The St. Louis Blues haven’t had the most consistent back end this season, though it has been solid overall. What this has exposed is a problem opposing teams are starting to key in on, stretch passes in transition, and dynamic cycling to free up in-zone space.
(Photo via stltoday.com)
The Biggest Problem
Though the Blues are ranked 3rd overall in 5-on-5 goal differential at 1.43 (meaning on average they score 1.43 more goals for than they allow while at even strength), the team is 4th overall in goals against in the 1st period. With 18 tallies let in during the opening frame this season, they have created a tough hill to consistently climb for themselves, especially since they’ve only scored 10 total 1st period goals themselves. A team can’t consistently play from behind and expect to claw out a victory, so the fact that the Note remain in a tie for 2nd in the toughest division in hockey shows how good they really are.
The D-core isn’t the only component of this problem however, as poor back-checking and lack of communication in the team’s own zone causes miscues leaving opposing players open in high scoring areas. This was the case on 2 of the goals against in New York, and a fact that reared its ugly head on Patrick Kane’s goal again on Saturday. The team must decide as a unit what type of coverage they want to go with. Whether it be man-on-man or zone coverage, or a variation of these (like an overload on the puck carrier, or a staggered defense that plays percentages that stays in sound position) the Blues need to decide how they want to cover their zone to make sure passing lanes are filled, and scoring chances are hard to come by.
This would eradicate the miscues in coverage and should lower the “high-danger scoring chances” that the team keeps giving up (they have already let up 170 of these types of chances), making a little easier on the goalies to keep the Note in each game. It would also increase their scoring chances for, which is currently at a breakeven point with their scoring chances against (the differential is plus-2.4%, meaning they get 2.4% more scoring chances for than against) and numerically shows how tough coming back from behind is in today’s NHL. Add in the team’s lower than ideal shooting percentage (8.9%, 14th overall) and fans can see why the Blues play in so many close games, and why they are finding it increasingly difficult to come back from a deficit to win.
Getting Over the Hump
While this isn’t the biggest deal for the Blues this season, with injuries that have mounted and an 11-5-1 record overall, it is becoming a bigger problem now that the team is in a 2-game slump. With Alex Pietrangelo 2nd overall in time-on-ice per game (26:58) and being a minus-1 he shows how close the Blues cut things each game. The solution starts with managing the rushes. The Blues have indeed been more reckless this season as coach Ken Hitchcock said they would be, but it’s coming at the expense of a structured defense. The Note defense need to pinch in as they have been, but then they need to get back to the point as quickly as possible before the puck changes possession and they are too deep to be positionally effective in transition.
This type of situation has happened quite frequently as of late, and more forwards are covering for their defensive counterparts who are caught deep in the offensive zone when it does. A quick pinch to keep the puck in or to follow up a scoring chance is always welcome, but it can’t come at the expense of being completely out of position. Once the Blues find a good balance with this they will see their defensive structure return, and will begin to win even more games (and by wider margins).
Another issue facing the Note D-core is shot blocking. They currently sit 19th overall with 225 blocked shots for, a number that could increase if Robert Bortuzzo begins to see more playing time. Luckily for the Blues, the Jake Allen and Brian Elliott goaltending tandem has been really solid and have been able to keep scores close despite seeing other teams block more shots than the Blues do (234 shots have been blocked against the Blues), and get many high quality scoring chances in tight. If the Blues can manage to get more bodies in front of pucks while staying in better positioning they will not only end this mini-slump they’re in now, but will also set themselves up for a great rest of the season.
The bottom line is the Blues need to band together as one cohesive unit, and track the pucks accurately while filling passing lanes to ensure their defense shuts the opposition down and leads to great offense. If the D-core can find that great pinch-in balance, can focus on the developing play in their own zone, and can up their communication with the forwards they will once again become one of the most solid defensive cores in the entire league.