Can the Blues beat Dom’s odds? 5 keys to making the playoffs and proving the naysayers wrong

BUFFALO — With 33 games remaining in the St. Louis Blues’ regular season, even interim coach Drew Bannister is being realistic about the team’s chances of qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs.

“There’s no question our backs are against the wall,” Bannister said recently.

As the standings sit now, six of the eight playoff seats in the West are just about locked up, with the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets as the top three seeds in the Central Division; and the Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers as the top three in the Pacific.

The two wild-card spots likely will come down to a battle between seven teams: the Blues plus the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, Seattle Kraken, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild.

L.A. is currently in the top wild-card spot, with 56 points. St. Louis and Nashville are tied with 54, but the Blues have two games in hand. They are followed by Calgary (53), Seattle (52), Minnesota (51) and Arizona (49).

So, coming back from their 10-day break on Saturday, the Blues are right in the mix, but you only have to look at the club’s last game — a 1-0 loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets — to understand their predicament.

“We can’t allow games that happened, like Columbus, to continue to happen,” Bannister said. “They can’t pile up on us. So moving forward, all the games are going to be important and teams are going to get tighter.

“Not having games under our belt coming off the break, and other teams being able to play one or two games, there’s not going to be room for error.”

So what are the odds of the Blues making it? Depends who you ask.

MoneyPuck as of Friday morning had the Blues at 18.1 percent to make the playoffs, below L.A. (89.7 percent), Seattle (41.0) and Nashville (34.9) but above Arizona (12.6), Calgary (12.1) and Minnesota (2.4).

BetMGM had the Blues at +250, below L.A. (-650) and Nashville (+190) but ahead of Seattle (+310), Calgary (+310), Minnesota (+675) and Arizona (+800).

The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, meanwhile, recently weighed in with his own breakdown of the West playoff race. He listed the Blues as a “long shot” and gave them a 12 percent chance. That put them below L.A. (88 percent), Nashville (35), Seattle (24), Calgary (21) and Minnesota (17), and ahead of only Arizona (7) among the bubble teams.

Explaining, Dom wrote:

“This probably feels harsh for the team currently sitting eighth in the West, and it’s no secret the model hasn’t been too fond of the Blues the last few years. This year’s reason is that the Blues have a league-leading 12-2-2 record in one-goal games, a historically fickle number that masks their true talent.”

He added later, “A team that earns under 45 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five is a tough one to back, and those teams rarely make the playoffs. For the year, only six teams have a worse expected goal differential than St. Louis’ minus-18.2.

“A decent arsenal of finishing talent and Jordan Binnington’s resurgence give the Blues a chance to hold on. But it’s a lot likelier that a team that is currently behind them in the standings will surpass them.”

As you can imagine, Dom’s projection led to some frustration from Blues fans.

So the question becomes: What needs to happen for the Blues prove Dom wrong? What’s their most realistic path to the playoffs?

We could discuss which individual players need to step up, or once again stress the importance of the special teams. But instead let’s look take a look at the bigger picture: five keys to a potential run at the playoffs.

1. Get secondary scoring, improve the goal differential

When it comes to making the playoffs, one telling statistic every season is goal differential. Overwhelmingly, clubs that advance are in the positive.

Using the 2022-23 season as an example, all eight teams that qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs were in the plus, and the eight that did not were in the negative. Meanwhile, all eight teams that qualified in the Western Conference were in the plus, and seven of the eight that did not were in the negative. That included the Blues, who were a minus-38.

This year, they are a minus-12, which was tied for 23rd through Thursday.

In order for this number to improve, as Dom indicated, the Blues have to improve their five-on-five scoring. For the analytics folks, their 44.6 percent expected goals share ranked 30th in the NHL through Thursday, per Natural Stat Trick, ahead of only the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.

The three leading point producers in the Blues’ lineup are Robert Thomas (52), Pavel Buchnevich (39) and Jordan Kyrou (37). Besides scoring, what do those three players have in common? They’re on the same line.

The offense desperately needs some secondary scoring.

Here are the scoring totals for the other nine forwards expected to be in the lineup on Saturday:

Of those nine forwards, only Brayden Schenn (45.1) is on pace for more than 36 points this season. After him, only Brandon Saad and Kevin Hayes (35), Jake Neighbours (32) and Oskar Sundqvist (30) are on pace for more than 24.

“I think with (Kasperi) Kapanen, adding him back to the lineup, he looks really good and that’s going to help our secondary scoring,” Bannister said. “But our power play was starting to play better for us toward the end of the break, and we’ll lean on that for some secondary scoring, too. Special teams are going to be a big part of our game moving forward if we’re going to have success.”

The Blues need more secondary scoring from the likes of Oskar Sundqvist. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

2. Be better on the road

The last time we watched the Blues play on the road, the results were quite good. They went out west and were 3-0 against Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle, winning all three games by the score of 4-3, including the last two in overtime.

But the Blues’ record on the road this season is still just 11-12-1 this season, for a points percentage of .479, which ranks No. 22 in the NHL.

If their recent trend continues, they may be OK, but with 11 of their next 16 games and 17 of 33 overall on the road, this could present a challenge as far as making the playoffs.

The Blues come out of the break with a three-game road trip against the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, and later they’ll go on a five-game trip to face the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Boston Bruins.

“I think it’s just being in the moment,” Blues goalie Jordan Binnington said. “Whatever comes across our desk, handle it the best we can.”

The team has 16 games left at Enterprise Center, where its record is 15-9-1 this season.

3. Beat the bottom teams

In the Blues’ final 33 games, they will play 17 games against teams that are currently holding a playoff spot. That includes games against the Oilers (three games), Maple Leafs (two), Predators (two), Carolina Hurricanes, Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Jets, Flyers, Rangers, Bruins, Kings, Avalanche and Golden Knights.

But the bigger issue might be the fact that the Blues will play 16 games against teams that are currently not in a playoff spot. That includes games against the Wild (three), Islanders (two), Ducks (two), Sharks (two), Sabres, Canadiens, Devils, Ottawa Senators, Flames, Blackhawks and Kraken.

If you’ve followed their season at all, you know that they have not fared well against the bottom-feeders.

“We’ve played well against the good teams this whole year, and for whatever reason we’ve struggled against the teams that are below us in the standings,” Schenn said. “I think that’s just a mental thing, where you come out and you ease into it, and before you know it you’re down 2-0 and all of a sudden it’s hard to get back into the game.

“We’ll be ready for those games. Buffalo and Montreal, they’re below us in the standings, but we have to come ready to play. Like I said, you can’t ease into it and feel it out, or say, ‘Ah, I’m going to see how the first period goes.’ You have to be ready to play instantly, and if not, you’re going to be down, and it’s hard to come back.

“You’ve just got to be ready to play. We’re in a dogfight. Every game is important, and you can’t ease into it after the break. You have to come ready.”

4. Overcome key injuries

The Blues will be without a couple of key players.

Kapanen was activated from the injured reserve Friday and is expected to be back in the lineup against Buffalo. But defensemen Justin Faulk and Scott Perunovich did not return to the ice with the team after the break and are listed as week-to-week with lower-body injuries.

Bannister clarified that Faulk’s injury occurred in the Blues’ game against the Flames on Jan. 23 and is not a recurrence of the injury he suffered against Colorado on Dec. 29.

“We thought there’d be a chance coming off the break that we would maybe have one or both (Faulk and Perunovich) in,” Bannister said. “It’s unfortunate. They came back and they’re not quite ready to get themselves back on the ice. Perunovich’s injury was right before the break, so he could be a little bit closer than Faulker coming back. Once we get them on the ice, we’ll know better.”

It’s been a difficult season for Faulk, who’s stuck on just two goals in 40 games and is a minus-5. Perunovich has been in and out of the lineup, but with six power-play assists, he’s given the unit a bit of a boost when he’s played.

The Blues’ third pairing is expected to feature Marco Scandella and Tyler Tucker, and the club has also recalled Calle Rosen from AHL Springfield. The 30-year-old veteran has played 44 games with the Thunderbirds this season and has two goals and 25 points.

“When I was (in Springfield), Calle played extremely well, and I think he continued to play well,” Bannister said. “He’s just a solid defender down there, and probably one of the best defenders in the league. So we’ll look for him to add a little bit on our back end.”

5. Force Armstrong to keep them intact

All of this could be moot if Blues general manager Doug Armstrong doesn’t believe his team is strong enough to compete in the playoffs and decides to move some players out before the NHL trade deadline on March 8.

The team has just 14 games left before the deadline, and scouts have already begun to pack the press box at Enterprise Center and around the league.

The question remains, though: Who could or would the Blues trade? They have pending unrestricted free agents in Scandella, Kapanen, Sundqvist and Sammy Blais, but they’re not going to fetch much in return. So if the club puts itself in a position to qualify for the postseason, Armstrong will likely hold onto them.

Maybe he’ll even go out and get a bit of help.

(Top photo: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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