The St. Louis Blues are either playing opossum or they have quickly forgotten their recent past. St. Louis sounds like they are trying to play catchup again instead of finding their own way.
For those that missed the videos of the season ending press conference by Craig Berube and Doug Armstrong, we will recap it here. All of the forthcoming quotes are via Jim Thomas’ article on STLToday.
To give you the gist of it right away, the Blues are, again, talking about needing to match the speed and skill of the rest of the league. If this sounds familiar, it should.
When the St. Louis Blues got eliminated from the 2016 Western Conference Final, there was similar talk from those in charge. Armstrong made comments then about how the league was a speed league and the Blues had to match it.
This sounded fine. The Blues just ran out of gas in that conference final, so maybe the idea of getting younger and faster made sense.
Oddly, there wasn’t much roster overhaul. The Blues gave a little more responsibility to Robby Fabbri and added a few depth pieces, but there wasn’t much transition toward getting much faster right away.
This actually ended up working, whether by design or by accident. Remember the 2018-19 Blues?
They were not slow, but they did not win with speed. That team won with grit, determination, a forecheck like we’ve never seen to that point and being physically imposing.
The smallest players on the regular playoff roster were Jaden Schwartz, who was still 190 lbs, and Robert Thomas, who was at 188 lbs. Everyone else was either over 200 lbs or within a couple pounds of that 200 mark.
They wore their opponents into dust. Yes, they were younger and, perhaps, quicker than their 2016 counterpart, but they won because they ground teams down physically.
So, why do we hear the same old, tired tune from management now? Why are the Blues going back to this idea of being a copy cat when the rest of the league was copying how they won?
“As a whole, it’s trending towards a younger man’s game,” said Armstrong, via STLToday. “Younger players are ready quicker than before on and off the ice, both at forward and on the back end. I do believe what we’re seeing now is going to continue to evolve to more skill.”
Nothing in that statement is false, but it also is not 100% accurate. There is only so young you can get and only so much skill you can add.
Looking again to the 2019 champions, only Vince Dunn and Robert Thomas played top rolls in the playoffs being under the age of 25. If you want to include buys that played fourth-line rolls, you can add Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford.
Everyone else on the team, that played a major roll outside of the crease, was a veteran. It should be said that the Blues were not old. Carl Gunnarsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Steen and Tyler Bozak were the only players over 30 on that playoff squad. Nevertheless, they had a nice mix where they were not old, but not relying on unproven youth.
So, this idea that younger players are ready quicker is not false, but you cannot rely on that solely. There’s no sense in trying to make the Blues a “younger” team just for the sake of it.
Saying that, I am all for giving proper looks to guys like Jake Neighbors, Scott Perunovich and Alexei Toropchenko. But, they still need to play “Blues hockey”, not just be younger guys you’re trying to plug into your roster.
What bothers me about this idea is that we’ve gone backwards. The 2016 Blues sounded like they were trying to copy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals of the world – maybe even the Edmonton Oilers who had not won anything then and still have not now.
The Colorado Avalanche look poised to win in 2022. They’re outskating the competition for sure, but they’re winning with a much better defense than I’d have ever given them credit for.
There’s still different ways to win. If it was only about being fast or having the top skill guys in the league, Edmonton would have a Stanley Cup by now or Colorado would have a couple.
It’s not just about the top end though. The Blues won in 2019 and were one of the top regular season teams the next few years because of depth.
Even at their very best, most would not put whoever you considered the Blues top line as the best trio in the league or even top five. St. Louis won because they had guys you could trust up and down the lineup.
The fact remains that if you add more skill, eventually you run out of money to pay them. St. Louis is already up against the cap as it is.
Perhaps you get younger and faster with Neighbours and, eventually, Zachary Bolduc. What happens when they need real contracts and you still have veterans like Thomas or Kyrou that want to get paid?
Plenty of fans have their own answers. Some will agree with Armstrong. Others won’t.
There was talk about the defenders too. More mention of puck movers.
“The back end, you gotta be able to move the puck,” Berube said in Thomas’ piece. “You gotta have some size, too. Obviously last playoff series — (Nathan) MacKinnon and (Gabriel) Landeskog, they’re hard to handle. They’re big guys. So you gotta have some size, too. But puck movement from the back end is very important for sure. That’s where everything is generated from.”
The Blues had puck movers. You could argue their best were not healthy, but they still had them.
Justin Faulk was brought in as an offensive defender and has morphed into an all-around player. Torey Krug was the replacement for Alex Pietrangelo and while he’s warmed up to the fans, we still hear about his lack of size and defending ability.
Perunovich is nothing but an puck mover at this stage in his brief career.
Despite all that, all we heard from fans and talk show hosts leading up to the trade deadline was the Blues needing size and grit. Where was the talk about speed and skill then?
If the Blues needed size to match the best on the Avs then, why do they make it sound like they’re still transitioning to speed and puck movement now? You’re unlikely to match the Avalanche at their own game, so you have to formulate your own style.
That’s exactly what the Blues did in 2019. They didn’t go out and add a bunch of burners who were going to fly around the rink. They added complementary pieces that played a style that would and could win.
That’s what the 2022-23 Blues need to do. If you can find a player, in house or outside, that is faster than Tyler Bozak then go for it.
If you can nab a defender that plays like Nick Leddy without breaking the bank or jettisoning a current piece, I’m all for that. But again, Leddy is not that much faster than players the Blues already had.
Bozak and Marco Scandella may not be at the top of their game, but they weren’t exactly slow either. You can’t just go out and add someone as fast as Nathan MacKinnon or as skilled as Connor McDavid. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
You have to find or cultivate your own style of player. Frankly, I’d rather see a team assembled more like the 2019 squad.
Look for the next Bouwmeester, who will compliment Colton Parayko instead of just another puck mover. Find the next Blais, who has some speed and skill but is willing to put that to the side to play the way the Blues have to to win.
The 2021-22 Blues scored more goals than any St. Louis team in recent memory. There were still complaints.
There’s only so much more skilled or so much faster you can get. This team isn’t old and doesn’t have much cap room.
Search for complimentary pieces. Stop trying to be the next Colorado or Edmonton. Be the next Blues team that goes against the grain and still gets it done.