Saturday, April 17, 2021

Blues' 3-2 loss against Coyotes points finger at many of top players

Players with biggest contracts on team may be playing, working hard but not 
driving offensive numbers; Schwartz, Schenn, Tarasenko primary example

No excuses. 

And the Blues don't deserve any, other than a handful of highly questionable non-calls by Dean Morton and Kyle Rehmen, who don't deserve any more space wasted on them other than this, but the Blues had this right in their hands, a terrific road start, a two-goal lead, and then ... well ... rather than drive the bus harder, they parked the bus and the end result was a 3-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes Saturday and the grip they had on fourth place in the West Division was handed on a platter to the Desert Dogs on Saturday at Gila River Arena.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vince Dunn (right) congratulates Tyler Bozak after Bozak's goal for
the Blues against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.

Coming in, the Blues (19-18-6) held a one-point advantage on Arizona (20-20-5), which was as fragile as they come with five straight losses and outscored 21-11 in that stretch. 

So when the Blues built up a 2-0 lead when Sammy Blais scored early, then Tyler Bozak's power-play goal made it 2-0 a little more than eight minutes in; 8:14 as a matter of fact.

Now comes the execution right? Where the Blues step on the throat of a hockey team spiraling downward rapidly after losing five straight, a team that's supposed to be lacking confidence, right?


Instead, the Blues, chalk full of Stanley Cup champions not so long ago, buckled. It went something like taking the foot off the gas, letting up, not being aggressive, not making the right plays, not putting pucks in good places ... the list goes on and on.

And it starts with poor second periods. It happened Thursday against Colorado on a 4-3 loss. It happened again Saturday. Arizona scored twice, leveled the playing ground and it was game-on.

"We get the 2-0 lead and then it seems like we go out in second periods and we're not aggressive anymore, we sit back and let teams come at us and get on our heels," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Next thing you know, they score right away. ... Fragile."


How can a team that's actually played decent, winning three of four, facing a team that's lost five in a row be fragile? Shouldn't that have been the other way around? When Arizona fell behind -- again -- shouldn't that lack of confidence grown larger in the Coyotes instead?

That's a tough one to comprehend.

The Blues seemed frenetic in the early going in the game, flying around the ice, winning the loose pucks, transitioning it with relative ease and had the Coyotes and a goalie (Darcy Kuemper) that hadn't played in nearly six weeks.

"I think it's weird," Bozak said. "Whenever you get a couple goal cushion, it's kind of difficult to keep that aggressiveness. It's something you should do, and the best teams stay aggressive. They want to keep pounding it on and keep putting more goals in the net. But it's a hard thing to do. The other thing has a push always, especially at home. ... I thought maybe we could have had a couple more power-play opportunities that were missed. That's just the way it goes. That's hockey." 

We'll get to Bozak and his linemates, Mike Hoffman and Zach Sanford, in a moment. 

But let's cut to the real chase here, probably the biggest reason why the Blues are in this predicament -- one point out of the playoffs -- with no game now until Thursday.

And enough with the injuries already. While that was a valid excuse as they were happening, that excuse is long gone.

What has happened to some of the Blues' top players? Namely Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz? 

This line used to be a terror for opposing teams not so long ago. They've played together for so long, even the times they're split up, it should be instantaneous when they do get back together, for the transition to be seamless.

But let's get this out of the way right now: Schenn and Schwartz continue to work hard, they continue to play the right way, they continue to play the structure within the system the Blues are running. But the production is a part of what they need to bring to the table, and let's face it, for what the Blues have received on their return from Tarasenko ($7.5 million cap hit), Schenn ($6.5 million) and Schwartz ($5.35 million) isn't nearly enough.

A combined $19.35 million playing together needs to have an impact on games, and they just are not.

Schenn has five assists (no goals) his past 17 games. Once upon a time, he led the West Division in goals; seems so long ago. Schwartz has two goals (in one game) his past 21 games and has just four goals in 28 games all season. Four. And Tarasenko has three goals in 19 games this season. Three. We can keep going back to the amount of time he's missed with his shoulder surgeries, but he's coming up on the quarter mark of games played. The needle has to be at least trending upward at some point here.

They're not the only high-priced players that aren't producing. Torey Krug and his $6.5 million price tag has one goal this season. And it came on the power play. His last even-strength goal came Feb. 9, 2020 with Boston at Detroit, or 56 games ago.

The list can go on here to include guys like Justin Faulk ($6.5 million), who has played well this year with his defensive responsibilities but has just one goal in 29 games.

Berube was asked if his top players should be producing more. 

"100 percent," he said. "They've got to be a lot better than they are. 

"I think confidence plays a big part of it. I think their confidence is probably not very high right now. Guys that produce and score are supposed to play make plays and things like that. When things aren't going well and they're not scoring and not producing, you lose your confidence. That's probably part of it. For me, it's simplifying things and making sure that your work ethic and your competitiveness is at an all-time high and you'll get out of stuff like that."

The Zach Sanford-Bozak-Mike Hoffman line was among the best of the Blues' lines tonight, along with the Sammy Blais-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron line.

The Bozak line drove 81.25 percent of offense by having 13-3 Corsi-for, Corsi-against numbers. That line also had a 9-3 advantage in Fenwick-for, Fenwick against (75 percent) and a 9-1 edge in shots-for, shots-against (90 percent) for the game. Those are great numbers, but it had the least amount of time on ice together at 8:07. That's puzzling, and some of that had to do with Berube switching some lines around.

As a matter of fact, Hoffman now has four goals and two assists in three games since being a healthy scratch for two.

The O'Reilly line was 13-5 (72.22 percent) in Corsi-for, Corsi-against for the game, 8-4 (66.67 percent) in Fenwick-for, Fenwick-against and was 4-2 in shots-for, shots-against for the game and had a 10-3 edge in scoring chances for, scoring chances against with an expected goals-for of 73.25 percent. 

These lines drove the production bus for the Blues.

"I'm having a really good time playing with those two guys," Bozak said. "I think we've been jelling really well together, we're creating a lot of opportunities throughout the game. I thought we could have had a few more tonight; we've got to bear down on that and it's been fun, two great players. I think we all bring a different element to the ice and I think we work well together."

That's great to get secondary scoring from the third line, but it's only well-balanced when your top lines are producing. 

As for Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko? Well, let's just say the numbers speak for themselves: 6-9 in Corsi-for, Corsi-against; 2-7 Fenwick-for, Fenwick-against; 2-4 in shots-for, shots-against; they produced just three scoring chances for to seven scring chances against and and an expected goals-for at 0.09 to 0.29 in expected goals-against. 

That simply doesn't cut it.

Berube used these three extensively in the third period with the game on the line considering their ice time through two periods wasn't very high. And yet, Schenn (one), Schwartz (one) and Tarasenko (two) produced just four shots on goal for the game and nine combined shot attempts.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) and Brayden Schenn (10) have found times tough
to score of late. 

"There is guys that are doing good things and working, but in the end, it's not enough out there," Berube said. 'We don't have enough guys that are helping the team win. There's not enough of them. We need more."

Time is running out, and the Blues have 13 games left to crack this. It won't get any easier though with the three teams ahead of them coming into Saturday (Colorado, Vegas and Minnesota) accounting for 10 of those games.

"Other guys playing big minutes, we all kind of feel it right now," O'Reilly said. "It's our job. Guys that are seeing the big minutes, we have to be driving the bus here and that's the only way we're going to get into the playoffs. We'll get it back, there's no doubt in my mind that we will, but it's got to happen soon. It's got to happen next game."

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