Breaking Down the Blues' Slow Start

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Sadly, it's become an annual tradition here in St. Louis, it seems: the Blues' Slow Start. Happens every year, right around this time, when we look at the record of our beloved boys in blue and notice they aren't doing so hot. 
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This year, though, this seems a bit different. Oh, sure, they were way worse than this a couple years back, but we didn't expect that team to be any good. I have it on good authority several of the Blues' players during the 2006-07 season didn't have their own skates and had to use rentals. But this team? We all thought 2009 was going to be the Blues' season, the year they took that next big step forward and became not just a playoff team, but a legitimate contender to play deep into the spring. 

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet. The Blues' record currently stands at 6-8-4, good for a rather dismal 16 points and a last-place standing in the Central division. Worse yet, they're an absolutely miserable 3-7-1 at home. It seems some nights like the Blues left all their happy thoughts back in Stockholm. 

The thing is, the Blues have plenty of talent. So why are they struggling so badly again this year? 

Well, to put it simply, the Blues just can't score. Their goaltending has been absolutely top notch, with a Goals Against Average of only 2.26. Both Chris Mason and Ty Conklin have been brilliant overall, and I honestly can't find much blame to lay at their feet. When both your primary and backup goalie are giving up around two and a quarter goals per game, you should be doing a whole hell of a lot better than last place in the division. 

So scoring is the problem. But where does it start? Is it a weak power play? Is there a forward who is underperforming and dragging down the rest of the squad? Or maybe your defensemen are actually to blame, and their weak play at the opposite end of the ice is sapping whatever scoring momentum you might be trying to build. 

Sadly, I can say with complete and total honesty the Blues have got all those things going on right now. Let's start with the last point first. 

Where have you gone, Erik Johnson? - I'll be the first to admit I am a huge Erik Johnson fan. I like Erik Johnson like I like Steven Jackson; a player who can potentially elevate my team to an elite level almost alone. So please understand when I bash, I bash with love. 

Erik Johnson is playing small this year. Simple as that. 

When Johnson first came into the league, he looked like a first overall draft pick. He looked like the sort of guy a franchise would do well to hitch its future wagon to. He was big, he could skate, he could certainly shoot, and he could hit people. He seemed to be everything you could want out of a future anchor defenseman. 

This season, though, some of that stuff is there, but quite a bit of it just isn't. I don't know if perhaps Johnson is afraid to really open up on someone and lay them out because of his surgically repaired knee or if his legs simply aren't where they need to be, but he isn't squaring up at all the same as he used to. He's much, much less physical with his checks, and it doesn't seem opponents are keeping their heads on a swivel, as they say. Johnson also doesn't seem as instinctive with the puck these days, making several bad outlet passes that have really stood out. 

Of course, Johnson isn't the only problem on the defensive end. Alex Pietrangelo is a very talented puck-handler, but he just isn't a bruiser. He needs to be paired with a more physical, dominating sort of defenseman. Sadly, the Blues appear to be lacking that at the moment. And don't get me started on Eric Brewer. Since the 2007-2008 season, a period which covers 113 games for Brewer, he has scored exactly 2 goals. He has also managed to be a painful -39 in that time frame. 

No Forward Progress - I asked above, rhetorically, if the Blues perhaps had a forward who was underperforming. The answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, the answer to the follow-up question of, "Who's the culprit?" is, "All of them." 

Keith Tkachuk, nine points in seventeen games. Paul Kariya, seven in eighteen games. T.J. Oshie, six points in fourteen games. Patrik Berglund, just four effing points in seventeen games. Brad Boyes, eleven in eighteen. David Backes, one goal and two assists for a grand total of three lousy points in eighteen games. 

Whatever this malady is, it isn't limited to a single line, or to one side of the ice, or even to old guys or young guys or anything else. There isn't a single forward on the Blues this year I think escapes without any sort of blame. Andy McDonald is now leading the team with 12 points, tied with, of all people, Erik Johnson. (As much as I think Johnson has regressed in the early part of this season, he has still gotten a very nice assist total.) David Perron leads the team with seven goals, and he has never, at any level or any point in his career, been what one would term a shoot-first player. 

So what's the answer? Honestly, I don't have a clue. Lars Eller came up and gave the Blues a nice little boost in his first game, scoring a really sweet power play goal, but then he too seemed to succumb to the lethargy of this offense, getting shut out in each of his next four games before being sent down. 

I hope Andy Murray moves the lines around and tries to shake things up, but I really don't know how much control he has over this. He's already made some moves, but unless these players somehow flip the switch and start putting the puck in the net, changing the line assignments is just deck chairs on the Titanic. 

Power Outage - And finally, the power play. I'll warn you ahead of time, folks; it's mighty ugly. If you have small children in the room, you may want to have them leave or at least cover their eyes so they don't see the Blues' stats with the man advantage. 

The Blues have ten total power play goals on the season. Ten. Only Boston has fewer, with nine. The Blues have converted just 13.9% of their power play opportunities this season. That's the fourth-worst mark in the league. On the upside, I suppose, they have been very good on the penalty-killing side of things, killing off opposing power plays at a robust 83.8% clip. So at least one half of the special teams is getting the job done. 

Nonetheless, the Blues' abysmal power play mark is a huge factor as to why they've struggled so badly to score in the early going this season. Something is going to have to improve drastically when the Blues have the man advantage, or they will almost certainly continue to come up just a little short on offense as the winter rolls on. 

The Blues welcome the Phoenix Coyotes to the Scottrade Center tonight, as they play the last three games of a six game home stand. Over the next three games, they'll play the Coyotes, Islanders, and Bruins on their home ice, and all three should be very winnable games. In fact, for a team supposedly on the upswing, all three should be relatively easy pickings, each team having their own issues this year. 

If the Blues are going to pull themselves out of this funk and make a legitimate run at a second straight playoff berth, they're going to have to do it soon, and they're going to have to start getting the job done at home. 

Let's hope they can figure out a way to put some goals on the board, or it's shaping up to be a disappointing winter in St. Louis. 

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