The month of April brings with it the start of the NHL Playoffs. April also includes April Fools Day. Unfortunately for St. Louis Blues fans every spring, April makes us fools. Every year the Blues are one of the top regular season teams. And every April here we are at the end of the month and once again the Blues have been eliminated from the playoffs with an ugly, often early, exit. Over the last four years the Blues have twice finished in first in the Central Division (widely considered the hardest division in the NHL) and twice finished second. They have topped 100 points in three of the years, the only time they did not was the strike shortened season in 2012-13. And yet despite the constant success during the regular season the Blues find themselves headed home in the first round for the third consecutive year.
This is not to say that just because the Blues did not win the Cup they failed. No, winning a Cup or winning the title in any sport is a hard thing to do. This is about how the Blues have been eliminated. The Blues failed to look like the team they were the entire regular season. Getting thoroughly outplayed in the series against the Minnesota Wild, except for two games. In the past the Blues have been swept by the Kings (2011-12), then blown a 2-0 lead against both the Kings (2012-13) and Blackhawks (2013-14). This year though the Blues changed things up a bit and played a roller coaster series. They looked brutal in game one, bounced back to regular season form in game two. Then looked like they never played together before in game three before looking like a possible Stanley Cup champion in game four. They came out clicking in game five but it turned out their ride had peaked and they were headed into a corkscrew spiral. The Blues blew an early lead in game five and then dropped game six with another poor performance.
So where have the Blues gone wrong? It’s not the talent. The Blues could not be one of the top teams the past four years if they were lacking in talent. And numerous NHL analysts have raved about the Blues roster. Coming into this year many people felt it was the Blues lack of depth. They addressed that concern and could roll out four lines at any time. Some people have questioned the Blues goaltending. But once again the Blues tandem was one of the tops in the NHL during the regular season and although Jake Allen’s two goals allowed in game six were extremely soft, that did not determine how the Blues played the entire series.
Some fans will say the Blues lacked effort. This is a ridiculous line of thinking because unless you are Randy Moss, most professional athletes are not taking plays off or not giving effort. I feel the Blues difference in play is lack of focus. And that lack of focus comes down to three areas with one common thread; leadership.
Head Coach Ken Hitchcock did a great job stepping in during the 2011 season and righting the ship, guiding the Blues to consistency during the regular season over the last four years. But to have a team as talented as the Blues fail to advance past the second round, past even the first round; is not acceptable. The Blues change during the playoffs. Teams will adjust to your strengths and take advantage of your weaknesses. It is the coaching staffs responsibility to prepare the players. This has not happened as evident by the lack of consistency by the Blues and by blowing series leads.
The second and third areas are lack of positional leadership from Alex Pietrangelo and David Backes. Pietrangelo was drafted fourth overall by the Blues in 2008 and it was a toss up between him and Drew Doughty as to who was the top defenseman. Doughty by the way has won two Stanley Cups and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy. After an impressive first full season in 2010-11 Pietrangelo’s play has leveled off, although he did look good early in this series against the Wild. Still Pietrangelo has yet to reach his potential as an All-Star quarterback type defenseman.
David Backes is the leader of not only the Blues forwards but the entire team as he has been the team captain for the last four years. Despite Backes being a great two-way player during the regular season his success has been minimal in the playoffs. There was a telling graphic during the game that showed the playoff struggles of Backes and his line mates Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie. In their last 30 playoff contests Steen has netted just six goals while Backes and Oshie have five goals. A total of 16 goals from your top line is not helping your team when they need it most. This year the improved depth of the Blues was supposed to take pressure off the top line but yet again the top line under-performed in crunch time.
Backes has one more year on his contract but teams have traded away their captains before. Recent trades have seen captains Ryan Callahan, Jerome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Mike Richards, and Jason Spezza all dealt. Pietrangelo is a trickier situation as he just signed a seven year deal in 2013. At just 25 years old he still could finally become the player he was expected to be, we saw it at times this series, but if the Blues can find a good deal he may be on his way out. Besides the Blues already have that type of player Pietrangelo was supposed to be in a healthy Kevin Shattenkirk. As far as the coaching position, I do not know who the Blues would target as a replacement for Hitchcock. But that is Tom Stillman’s search and job to find. All I know is that for a coach who preaches about his system, too often the Blues have failed to play the style properly according to him. And after four years of regular season success followed by playoff failure, with game to game consistency and blowing series leads, the blame can’t fall solely on the players.
This should be an interesting and active off-season for the St. Louis Blues. Best of luck to Tom Stillman and Doug Armstrong in shaping a roster that can not only compete in the regular season but one that can finally make a run in the playoffs. Let’s Go Blues!!!