Blues’ Battles: The System or The Swagger?

Apr 7, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Jake Walman (46) celebrates after scoring his first NHL goal during the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 7, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Jake Walman (46) celebrates after scoring his first NHL goal during the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Considering the season thus far, I had all but resigned myself to the fact that my first contribution to this website would be a kind of post-mortem on the St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube, the team’s season and the outlook going forward. There was plenty of information for the headstone to choose from.

The Blues had a complete lack of scoring ability from the front all the way back. Their defense was lackluster from the back to the front, they had abysmal goaltending and an all-around incomprehensible resignation from the system that brought this same group a Cup only two years ago.

Before I could get to any of that, though, the group provided two straight efforts of absolutely smothering, dominant hockey against one of the league’s best as well as a rapidly ascending rival.  So, the questions must be asked: Was the problem with the St. Louis Blues this season ever really the system or the players therein?

Is this something else – something out of the reach of analytics and on-ice system that can be easily explained away – an intangible, if you will? Just like the fairy-tale year that brought the Cup home to STL, is this Blues team just one mindset-change away from greatness?

In the off-season, following their playoff near-miss in 2018, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong did something that I, myself, thought I would never see.  He made some tough decisions.

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While Army was always the GM who had a mind for drafting for systems and recognizing talent, he was always only as strong as the loyalty-contracts he would give out to those players who, for whatever reason, “exemplified” being a St. Louis Blue. In my mind, narrowly missing out on the playoffs that season was absolutely necessary to derail this train of thought and make some decisions that would benefit the club in breathtaking fashion, right then and there.

He didn’t disappoint, shipping out noted anchors Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, as well as the quickly fledgling part-timer Tage Thompson, for eventual Selke, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner Ryan O’Reilly. Add to that the signings of veterans Tyler Bozak from Toronto, hometown kid Patrick Maroon of journeyman fame, and the thrice re-signing of perpetual Blue David Perron, and the Blues looked to be bucking any notion of complacency going into that ’18-19 season.

This was a team that was built to win, and, well, we all know how that next season ended. Part of the charm was the fact that, halfway through that year, the group found themselves in last place in the league.

The questions were coming: ‘What’s going on with the Blues?’ ‘Has the coach lost the room?’ ‘Is this team not who we thought they were on paper?’ Turns out, the “coaching” narrative is the one that stuck, and after relieving Mike Yeo of his duties, the Blues put together one of the most unlikely runs in sports history, rocketing up the standings to make the playoffs on the backs of newly acquired O’Reilly, then-interim head coach Berube, and the lightning-in-a-bottle play of deep-system goaltender Jordan Binnington, who would replace Jake Allen in the starter’s net.

Why is this important now?

The Blues find themselves facing the same issues this season, but with a twist: No new coach. No lightning-in-a-bottle streak from a goaltender who never showed any hint of playing at that level consistently (also just signed a 6-year contract extension). O’Reilly, while not new anymore, is still the best player on the team but can’t sustain the level of play that led to the team’s success in his first year here.

The offseason loss of veteran D-man and captain Alex Pietrangelo, Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester retiring, and Pat Maroon and Joel Edmundson parting ways all gave the Blues some shoes to fill – especially on the experience-side of the locker room. The Blues responded with the blockbuster offseason signings of Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman – both money-in-the-bank powerplay tools in their own right – and the infusion of their prospective investments such as Jordan Kyrou on forward and Jake Walman on the back-end.

We aren’t seeing a 1:1 replacement for every man lost from that Cup team, but it can’t be argued that the Blues didn’t introduce a lot more skill to their defensive-minded lineup. For me, that was enough draw some sort of surface-level conclusion on their team construction.

The Blues suddenly had too much offensive skill for a system designed to suffocate offense on both ends of the ice. The argument could be made that losing Alex Pietrangelo’s play from the back end is a hole too large to replace, especially with Colton Parayko‘s development a sort-of stalling and then the long-term injury to one heir-to-the-throne.

However, it’s my belief that Petro’s prowess with this Blues team was as much his own talent as it was the system that he was placed in. We’re seeing that now with his performance in Vegas.

Now, to replace the likes of those types of players with skill guys like the ones we’ve seen and insert them into a system that does not fit their respective M.O., it’s clear that the same results cannot be replicated. The GM is building a team, at the current rate, that does not reflect the system being put in place by the coaches, and this is a problem that absolutely requires attention if long-term success is the goal.

That was the general thinking.  Then, the Blues beat a team 9-1.

Look, I’m not saying that this the end-all-be-all of the argument and that the Blues are fixed forever, but these last two nights (victories over Minnesota) have been different. For the entirety of the season at large, you could actively see the skill guys on the team flounder when they realize that they have no room to make plays or score goals. 

Furthermore, you could see them starting every game on their heels, knowing full well that if they let up a goal, there’s a fair-to-good chance that they won’t get another one back. You could feel the caution in their game, the apprehension.

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Second, third guessing plays, blowing coverages, screening their own goalie for fear of any shot at all would make its way through. It was like the entire team would hit the ice with their eyes closed. But, then something happened.

Somewhere between the 6-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on April 5th and the 3-1 win against the same on April 7th, something was said to this team. Something was said by this team.

And in that 3-1 win, on that 5th night of April, 2021, they – for the first time seemingly all season – didn’t look scared of their opponent. They started the game on their toes instead of on their heels, pushing the Knights to make plays that weren’t there, forcing turnovers that set the tone for the rest of the game, scoring on a 2-on-1 by Vladimir Tarasenko less than a minute in.

They looked like they belonged; like they were the ones in charge of that game. It seemed like VGK’s dynamic offense wasn’t going to get them on this night. Guys that have been struggling all season long to find any consistency (cough, Sanford, cough cough) were playing like they were the biggest guys on the ice.

It was about as impressive a performance as a 3-1 win could be, and it’s because the entire team functioned as a unit, like everyone on that ice was finally on the same page. It seemed as though those skill players had gotten the memo: Offense can be had while defense is the goal – and goaltending can bail you out of a jam when it has to. It’s the Blues’ system, and their new additions as a complement to that. But is this sustainable?

Enter the Minnesota Wild.

While not exactly the Vegas Golden Knights, the Wild had put together quite the little season for themselves. On the efforts of rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov and his partner-in-crime Mats Zuccarello, as well as an unpredictable run from rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, they’ve been the talk of the league for pretty much the entire season thus far, and came into this game comfortably in the 3rd slot for the West Division playoff picture. All of these games are must-win for the Blues down the stretch, but one against a perpetual playoff rival that is looking to make a push this season is an opportunity to make a statement, and they did just that.

“We’re comin'”

This game was over before it even started. We could openly dissect a 9-1 win over a division rival, but I’ll leave that to my colleague on the game recaps. To simplify: It was dominance.

The post-game interview from Darren Pang with Binnington featured more than just the now-infamous “We’re comin'” quote from above. The word “swagger” came up more than once, not only in that interview, either.

‘Swagger’ has been the operative word in almost every ‘What’s happening with the Blues?’ article over the past month, and it’s not by accident. When the Blues won the Cup, they came from last place to sneak into the playoffs and win the war of attrition through 4 rounds. But it wasn’t because of a career .900sv% goaltender. It wasn’t because of an 80s anthem that played at a bar one night, and it sure wasn’t because of one MVP center and a collection of depth.

Sure, it isn’t bad, but plenty of other teams had way more to work with. No, it was a team that found itself severely underperforming expectations, and that decided on a mindset to pull themselves out of a slump, lead off the ice by the quote-machine himself: Jordan Binnington.

For as absolutely ridiculous as it is to claim that “swagger” is an important component to a sport measured overwhelmingly by calculators in this day and age, there is undoubtedly something immeasurable happening here.

This mindset is tangible. You can see it in the play on the ice. A team that was scared to lose turned into a team that was scared of nothing, seemingly overnight. How long does this new mindset last? Who knows.

How long before a team comes in that can overpower that mindset with play – or a mindset – of their own? Who knows.

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While there are questions that should be asked, and inconsistencies that should be addressed regarding the construction and system of the team, there is something to be said for the power of the mind in these instances. Swagger, in this case, can be weaponized.

Is Jordan Binnington holding the launch codes?