February 11, 2019 | 11:25am ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
BLUES FINALLY PLAYING TO EXPECTATIONS
Alex Pietrangelo, captain
MONTREAL, QC -- St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong’s intentions for the 2018-19 season were clear this past summer.
After missing the playoffs last season, Armstrong was one of the League’s most active GMs in the off-season. He locked up Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon via free agency, and swung for the fences in the blockbuster trade that brought in Ryan O’Reilly – arguably the team MVP this season – from Buffalo (giving up highly touted prospect Tage Thompson in the process).
Armstrong’s moves were bold, but seemed like they’d inevitably propel the Blues back into the playoffs.
Things did not go as planned.
A 15-18-4 start to the season found the Blues having fired their Head Coach Mike Yeo, landing star defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko on the trade block, and sitting dead last in the Western Conference by December 31st. The sky was falling, and it seemed every player on the roster was fair game. For a team that has been a Stanley Cup hopeful since 2014, a season of bottoming out was anything but expected.
As the saying goes, “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings.”
In what seemed almost impossible a mere six weeks ago, the Blues now find themselves in the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 59 points. A 12-4-1 run since January 1st, including a sweep over the Nashville Predators this past weekend, has pushed St Louis ahead of the curve for the first time all season.
A lot has gone into the turnaround, starting between the pipes. After starting the season with Jake Allen and Chad Johnson as the team’s goaltending duo, Jordan Binnington has claimed the starting job in St. Louis.
Binnington, 25, has stolen the show since being recalled, posting a stellar record of 9-1-1 and a sparkling Save Percentage of .931 and Goals Against Average of 1.72.
The 2011 third-round draft pick was seemingly the forgotten man in the Blues’ system when the reins were handed to Allen as the team’s long-term starter.
Allen, 28, has been anything but dependable for the Blues; sporting a pedestrian Save Percentage of .898 and a 3.07 GAA. His inconsistencies (and Johnson being lost to Anaheim on waivers) opened the door for Binnington, who has taken the ball and run with it.
Collectively, the defense has finally seemed to settle into Interim Head Coach Craig Berube’s system. The early-season struggles on the blueline contributed to the Blues’ struggles right out of the gate. Pietrangelo, the club’s captain and anchor on defense, struggled with injuries early on in the season, affecting his play even upon his return. Inconsistencies of Joel Edmundson and veteran Jay Bouwmeester earned both stints in the press box, while Carl Gunnarsson has struggled to stay healthy; having played in just 18 games.
But through all the hard times, the one constant bright spot was the play of young blue liner Vince Dunn. The 22-year-old has been the Blues’ biggest bright spot on defense over the course of the season, currently leading all defensemen on the team in points with 23.
The true problem that plagued the Blues in the first half of the season was their ineptitude to find goals. As previously alluded to, the offense had centered around O’Reilly from the get go; he’s currently leading the team with 55 points. After that, the drop off was steep. Free agent signees Bozak (20 points) and Maroon (14 points) struggled to find their niche with the team, while injuries took its toll up front. Jaden Schwartz missed 13 games earlier in the season, while Robby Fabbri, who has had an injury-riddled career, has played in just 23 contests.
But over the Blues’ last month and a half, the offense has begun to pick up.
After putting up just 29 points in the first 45 games, superstar right-wing Vladimir Tarasenko has taken his form of old. Over his last eight games, Tarasenko has tallied seven goals and five assists; including a hat-trick on Sunday against the Predators.
After a career best 70-point output last season, Brayden Schenn struggled to repeat that level of play this year. But after a switch to left-wing, on a line with O’Reilly and Tarasenko, Schenn has gotten his game back on track. After putting up just 24 points in his first 41 games, Schenn has been a point-per-game player over the last nine: tallying one goal and eight assists.
After being pegged as “sellers” earlier in the season, the vibe surrounding St. Louis has certainly changed. With the team now on track to finish as to where their GM expected them to in the summer, could Armstrong look to buy come the deadline?
The Blues’ desire for offensive help has been well documented. Should Armstrong look to scour the trade market leading up to the deadline, expect him to be on the lookout for a top-six forward. It doesn’t seem likely that the Blues will be in on any of the high-end rentals like Artemi Panarin or Wayne Simmonds, but an addition of less significance could be in the cards.
The talent on the roster was always there, on paper, and is now clicking after a horrendous and dysfunctional start to the season. With a GM as aggressive as Armstrong and expectations finally being met, St. Louis’ eyes are on a deep run this post-season.