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Predictable, apprehensive play plagues team as season reaches critical point

A while back, I wrote about the Blues not being able to handle adversity. The team fell apart after a bad call against the team in Detroit. It brought back thoughts of the implosion against the Kings in the playoffs last year. I closed that article by stating that if the team couldn't right the ship, fans had better hope that Hitchcock and Armstrong didn't use up everything in their award winning arsenals last year.

Here we are starting the final third of this shortened season and the team is lamenting a couple of missed calls after they played the same kind of game against the Kings they've been playing for the better part of the second third of the season. That is to say: mediocre, inconsistent yet frustratingly predictable hockey where they aren't making their own luck.  

So let us explore the questions of coaching and management.  Does Hitchcock have anything left to teach or new ways to teach his message? Or has the message gone stale?  Has the time come for Armstrong to try his hand to change this team's chemistry?

More than once this season I have found myself paraphrasing a line from Youngblood: how'd this team get so horse shit in one year? It's mostly the same lineup from last year. The offense was upgraded with Tarasenko. The defense is the same core group.  Obviously, the goaltending has been the most significant difference from last year when the goalies stole more games and perhaps covered up some of the team's blemishes.  The Halak-Elliott tandem certainly allowed the offense to play with less pressure last season. This year, Halak has been inconsistent.  Elliott lost his confidence and ability to make routine saves, let alone game changing saves.  Jake Allen has stabilized the goaltending and made Elliott an after-thought. Look, there’s no arguing you don’t win without goaltending. But I don't think this tells the whole story.

The bigger problem is the system starting in the back end.  This team's breakout is utterly predictable. Not Mike Kitchen D-to-D-and up the boards predictable. But it is too easy to beat.  For weeks we have seen this team wilt in the face of a strong forecheck. Here is the formula: Pressure the D and cut off the boards at the top of the zone. The forwards turn the puck over and the team scrambles. Hell, FSN diagramed this on the broadcast during the King's 4-2 win Thursday.  And it’s not just in the defensive zone.  The defense is geared to join the offense and a little pressure at the right time at the top of either zone turns into an odd-man rush against. When this team gets scrambling they give up goals.

And for a team whose defense is geared to join the rush, this team is too hesitant through the middle.  Last year’s team had an instinct to attack with speed.  All too often this season they find themselves aborting an attack and circling back in the D zone to regroup, giving the opposition time to change lines and stack up to dilute the Blues attack.  Maybe it’s a lack of confidence in passing and a lack of normal practice time certainly doesn’t help that.  But surely that is an area the team can work through.

When he’s been in the lineup, Ian Cole had been good about stepping up and trying to push the team forward.  But he had a bad game in L.A. a few weeks back and can’t crack the top 6.  Hitch has preferred the predictability of Wade Redden.  Redden has been steady, but he lacks enough speed to consistently generate attack.

Hitch and his assistants either haven't figured out what’s wrong or they don’t know how to fix it. All we hear is that the team isn't buying in. Buying in to what? I hear this most often in terms of play in the offensive zone. No system should be built on the premise of total puck control. What about the other end?

I fear Hitch has either lost the room or is on the verge of it. We're back to Andy Murray level line juggling. Does he have any other solutions besides questioning his team's commitment? Ask John Tortorella how that's been working for him.

So now the only answers may lie with Army. What can he do? If he has to sell in order to buy, he's selling low.  He is in a bad spot with this trade market.  The big market teams are dominating the headlines, well mostly the Penguins are, though the Bruins are at least trying.  The acquisition of Jordan Leopold from Buffalo for picks is reasonable.  Maybe a second round pick for a rental is too much, but this is going to be an overpriced trade market.

It was Army who made the call to bring Allen back when Elliott and Halak faltered after Halak’s return from injury. But there are so few moves he can make like that to spark this team from within.  The Blues are interested in college free agents, but why would they come here when Hitch would rather play the old dogs?  Army would have to force Hitch to play any young player they bring in.  Dan Dekeyser, the one college free agent the Blues publically met with and pursue, chose to stay close to home in Detroit.  The Leopold trade addresses the concerns management has expressed about the defense, so I don’t think we will see other moves on the back end of this team.

The way they have been playing for the better part of the season, this team is not a playoff team. How things are going now, they may sneak into a 7th or 8th spot. Oh joy, the Ducks or Hawks in a first round series.   

What about solutions?  Over the long term, GM of the year needs to figure out if Hitch has lost the room.  But given their long history together, Hitch will get the benefit of the doubt and any move would likely not come until after the season.

The Blues acquired Leopold, giving up a second round draft pick and a conditional fifth round pick, which becomes a fourth if the Blues win a playoff series this year.  The Blues could afford to give up picks and I certainly prefer this move over bringing in Jay Bouwmeester, who would have likely cost us Ty Rattie and picks.  The acquisition of Leopold tells me that the low-risk, high-reward view of the signing of Wade Redden is turning out to be more of the low-risk end of things.  Leopold is a few years younger and has better legs than Redden and is better suited for power play time.

Is this the move that fixes this team?  Maybe it will be a shot-in-the-arm kind of move.  Certainly this team has the pieces, they just can’t put them together consistently.  Leopold is a veteran guy who may add another older voice to a still very young room and has had the ability throughout his career to help move the attack north.  His skills are definitely an upgrade over Redden and I think that Redden will be the odd man out.  I still would rather have given Cole the opportunity to this point than bringing in Redden.  Cole would gain the game experience that I think he is missing.  I am not a fan of the tough love approach for young players.  I hated it when Andy Murray did it with Perron and it’s one of my bigger complaints with how Hitchcock has handled Cole.

The other somewhat surprising move was the announcement that Allen will be going back to Peoria for the remainder of the season and Elliott will be back, ostensibly to back up Halak the rest of the way.  I see this as a vote of confidence in Halak more than Elliott.  Halak was brought in because of his playoff acumen.  He led an eight place Montreal team to the Eastern conference finals, knocking off two juggernauts in Washington and Pittsburgh, almost single-handedly.  His first playoff run with the Blues was cut short in the series against San Jose.  Could he have changed the outcome of the series against L.A.? Maybe, but the Kings had everything going for them.  Nobody beat them when it mattered.

Will there be other moves?  Possibly, but I don’t think we’ll see anything until closer to the deadline, largely depending on how the team responds to these moves.  If the team stabilizes and Hitchcock gets his buy in, I don’t see other moves.  If the team falls out of playoff contention, significant changes could be made with more of the core coming out of entry level deals.

It’s crunch time for this team.  How they respond over the next two weeks will determine if their fate for the season and possibly seasons to come.  Management has likely made the only moves that will be made.  Now it’s time to see if the players can bring it all together.

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