Just when you think you have this team figured out Tuesday and Wednesday night happen. Dreadful at home this season, the Blues bested Calgary on Tuesday in front of a sellout crowd by turning in a complete and inspired performance. Fantastic on the road this season, the Blues took to Chicago last night and evidently only a handful of Blues made it to the United Center until the final moments of the third period. Now I have been placed in an awkward situation. Covering the Blues is one of the major points of my job, but I can not say with any certainty what in the world fans should expect from one night to the next. That's why I propose we switch out slogans from "Whatever It Takes" (which clearly needs a footnote of "...Sometimes") to "Consistently Inconsistent". At least then fans won't be disappointed when the Blues chalk up a huge win and then fail to show up for a big matchup against an old foe. Strap yourself in, this post is a doozy.
Grab your blankets Blues fans, the team is stuck in the dark, cold basement of the Western Conference standings and is making no strides to climb out. At least we have good company in other disappointing teams such as Anaheim down here. Contrary to whatever the Blues' marketing department wants you to think, did any true Blue fans think this team would win a Stanley Cup this season? Definitely not. Probably not even a major contender for the hardware. This is a team we all expected to be competitive, night after night, and certainly one that would have a better record than 14-13-5 after 32 games. I expected a team that would fight every night for two points and play with urgency like they did at the end of last season.
The worst part of all this is there is no easy solution or obvious problem. Nearly every single aspect of the team is subject to questioning aside from the goaltending which I feel has been the brightest aspect all year.
Speaking of which, thank you Ty Conklin for making it to the UC last night. You and David Perron might have been the only two. Hope your teammates buy you dinner to say sorry for leaving you guys stranded out there. Conks at least kept it close. The game could have been 4-0, 5-0 or worse if it wasn't for some remarkable saves, particularly a great one to shut down a Blackhawk's break away.
Depending what fan you ask, you'll get a different answer of what is wrong with this team. Answers range from coaching, motivation, lack of a big scorer and shoddy overall play to under performers, too big of expectations and inexperience. I'll take a little bit of everything, hold the Mayo.
Pointed to as one of the core reasons behind the Blues' struggles, Andy Murray's time in St. Louis must be coming to an end unless we see some sort of miracle in the coming weeks. While he deserves a large portion of the blame, to place it squarely on him is far from fair. He might be in charge of preparation, motivating and inspiring amongst other things, but it is still the players' job to, you know, actually hit the net with their shots.
This one boggles the mind. Anyone who has played competitive sports knows that each time you take the field, diamond or rink that you want to win more than anything else - and you despise losing. So why then do the Blues often look like a side that has no energy or desire to crush an opponent? Maybe it is a confidence issue, nobody knows. All I expect is each and every Blues' player to go out there each night and give it their all. Everyone has a bad game every now and then, but there is no reason for some of these guys to be invisible and playing uninspired night after night.
Lack of a Big Scorer - Or Scoring in General
The Blues stated their need over the summer to go out and add another scorer. Names like Heatley and Antropov circled around before landing in other cities, leaving the Blues to stand pat with what they had. Scoring wasn't a rare event last season, so most thought with the return of Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya that the team would clip at a higher rate and maybe even burn out a few red light bulbs behind the net. At this rate, I think it's safe to say the Blues don't need to rush out and order any new ones as those lights sure haven't gotten much work. Now that we are deep(er) into the year, trade rumors are thick and abundant. Eric Staal has been named and rumored about, but I really can't see Carolina parting ways with a guy they hoped to build their team around. Ultimately I think the scoring must come from within and the guys with big contracts need to bury the puck in the net. Which brings us to ...
Passing & Shooting. The two big fundamentals of an offense - also two fundamentals the Blues frequently struggle at. Credit goes to Chicago for getting in the passing lanes and breaking things up, but the Blues put themselves in quite the difficult position by giving the puck away in their own end and the neutral zone with passes that had no obvious destination. Then there's shooting. The Blues rank 13th in the NHL with 29.9 shots per game. What that stat won't tell you is the Blues also had hundreds of pucks fly high and wide (see under performers) even when there is a gaping goal right in front of them. You can't teach accuracy which is a shame because the Blues have yet to show any on a consistent basis.
Paul Kariya, this section could be dedicated to you. I loved you as a Duck and was happy to see you come aboard my favorite team ... but not for the outrageous $6 million contract you are enjoying. $6,000,000 can pay for much better than 15 points in 32 games. I think we all expected Kariya to regress this season as he ages, but he looks a shadow of his former self. As each game passes this contract begins to look more and more ugly.
Kariya isn't the only one producing well below expectations as Brad Boyes had a pretty rough start to the 2009-10 season. He at least has turned things around of late and is now second on the team in scoring right behind Erik Johnson.
If this section should be headed by Kariya, the subhead goes to David Backes and Patrik Berglund. The line for Backes stands at 15 points in 32 games - well below the pace he put up last season when he netted 31 goals and 54 points. Backes was looking to make it on to the USA side for the Olympic Games, but if his play continues to be this poor he may see that dream fade. On the other side, second year skater Patrik Berglund is experiencing what many might label a sophomore slump. While I don't think the second season for a player is jynxed, the Berglund from last season is missing and whomever this is wearing the #21 must be an imposter. Bergie has just six points in 27 games and likely needs some time in the minors to figure out what is different and at the very least gain some confidence.
The die hard fan knew this Blues side would be competitive and should wrap up a playoff spot, but wasn't a Cup contender. The casual fan was tricked into thinking otherwise as the Blues' marketing department broke a cardinal rule they all should have learned in college - never create a marketing plan based on the premise of winning. In case you haven't seen the ads, it stated that the Blues had all the pieces in place, depicting a puzzle, and that you - the fan - was the last piece from the Stanley Cup puzzle. Oh my. I hope someone opened a basic sports marketing book over there, but judging by the ads still running that likely isn't the case.
Whatever It Takes - Great slogan and a great marketing strategy to focus on.
You're the Last Piece of the Puzzle to Winning a Stanley - Huge, huge fail. Add this one in the chapter of the book about teams that tried and failed to market a championship before winning one.
This team is young. Very young. David Perron has been the most consistent threat on offense for the team this season and he is only in his third season. Erik Johnson and T.J. Oshie are only in their second years. The future is still very bright, but obviously this team will go through it's highs and lows as the core group gains experience.
Time to wrap this novel up. My apologies go to season ticket holders who should be on edge not knowing if they will see their side show up on any given night. Sports betters: stear clear of the Blues - you'll lose all your hair trying to piece together what this side will do.
Finally, prayers go out to the family of Bengal's wide receiver Chris Henry who passed away this morning. Pretty tragic story about a guy who appeared to have turned his life around following some rough years. Sad to hear about anyone, athelete or not.