On Jan. 1 the St. Louis Blues were 15-18-4 and although they had games in hand of every team around them, no one had fewer points than their 34 on that day.
Ever since then, St. Louis is 16-4-1 and the complete opposite has been true: No NHL team has more than their 33 points over the past 49 days. GM Doug Armstrong made some notable additions over the summer, including centres Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak, in a bid to get his team back in the playoffs and, although the initial returns were disappointing, it seems the Blues are coming around.
But the first signs of life started appearing just before 2019. Head coach Craig Berube, who was promoted to the position when Mike Yeo was let go on Nov. 20, said he first noticed his team starting to turn a corner right before Christmas. The Blues had just lost a home game 7-2 to Calgary before heading on a road trip that the coach says was one of the keys to the season.
“Before Christmas we went out west, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary…and I thought we played excellent hockey and I thought we were really coming together then and really started to play our game the way we wanted to play,” Berube said on Hockey Central at Noon.
Currently sitting third in the Central Division and on a 10-game winning streak, if this keeps up the rest of the way, the Blues may be a first-round matchup you’d rather avoid. But just how, exactly, did this team so suddenly pull a 180 on its season? There are a few factors to the success:
THE RISE OF JORDAN BINNINGTON
It’s so obvious and so true: You need goaltending to win in the NHL.
With Carter Hutton out of the picture in Buffalo this season, Jake Allen took over the undisputed No. 1 job. The worry around Allen, at least from outside the organization, was his inconsistency in the NHL. With a save percentage that dropped three years in a row from .920 to .915 and .906 last season, Allen got out of the gate slow, recovered somewhat in November and started to slow again in December. This prompted the Blues to call-up Jordan Binnington, and for Berube to give him a shot.
In the 7-2 loss to Calgary we mentioned above, Allen got pulled after allowing four goals on 16 shots. In came Binnington, which was his first NHL game action since seeing 13 minutes in 2015-16, and he turned aside 10 of the 12 shots he faced.
Binnington didn’t get his first start for the Blues until Jan. 7, a 25-save shutout against Philadelphia. He allowed just five regulation goals-against in his next four games and has been the best goaltending story of the second half so far.
The 25-year-old third-round pick in 2011, who had been passed by Ville Husso on the goalie prospect depth chart in the organization in recent years, is now 12-1-1 this season, and on Saturday became just the seventh goalie in NHL history with four or more shutouts in their first 14 career starts.
VLADIMIR TARASENKO IS BACK
It’s been proven time and again that goal scorers are, inherently, streaky. If they weren’t, we’d regularly see the best ones hit 60 goals.
So when one of them goes cold or has a bad start to the season, you can fully expect a rebound unless age-related decline is a factor. That, obviously, was not yet the case with 27-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko.
With 11 goals through his first 35 games, Tarasenko was tracking to just pass 20 goals on the season, which is probably nearly half of what many expected his output to be. The biggest difference between this year and last was that in 2017-18 Tarasenko had four stretches in which he was held goalless five games in a row, but was never shutout more than six consecutive games. But through the first two months of 2018-19 he had been held without a goal for at least six consecutive games three different times, with his longest drought running 10 games long.
His 9.38 shooting percentage through November was well off his career average of 13 per cent, though he was still getting a lot of high-quality opportunities. The breaks just weren’t going his way.
“I think earlier on he was getting chances and good looks, but he wasn’t getting his shots off quick enough and he wasn’t hitting the corners like he normally does,” Berube said. “He didn’t have any confidence because he wasn’t scoring, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort or chances. He started to put them in and now he’s feeling it.”
Suddenly Tarasenko is back on top of his game and that in itself has been a huge deadline-season get for the Blues. He has 15 goals in his past 20 games and is behind only Viktor Arvidsson in NHL goal-scoring since the calendar flipped to 2019. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Tarasenko is fifth in individual scoring chances this season.
THE TEAM HAS WORKED BETTER AS A UNIT
If we, like Berube, use that Western Canada road trip in December for a before-and-after comparison, the improvement in the team’s defence has been staggering. Where the Blues averaged 31.16 shots-against from Oct. 3 until that trip, they allow just 26.22 shots-against on average since. No team has given up fewer shots than the Blues since Dec. 17.
“The biggest turnaround for us as a coaching staff is our team is coming together and playing as a team,” Berube said. “If you’re not a good team and playing together, it’s hard to perform.”
Even more stark than that is how much better the Blues control the high-danger chances every game. Before Dec. 17 St. Louis earned just 48.8 per cent of all high-danger chances in games they played, but since Dec. 17 they get a whopping 62.47 per cent of the high-danger chances, the best rate among all NHL teams, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
This has undoubtedly been a factor in the goaltending being better all around as well, and coincides neatly with Binnington’s ascension.
Alex Pietrangelo, who had been criticized for his own slow start to the season, is back at an elite level. Berube also credited depth defencemen Jay Bouwmeetser and Robert Bortuzzo for giving him key minutes, especially on the penalty kill.
The question then becomes, why couldn’t ex-coach Mike Yeo accomplish the same things Berube is right now? Blues radio analyst Joey Vitale joined the FAN 590’s Jeff Blair Show Tuesday morning to share his thoughts.
“I think he is just this very demanding coach. I don’t mean he’s always yelling at his players, he just has this presence about him where players have a little bit of fear I think,” Vitale said. “It’s like when you go home and you have a strict father and he comes home from work, all the kids kinda tighten up at the dinner table. You got a little bit of fear. You don’t want to mess up. You’re not going to tease your brother when dad’s home.
“That’s what it feels like. That’s the aura in the locker room. They just want to do a good job for this guy. He just has the accountability factor and if you mess up you’re going to hear about it.”