’ll be hard pressed to find a deeper team at forward than the Blues.
They have a fantastic mix of youth and veteran know-how, and should be one of the most dangerous offensive teams around. Instead, they’ve scored just 111 times, good for 13th in the NHL. If you break their scoring rate down to average goals scored per game, St. Louis plummets all the way to 22nd while sitting at 2.2 tallies per contest.
The Blues scored an average of 2.91 goals per game a year ago.
That’s inexcusable for a squad that features the likes of Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, David Backes and Paul Stastny. In general the Blues have been kept alive by suburb special teams play. They have the league’s sixth-best power play and the third best penalty kill. If they were scoring goals at even strength, we’d be talking about the Blues as high-end Stanley Cup contenders.
Instead we’re left wondering how this team has scored three goals or fewer 36 times this season. Two goals per game doesn’t get it done often in the NHL, and it applies a lot of pressure to the goaltenders.BIGGEST SURPRISE
While the MVP was a two-horse race, Colton Parayko has been the biggest surprise for the Blues. And it’s not even close. If there was a “breakout star of the year” award in the NHL, it’s likely that the 22-year-old would at least be a finalist at the end of the year.
It was a shock when he made the team in October, and the 6’5″, 226-pound blueliner has done nothing but make management look good for allowing Jackman to walk this summer.
His 16 points are good for ninth overall in the rookie scoring race — that includes forwards — and only Trevor van Riemsdyk and Darnell Nurse have played more minutes on average.
Most know how great of a scorer Tarasenko is, but his effectiveness this season may have caught a few fans and pundits by surprise. He’s out-pacing forwards like Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos and is establishing himself as a truly elite sniper. There are only a handful of those in the league, meaning that Tarasenko is blowing by even the most bullish expectations.
Rookie Robby Fabbri has also been a pleasant surprise after cracking the roster as a 19-year-old. He has 10 goals on the year, which is good for fourth on the Blues.
Replacing an Olympic hero can’t be an easy task, but Brouwer has met expectations in St. Louis to this point. He wasn’t brought in to replace Oshie’s offense outright. That was never going to happen. Instead, the 30-year-old plays a bit tougher than Oshie, and the Blues acquired him to get to the net and lean on the opposition’s top forwards.
He’s done just that, scoring eight goals and adding 36 PIMs along the way.
Steen is also quietly having another goal-filled campaign. He has 13 tallies on the year and is on pace to crack the 20-goal plateau for the third straight year.
FALLING BELOW EXPECTATIONS
Backes is on pace for 44 points, which would be his lowest total since 2009-10. There’s more to the captain’s games than simple goals and assists, but this is a free-agent season for the 31-year-old. A big campaign would mean bookoo bucks for Backes, but he hasn’t stood out as the Blues have struggled to find the back of the net.
He hasn’t been awful, but St. Louis chose to place its faith in Backes this summer, shaking up other parts of the roster instead. He’s playing for his future in Missouri, and hasn’t exactly blown anyone off the ice as we pass the midway part of the campaign.
Stastny is the most disappointing Blue though. He’s on pace for another so-so campaign after St. Louis broke the bank to sing him two summers ago. Just three goals and 28 games played? Really?
He’s had injury problems, but that doesn’t excuse how mediocre he’s been when in the lineup.