The St. Louis Blues have a bit of a problem on their hands, and it could cost them a playoff spot if it continues. It’s not that David Backes and Troy Brouwer bolted over the summer, and it’s not Paul Stastny’s baffling lack of scoring (though that’s concerning in and of itself).
No, the biggest issue the Blues are facing at the quarter mark of the 2016-17 season is penalties. Only the Calgary Flames have taken minor penalties more frequently than St. Louis, with the Blues being whistled a whopping 99 times through 23 games played.
To this point, an outstanding penalty kill has managed to mask this glaring problem.
The Blues have the third ranked PK unit, and they are successfully killing penalties 87.6 percent of the time. That number will continue to fall, however. No team in the NHL had an 88 percent kill rate by the end of last season and that St. Louis finished with an 85.1 percent PK.
That’s still outstanding, but the Blues weren’t taking penalties at the same rate they are this year either. If the Blues want to make it back to the Western Conference Final, this is a problem that can not persist.
Icing a strong penalty kill is obviously a positive, but it negatively impacts the entire roster when a team has to kill off an average of nearly four minors per game. Between eight and 10 minutes a night on the penalty kill is unacceptable for a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations entering this season.
And it’s odd, considering they lost two of their top four PIM producers from 2015-16 in Backes and Brouwer — plus Steve Ott — to free agency this summer.
Dangerous players like Vladimir Tarasenko are stapled to the bench during 4-on-5 situations, and it’s very (very, very) difficult to score while skating a player down. Short-handed tallies happen from time to time, but they can’t be counted on. In fact, the Blues are one of only three teams that haven’t scored short-handed yet this season. Meanwhile, the similarly penalized Flames lead the NHL with five.
While the likes of Tarasenko and Kevin Shattenkirk cool off on the bench during kills, the players involved into the PK are skating themselves into the ice trying to prevent goals against. Kyle Brodziak spoke to Jeremy Rutherford of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch about that very thing last week, saying the following:
“It’s hurting us. When we’re killing penalties and guys are sitting on the bench too long, not getting involved in the game, it takes us as a group longer to get involved in the game.”
Head coach Ken Hitchcock believes that the base of the issue lies in poor positioning by his players.
“…you can look at the penalty and you can say, ‘You can’t put your stick up in the air,’ but it’s a natural action if you’re in the wrong place defensively. To me it’s better positioning defensively, so we’re not caught out of position.”
To Hitchcock’s point, the Blues have taken a boatload of stick infraction minors: 15 hooking calls, 18 trips, 10 slashes and 12 high sticks have been called against the Blues according to ESPN.com. All told, this has resulted in St. Louis taking nearly 12 minutes of penalties per contest.
That’s draining on everyone involved, and it will undoubtedly spell disaster for the Blues if they can’t figure out a way to clean up their collective game.