After dispatching the number two seeded Minnesota Wild, the St. Louis Blues looked ready to challenge the Nashville Predators. Sigh! Looks can be deceiving, just ask the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues might look good on paper but in reality, their offensive arsenal was paper thin, and their blue line was no match for the heavyweight backend push that Nashville’s Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis can provide. In fact, top to bottom, the Predators might have the deepest blue line of all the remaining teams and perhaps in the entire league.
Goalie Wins Require Actual Goals
Jake Allen was rarely the problem as he played consistently well throughout the series (and the playoffs), but as a goalie, you can only steal games if your team is scoring. That was a big part of the problem.
Vladimir Tarasenko scored twice in Game 2, but only managed a single assist in the other five games. Alex Steen was clearly not at his best with injuries hindering him throughout the series and added just a single goal and a pair of assists.
Vladimir Sobotka made his highly anticipated return and was expected to give the Blues that offensive push they needed to get back to the Western Conference Finals, but with only a single goal and two assists he didn’t deliver. Only Jaden Schwartz scored in more than one game with two goals and two assists.
While the Predators blue line was frequently igniting their offense, the Blues blue liners puttered through the playoffs without much in the way of goal scoring. Unfortunately, this became more evident when faced with the Preds offensive dominance from the backend.
The Blues came off a stellar year last year, and clearly, expectations were very high, but they ran into one heck of a road block as they were simply unable to solve the Preds netminder, Pekka Rinne. Rinne has been a force throughout the playoffs turning away shots as if he had superhuman abilities.
The performance has been otherworldly from a netminder that many thought was beyond his best days. Well, color us wrong, because this is not some washed up netminder. Rinne made a statement, and I don’t think anyone will be laying further doubts at his feet (at least until we all underestimate him again next season).
Allen wasn’t perfect, but against any other team, it might have been enough. Unfortunately, he came up against an extraordinarily hot goalie and his team just couldn’t produce the run support needed against a team with a hefty arsenal of firepower of their own.
The Preds fired at will, sent bodies to get up in Allen’s personal space and found scoring from nearly every player within their lineup. On any given night, the Preds laid out a four line assault that garnered offensive production from all over including their active and highly effective blue line led by Ellis.
Ellis is always a force defensively along with Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and P.K. Subban, but they don’t stop there as they actively worked to produce offensively as well. Ellis was a threat no matter where he was on the ice as he worked to create space and slow down the Blues attack.
The Preds have implemented their defense with surgical precision and it makes it virtually impossible for any team to gain any freedom to move about the offensive zone, through the neutral zone, or get within striking distance of Rinne. If he can see the shots coming, he’s going to stop it more often than he doesn’t.
Nightmares in the Neutral Zone
No amount of prayers would stop the Preds neutral zone trap.
Heavenly Father, please smite the Preds' neutral zone trap, let the Note foresake the box, and let the action be ice cold fire. Amen. pic.twitter.com/I9PbdaMDHS
— The Sport Guy (@rickybrunson) April 27, 2020
The Neutral zone might as well have been renamed the nightmare zone because the Blues and the Blackhawks will undoubtedly wake in a cold sweat recalling how well the Preds trapped and turned nearly every play that came through the middle of the ice.
Space was limited, and there was always a body willing to separate a player from the puck or clog up the passing lanes. This tactic effectively took all the momentum away and forced skilled teams to dump pucks that ordinarily would have been carried in.
To further complicate things, the Preds were always on the boards anytime the Blues worked to get the puck out of their own zone and away from the Preds dangerous offensive attack. This equated to tired players and too many chances. The Blues simply didn’t have the tools to counter the Preds suffocating attack through six games, let alone seven.
From night one, the Blues strengths on paper were shredded on the ice.
Blue Line Breakdown
Only 3 Blues defensemen have points in these playoffs. Have to be more aggressive from the offensive blue line generating scoring chances
— Ryan Eisenauer (@Eisenauer7) May 5, 2020
Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson were two of the bright spots on the backend along with veteran Alex Pietrangelo, but while Kevin Shattenkirk was undoubtedly going to move on this summer, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to have that extra depth for their run this spring. Perhaps he wouldn’t have made a difference, but given their exit, the question will hang uncomfortably throughout the offseason.
The Blues felt they had to get ahead of that situation and they really can’t be faulted for trying to get something for him. But, if they’d known they were about to get on a hot streak and finish with a spot in the playoffs at that time, they might have rolled the dice on a trade before the Draft instead.
However, this is not a game of might have been.
The Blues put up a valiant fight winning two games and staying within striking distance unlike their Central Division rivals (Chicago) who collapsed in four, but that fact will undoubtedly provide little comfort as the Blues head home and pack up their lockers.
— FOX Sports Midwest (@FSMidwest) January 10, 2021
The team has a short list for the summer as their biggest offseason business will be signing restricted free agent (RFA) Parayko, he is the future of their blue line and is definitely the top priority. Scottie Upshall and Magnus Paajarvi are also on expiring contracts and will be evaluated.
In addition, Jordan Schmaltz will be ready for another look as the Blues seek answers to the equations they failed to answer this Spring. The young blueliner will hopefully add some bulk to his 6’2″ frame and gain some confidence over the summer as he will undoubtedly be looking to factor into the Blues future plans.
Much Ado About Nothing
The one albatross for the Blues was the acquisition of Nail Yakupov who came in with high expectations and a high price tag ($2,500,000) that would give anyone sticker shock given his track record. Fortunately, he only cost them a prospect (Zach Pochiro) and a conditional third round pick.
Yakupov did not even come close to meeting the requirements for that condition with three goals and six assists in 40 games; the conditional pick would have been a second rounder had Yakupov tallied 15. So at least, they didn’t grossly overpay for an underperforming forward.
However, it would seem unlikely they will take another flyer on him by way of a contract offer given that he didn’t seem to fit either Ken Hitchcock’s system or Mike Yeo’s. Yakupov has some upside, but the consensus thus far has been that he is not defensively reliable in his own end which is a real quick way to fall out of many NHL coaches good graces.
Yakupov’s best hope for an NHL spot next season might have been to come into the Blue Notes system and thrive, but since he didn’t even spark he very well could end up an ocean away in order to resurrect his floundering career at just 23 years old.
Is there enough talent for someone to consider the risk? Yes. Will they? It seems unlikely an NHL team will pay anywhere near his current contract so he very well may test the waters with SKA.
Despite SKA acquiring Yakupov's rights, his agent Igor Larionov says that players priority is North America.
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) May 1, 2020
With few contracts to shore up, it seems as though the team will come back largely intact, but there will undoubtedly be some long looks as the Blues may try to add another scorer and fill some gaps on the back end. However, unless the salary cap changes dramatically (which seems like a long shot), most of their available funds will go directly towards signing Parayko leaving precious little to alter the current lineup without trades.
The Expansion Draft is another monkey wrench in the Blues plans and will undoubtedly poach a player they might prefer to keep as it seems unlikely they could be enticed into grabbing Yakupov, but stranger things have happened. Vegas could deem him a late bloomer or possibly the victim of the wrong system (several times over), but there will likely be more enticing proven options both among Blues players as well as from other teams.
Dmitrij Jaskin and Ryan Reaves could also be on the unprotected list, either would be disappointing losses as Jaskin has shown some promise, and Reaves is a physical player who is beloved by Blues fans for his tendency to play with an edge.
STL probably banking on the expansion draft to free up some money to re-sign Colton Parayko
MIN RFA's include Granlund, Niederreiter, Haula
— Blackhawks Breakdown (@HawksBreakdown) May 6, 2020
Jori Lehtera is another possibility if Vegas is looking to get to the cap floor. Earlier in the season, he seemed like a sure thing to make the protected list, but he may not have done enough to warrant that spot over others. In addition, the Blues may take a chance given his contract ($4,700,000 for two more years) and hope that is enough of a deterrent allowing them to protect another player.
Carter Hutton is another option. He is a proven backup netminder who could garner a look as a top netminder, but given the availability of Ben Bishop, and a number of other free agents likely to hit the market there will certainly be a number of better options to backstop the Vegas Golden Knights. It would seem like the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers are more likely to find their backup poached than the Blues.
Of course, the Vegas situation is going to remain relatively fluid as many teams will be tweaking their protected lists all the way up until they have to share them with the league.
There is only one certainty for the Blues, they didn’t have enough weaponry to counter the Predators, and they are likely still more than one moving part away from truly contending.
The Blues fell in six games to Colonel Mustard in the Music City with a blocker and paddle.