Defense? Offense? Goaltending? What gives?
The Blues still haven’t completed a month’s worth of hockey, but they’ve found themselves atop the Central Division. They’ve accomplished this while losing six players to the Covid-19 protocol list, one to a two-game suspension, and now Brayden Schenn to injury. They’re having to continue to accomplish this while being up against the cap and short players.
So what gives? Why are the Blues the team in the Central that are defying expectations so early on, and why is it that power rankings compilers are having such a problem admitting that maybe they’re actually good?
Right now, the Blues are clicking on all cylinders from top to bottom. They’re scoring an average of four goals a game, good for fourth in the league. What offensive droughts the team had last season – and has had problems with in the past beyond just last year – seem to be fixed for now. The power play, which many fans were worried was reliant on Mike Hoffman and an injured Vladimir Tarasenko, is the second best in the league at 32%. It appears that while Hoffman contributed to the success the Blues had there down the stretch, he wasn’t the only catalyst on the man advantage.
Perhaps having a healthy Vladimir Tarasenko for the first time in nearly three seasons is the key to both the power play and some of the offensive success. Having him on a line with Ivan Barbashev and Robert Thomas has been revelatory for the team, and the chemistry that line is showing has permeated the lineup. Even with players out, there hasn’t been a set of four lines rolled in an evening that has been less than solid. Having Ryan O’Reilly out for ten days and four games could’ve been a massive problem for the Blues, and it wasn’t. That’s a good sign.
The team’s penalty kill is the second best in the NHL at 90.6% effectiveness. While having a success percentage that high for an extended period of time may not be tenable, it speaks volumes again to the team chemistry and depth.
The Blues’ early success has been, overall, a testament to both of those things. The team has depth, especially at forward. It is concerning to have two defensemen out right now, even if one of them is the 7th guy, but there doesn’t seem to be the feeling that without Krug the team is sunk. There’s a next man up mentality here that’s good for consistency’s sake, and teams don’t get that just because they’re told to have it. There’s a level of buy-in that’s necessary, and a level of faith in success regardless of who is out.
I have said before, I am not a number-cruncher. I find value in stats, but I also think that the most value they can give you is when they’re paired with the human factor. Only one skater on the team – Niko Mikkola – does not have any points on the season. Tarasenko, David Perron, and Jordan Kyrou all have at least ten points. Krug’s close with eight, as is Robert Thomas. Ivan Barbashev is outscoring Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly. Everyone is contributing.
Everyone, including the guy who was adamant about his trust in the organization being damaged, act like they want this team to succeed. They look like – dare I say it – they’re enjoying themselves. Success breeds fun, and success is bred by things like communication, trust, and the freedom to be confident, even in mistakes. The Blues have this in spades.
This early, fast start is a feedback loop, and as long as the Blues can keep it going without something breaking it, there’s no reason to assume that their November won’t continue to be just as successful as their October was.