Diagnosing the Blues as the Deadline Approaches

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After a franchise best 13-game points streak in January, the Blues have slowed in February, currently sitting at 5-5-0 in their last ten games. So what’s happening to slow the Blues down, and with the NHL’s trade deadline rapidly approaching, what should the Blues do? A lot of uncertainty and seemingly contradictory evidence makes the Blues a puzzling team to diagnose, and a source of contention for fans on where to go next.

Shattenkirk

One of the biggest blows to the Blues was the loss of All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. At the time of his injury, Shattenkirk led all defenseman in assists, and was second in points. Losing Shattenkirk undoubtedly shaped the Blues floundering ways after their 13 game streak.

However, since everything about the Blues seems to be contradictory, it doesn’t make particular sense that Shattenkirk’s absence is having this much effect on the Blues. Shattenkirk is 3rd in ice time among defenseman, clearly off the (usual) top pair of Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester. His Quality of Competition numbers and Offensive Zone Start percentages also imply that Shattenkirk received sheltered assignments from coach Ken Hitchcock.

Yet the biggest problem from the Blues in Shattenkirk’s absence doesn’t seem to be in the zone, where you’d expect it to be when losing a offensive-specialist like the numbers seem to indicate for Shattenkirk. Instead, the observation is that the Blues are missing passing assignments, giving up turn overs, and leaving the goaltending hanging out to dry. So why the Blues are struggling in areas unrelated to Kevin Shattenkirk while he’s out is a slight mystery.

Goaltending

Is there ever going to be an answer to, “Is Brian Elliott an exceptionally good goalie?”

Before this latest slump, Elliott had a top 5 save percentage and goals against average in the league. Just a decent goalie who is sheltered by a good defensive corps, right? Well, the only change being an offensive-zone specialist defenseman now suddenly has Elliott posting save percentages like .714, .862, and .500.

Maybe Shattenkirk had more of a two-way impact than we’re all giving him credit for int his article, right?

Well no, that doesn’t make sense either. Jake Allen is doing pretty well lately, a lost to Montreal not withstanding. Percentages of .962, .938 and .963 consecutively in the midst of this Blues slump. So if Shattenkirk had the two-way effect we thought, wouldn’t both goalies be struggling?

So Elliott’s just not as good of an option as Allen? Well, no. First, check the season stats, but also, watch Allen play. He sometimes seems to lack confidence in his positioning. Also a few times when the puck gets elevated, Allen will lose sight of it, and cause some panic when the puck comes back down to Earth.

What to do at the Deadline

General Manager Doug Armstrong’s known for making big moves the last few seasons. The move to acquire Ryan Miller last year being the biggest of moves. However, it’s no secret that that all-in move backfired, and led the Blues to a familiar first-round exit.

Which would seem to indicate that Brian Elliott is just as good an option as Ryan Miller, or anyone else.

Except that management occasionally doesn’t seem to have the confidence in Elliott to hold down the fort. Allen was always slated as a 1B and at times, has been given the nod of Elliott. And heading into this season, it seemed like GM Armstrong lost the game of musical chairs, having given up both Jaroslav Halak and Miller, and settled for Elliott.

So do you trade for goaltending at this deadline? No. Clearly goaltending isn’t the problem. Elliott is doing as well as any other goalie has with this defensive corps. For all he credit it gets throughout the league, the Blues defense has major lapses that leave goalies particularly vulnerable. the old stand-by excuse that Hitchcock goalies have inflated stats is a myth in this day and age.

Bring in an Offensive Defenseman?

So then what about looking to replace Kevin Shattenkirk? This seems like a slightly more realistic option, but also costly and unnecessary. To replace an All-Star like Kevin Shattenkirk, you have very few options. The only player I can think of who would be capable of filling this void until Shattenkirk is back would be Washington’s Mike Green. I would surmise green might be available for the right price. At a -5, he could bee seen as a liability under a new Trotz regime there, and his contract is up at the end of the year. Washington could look to cash out on Green.

But I find that highly unlikely, considering that the Capitals are fighting for their playoff lives, and probably seen Green as an essential component.

Plus, bringing in an offensive specialist still won’t fix the Blues own zone defensive play, which is exposing Brian Elliott as of late.

However, I don’t think we can simply point at Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester as the cause for bad moments in the Blues own end, even if the stats would say you can. These two defenders paired together to bring a Gold Medal to Canada last Olympics. It seems highly unlikely both players forgot how to hockey. Especially at such an identical clip.

Could the Problem Be Somewhere Else?

There’s been some murmurings of a defensive system change made by Hitchcock this season. Instead of trying to push the opposition to the perimeter with a strong defense, Hitchcock instead seems to be assigning his defenders, particularly Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, to back into the zone until the hashes. I think the theory here is that the defense can pick up any rebounds and take the passing lanes to cut out the back door, while it’s on the back checking offense to strip the puck if they can.

A system more based on passive containment rather than active possession. However, I don’t think this is working. Particularly against teams with quality forwards, who can use the ice generated from a passive defense to try and make plays. This could be why the team looks dominant against weaker teams, but absolutely lost against stronger teams, despite not appearing to change much from game-to-game. Many have observed the Blues are good against bad teams, and bad against good teams. And I think this is why. In classic Hitchcock fashion, he’s slow to adapt after one of his ideas is failing.

So acquiring another defenseman would probably be as much a bust as acquiring Miller was. Seems the team was then, as it could be now, looking in the wrong place to find answers to its struggles.

I won’t go so far as to ultimately suggest Hitchcock dooms the team heading into the post season. I do think he needs to make some radical stylistic changes before the first round, and the seemingly inevitable Chicago series to start the post season.

What Will Armstrong Do?

If he’s smart, Armstrong will recognize that he has a roster in place that should be able to compete with any team in the league, and he’ll pressure Hitchcock to change some tactics to yield better results. However, Armstrong has such a strong bond with Hitchcock, that I don’t know if it’s realistic to assume that he can lean into the coach and effectually change anything. He just likes the guy too much to call him out, it seems, even in private.

And Armstrong has a twitchy trigger finger, so we might see another reactionary knee-jerk move from the Blues’ GM. But if that’s the case, it’s nearly unpredictable what Armstrong will do if he feels the need to improve the roster. It’s almost impossible to even narrow down where you’d improve the roster. Goaltending seems to fail from defense. Defense seems to fail from poor coaching. The offense is one of the best int he league. And at the cost of mortgaging future assets, an all-in approach this trade deadline could prove short-term wasteful, and long-term costly.

Blues fans should hope for a quiet deadline.

Brendan Kolk

I've been writing as a Blues columnist since 2009, and occasionally I used to make YouTube blogs for fun. Growing up around hockey, I like to think I have a good mind for the game. Currently Hockey Tracker is my home for all my ramblings.

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