An Early Season Look at the St Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues have been off to an interesting start. You would think injuries to key players would set the team back, however, lesser known players have been able to step up and make things happen. Head coach Ken Hitchcock has been working his magic and quickly adjusting lines to put players together who complement each other.
This is definitely not last season’s team. This is a team that has to scratch and claw their way through every win and make every play count. It is not always pretty, but it is somewhat effective. From key injuries to bacterial infections to uncertain coaching and inexperienced goalies, the Blues players have gotten off to a rocky start. This has been creating a precarious balance within the team that has been producing wins.
Injuries and Illnesses
The messiah of the Blues, the one player who was supposed to be the missing piece of the puzzle and carry home the Stanley Cup, Paul Stastny was injured (shoulder) on October 18th and has not played since. Although, Stastny is currently participating in team practices doing limited puck handling but he is not ready to return yet. Without Stastny, fans felt that the team would fall apart, but that really has not been the case. The team as a whole has pulled together and shown that Stastny, while a great player, is not the only player to win hockey games.
It was reported on October 30th that TJ Oshie has been diagnosed with a concussion. With Oshie out for an indefinite amount of time due to the concussion as well as suffering from a bacterial infection, the team has to look elsewhere for leadership both on the ice and in the locker room.
The fearless captain of the Blues, like Oshie, has suffered a concussion. Backes is also out indefinitely. It will be curious to see how much having Backes, Oshie and Stastny out of the lineup will affect the overall performance of the team. The Blues are near their salary cap so even the option of calling up talented players to fill the void is no longer an option!
While Gunnarsson’s injury was highly anticipated since it is known that he has bad hips and is injury prone. Gunnarsson went through hip surgery and missed the start of the season. While I would like to say that he was greatly missed, he was not. The presence of Roman Polak on defense is what was greatly missed.
Gunnarsson will be interesting to watch during the course of the season. It is true that Gunnarsson is back, however, I have to question how long he will remain active. He is an injury prone player and it is being hinted that he has to be babied along after games, missing team practices the day after a game.
As if the injury plagued Blues were not tormented enough, many players became infected with a bacterial infection that was picked up on the west coast. This left many with flu-like symptoms and swollen jaws. Not the ideal situation for any team to step out on the ice and face their opponents.
Uncertain Coaching Situation
Many feel that head coach Ken Hitchcock cannot get the job done for the Blues. I have been a proponent for Hitchcock since he arrived in St. Louis. I think that given the right combination, Hitchcock could help bring the Stanley Cup to St. Louis. He was sabotaged last season. He had the winning combination that was needed to go all the way, but management decided to court disaster by making the infamous Miller trade.
For the past month the Blues have been in scramble mode. Many are laying the blame at Hitchcock’s feet, but let’s take a closer look. The Blues are close to their salary cap, thanks to their spending spree this past summer. That means that any of the talented players that the Blues have waiting in the wings, must remain in the wings. The Blues cannot afford to pay their NHL salary. That leaves a strain on the remaining Blues’ players and the coaching staff. Hitchcock has actually done a remarkable job with the resources he has to work with, despite being sabotaged!
The team has many new faces and it is Hitchcock and his staff that have to determine where these new faces fit. Not an easy task for such a short training camp and pre-season. He is still shuffling and trying to find the right combinations. Last season the Blues were a heavy favorite because they were able to work so well together. Hitchcock spent much of the previous year building that team into a winning unit. Then upper management shattered the bonds of the team and now Hitchcock is charged with re-building and doing so quickly to keep his head off the chopping block.
With the ungraceful exit of Ryan Miller from the Blues organization, Brian Elliott was given the nod as the starting goaltender. For the past few seasons he has shared net-minding duties with Jaroslav Halak and then Ryan Miller. Taking a back-up goalie and inserting him into the starting slot was a risky move. Elliot spent the offseason getting ready for his chance to shine. Since the start of the regular season he has been good between the pipes and has shown the fans and his opponents that he really can handle the rigors of day to day play.
Elliot’s back-up, Jake Allen, has been chomping at the bit for a few seasons now, hoping for his chance in the NHL. That chance came when the Blues decided to promote from within the organization rather than go courting experienced goalies. Allen is quickly becoming a St. Louis fan favorite and helped his cause with a shut-out against the Anaheim Ducks. This was his second shut-out in his short NHL career. I am sure that there will be many more stellar performances to come from Allen.
Overall, the St. Louis Blues have not had the spectacular start to their current season as they did last season. However, they are starting to pull together as a team and become the cohesive unit that is needed to win hockey games. They are proving that the big name players, while nice to have on the roster, are not essential to have a winning combination. Once the team is able to fully get healthy and work together consistently they should produce a solid season of fun hockey for everyone to enjoy.