Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another Look At The St Louis Blues Season

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about the St Louis Blues entitled collapsed in the stretch run which was criticized by some Blues fans. One criticism is at St Louis Blues Gametime. I stand by what I wrote and think it was attacked because I dared to write something critical of the St Louis Blues - who are clearly the favorite team of that blogger.

When the season began, nobody expected much from the Blues. I picked them to finish eleventh in the West Conference. However, they started the season very well. At one point they had a 17-11 record (with one loss counted as a regulation tie). At this point, it looked like the St Louis Blues might be the most improved team in the NHL. Here is one example of a blog post that was written that called them a much improved team and called for Andy Murray to win coach of the year. It was a widely held opinion at the time. At that point, most fans expected to see the Blues in the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, things collapsed.

January 1st of this year is an arbitrary date selected to show this collapse and to compare the team before and after. Before January 1st, they were in 14th place in the league with a 19-18 record (4 losses counted as regulation ties). Since January 1st, they have had the worst record in the league (they did when I wrote the first story and they still do). They have gone 11-25 (with seven losses counted as regulation ties) so far in 2008. When a team is the worst team in the league over a more than two and a half month stretch something is desperately wrong. In fact, St Louis projects to be a worse team this year than they were last year. Last season, they had 81 points and this season they project to 80. Given that they have only won two of their last fourteen games, I think that projection is optimistic and they are unlikely to do as well as 80 points.

So what went wrong? How could a team look so good in December and wind up this bad? At no point have they had an overpowering offence. They lack any big name scorers. Only the New York Islanders top scorer Mike Comrie is a lower scoring team leader than the Blues top scorer Paul Kariya (Kariya has 57 points and Comrie 49). Twenty-eight out of twenty-nine other teams have at least one (and in many cases more than just one) scorer better than any the Blues offer. St Louis has the third worst goals per game in the NHL at 2.42 goals per game. Their defence is not so good either. It has some potential in Erik Johnson, who has had a pretty good rookie season and should be a really good NHL defender someday, but someday is not today. Neither Johnson nor anyone else on the Blues (Eric Brewer, Jay McKee, Barret Jackman) are players who would be frontline defenders on a top team. None are close to all star calibre performers this year. St Louis has allowed 2.85 goals per game this season. Only four teams have a worse differential between goals scored and goals allowed this season (New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers). The Blues are having a bad season and in the last few months it has been terrible.

Why were the Blues winning earlier in the season? The biggest reason was Manny Legace. Manny Legace played very well at the beginning of the season. As of December 15th, he had a .920 saves percentage and a 2.16 goals against average. A few early season blog writers picked Legace as a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate. Legace gave St Louis a strength. They had strong goaltending. Goaltending is important. Any team with strong goaltending will win games.

After the December 15th date, Legace has posted a .904 saves percentage and a 2.57 goals against average. He is no longer providing St Louis with a strength in goal. It may not be the goaltending weakness a team like Tampa Bay but it is certainly not a strength. Over the last few months, St Louis has been a team with no strengths. Their offense is not a strength. Their defence is not a strength. Their goaltending is not a strength. A team with no strengths is a bad team. That is the reason that St Louis has the worst record in the NHL in 2008. They have no strengths. When Legace was playing at all star level in the first part of the season, they had a strength it was in an important place - goaltending. When that disappeared, they had no more strengths and thus became a very bad team.

The question as we look to the future is what is the likelihood that Legace can play at all star level again? Given that Legace is 35 years old and had never had a stretch as good as he did in the first part of the season at any other point in his career, it appears unlikely. Where can St Louis build a strength? Possibly, their defence can become a strength if Erik Johnson matures as he is expected to. In a couple years, they may possess one of the better defenders in the game. Aside from Johnson, it is hard to see an immediate answer. St Louis will have to build slowly through good drafting and player development. I do not see any other option. They would be advised to move some of their aging veterans like Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya for prospects and draft picks to help speed that along.

St Louis's problems started in earnest when the team was for sale. St Louis's previous owner Bill Laurie decided to slash payroll when he was trying to sell the team. The key player St Louis got rid of was Chris Pronger. Pronger alone is a good enough defenceman that the Blues would have a strength on defence to build around. Pronger alone would be enough to make the difference between this bad Blues team we see and a semi-competitive one. Pronger may be the obvious example, but he is not the only one. Talent was allowed to leave St Louis and it was not replaced. The Blues are still suffering from these decisions. It is a problem that was voluntarily created that is taking years to fix. That is bad practise whether you plan to sell a team or not.

Now the St Louis Blues are a bad team. There is a movement to fire Andy Murray. Here is one message board thread that appears tired of discussing the subject because of all the other threads devoted to it. I don't think firing Andy Murray is the solution. It is not his fault he is coaching a team without strengths. Also, it wasn't his coaching that led to the improvements that were touted in the first part of the season.

Now, I open the floor to St Louis Blues fans to tell me that I don't know anything. Just like the commenter on the first Blues post did.

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