The St. Louis Blues began the 2018-19 season with a lot of potential and talent. It was not until everyone found their role that the team enjoyed success though.
Ask your average fan what today’s NHL or the “new” NHL is about and they will likely go on about rolling out four lines, all capable of putting up big numbers. The St. Louis Blues tried this approach in their own copycat style and it began as a resounding failure.
When the 2018-19 season began, we were all excited. The Blues had several prospects on the verge of making the team and we were all giddy with the projections of line combinations.
It seemed like the Blues had entered this new age and were going to roll out four lines of fast, talented, capable scorers. We all know how that turned out.
The Blues lost seven of their first nine games of the season. They went 3-3-3 over their games in October and it did not get much better in November.
Everything was out of whack. Nobody knew what was going on or who they were playing with or what they needed to do out on the ice.
You had fourth line guys trying to make moves like first line players, which limited their ice time even further than you normally would. That put more pressure on the top lines to perform, but they had their own issues with guys going in and out of certain roster spots.
We have seen a lot of line combinations this year. Some worked and some did not.
Though he played, successfully, on the top line with other teams, Pat Maroon found no success there with the Blues. Most fans point to his lack of speed, but that has been the case his entire career. His style just never quite meshed with the two scorers.
Robert Thomas also felt the brunt of this dysfunction. Thomas has seen time on all four lines throughout this season to varying degrees of success.
Alexander Steen has moved up and down the lineup, trying his hand at the top line a couple times, even though he is best suited to a third line role at this point. We could name all the names and point all the fingers, but it is not just the fault of the players.
Mike Yeo never had a good system in place, so everyone was just sort of floating around in the wild with no plan. This sort of thing might work on All-Star teams, but real NHL teams need a game plan and players need a role.
It sounds so great to think you could just roll out four lines of players that are capable of scoring at will. There is no reality in that thought, though.
If guys are capable of scoring at a high level, they will want top line minutes. So, even if it worked for a short while, you would lose them in free agency eventually.
The issue is that it does not work as much as so many want to believe. Throughout a season, you do need some production from guys on your third and fourth line.
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Every championship team got that hidden production at the right time. However, even teams like Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay, that score for fun, do not have five 30 goal scorers to roll out there.
They all have role players that do their job so the elite talent can do theirs.
The game is different today than when we were growing up, regardless of what your age is. The game is different today than it was five years ago and it was different then than years before that.
The one constant is that guys need to have roles, accept those roles and perform to their abilities. It sounds great to think you might get 15 or more goals from a fourth line guy, but typically, you would be served just as well by their energy and toughness.
When St. Louis tried to have four scoring lines, they did not even look like a team. Nobody fought for the next guy. People were getting pushed around and every player looked like they could not care less. There was no grit or toughness.
We all focus on the star of each team and think the entire team is like that. That is why Pittsburgh is seen as having such scoring talent but little grit, because we view Sidney Crosby that way. The same is true of Tampa. We assume they’ll light you up but might crumble in the playoffs if they get punched in the mouth.
The truth is every team has their grit players. Every team has those guys willing to step up and have the bruises later on for the benefit of the unit.
When the Blues hit their stride, they finally had guys accepting those roles. Maroon has the talent to score and could put more focus on that, but he’s been a better member of this team by being a nuisance and dropping the gloves.
Ivan Barbashev has enough skill to be higher up the roster on other teams, but the energy he brings and a willingness to battle has given the Blues plenty of spark. While he has been in and out of the lineup, Sammy Blais has thrown more board-rattling checks than almost anyone on the team, even though he’s a scorer at the AHL level.
Neither of those guys are as talented as Jordan Kyrou, on a pure skill level. They have earned their time with the Blues, however, by realizing how they need to play to be in the NHL right now. Maybe they could play higher up the lineup in the future, but they accepted certain roles to benefit the team.
Even top guys are better in certain roles, even if they want something else. Brayden Schenn made his feelings about playing center very clear when he came to St. Louis. He is a good center, but with this current group, he fits in on the wing so much better.
Teams are like puzzle pieces. They fit together in very precise ways and you cannot just jam things together because you think it might make the picture look better.
Yes, there is more speed in today’s game. That does not change the need for players to have roles.
You still need energy guys and people willing to get physical. Maybe you do not need an enforcer, though I think the game would still benefit from it, but you do need guys willing to drop the gloves when it’s right.
You have to still have guys that are willing to put their own stats to the side now and then if they have to play a defensive role.
That’s what makes a real team. Sure, it would be fun to have the ability to toss out an All-Star caliber 12 forwards every night, but it would not work.
You need that guy that will bust his butt in the six or seven minutes he is given and be alright with that ice time, even if he wants more. You need the guys battling along the boards instead of everyone looking to get to the slot for the pretty goal.
The 2018-19 Blues were at their best when they finally had a defined role for everyone. Injuries have thrown that all out of whack, but it does not change the fact.
You can roll four lines out there and you need to be confident in their abilities with each shift. However, they need to have a purpose beyond just scoring each time out. That’s what the good teams have.