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Blues defense looks to bounce back after historically poor showing last year

From the St. Louis Blues preview: Team hopes new franchise blueprint leads them back to the top series
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Blues 7, Wild 3

Wild centers Nico Sturm, left, and Nick Bjugstad celebrate a first-period goal on Thursday, May 13, 2021, as Blues goalie Jordan Binnington reacts in a game at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Brandon Saad has played against the Blues a lot over the years, 36 times in all, more than he’s played against any other NHL team.

So he’s got the scouting report on them down pat.

“They’ve always played a tight-checking hockey game, and it always seems like when you play against the Blues that they’re in the game and it’s always a tight-checking hockey game, a one-goal game,” he said. “Last year is a little bit different of a year.”

Last season, the Blues allowed 2.98 goals per game, their most since the 2006-07 season. Their penalty kill rate was 77.8 percent, their worst figure since 1988-89. Their expected goals-allowed at 5 on 5, according to hockeyviz.com, was 2.41 per 60 minutes, their highest since 2009-10. In the Stanley Cup season of 2018-19, it was 2.27 per 60 minutes, a number that was nine percent below the league average. Last season, the Blues were one percent below the league average and their penalty kill was at 22 percent above the league average in expected goals allowed.

And if you look at heat maps, which show where opponents were getting shots against the Blues, the difference is apparent. Where once the area directly in front of the goal showed shot attempts well below the league average, the Blues, while still defending well in the slot, saw the amount of shots taken from the immediate vicinity of the net climb above the league average.

“We were a little soft at the net last year,” coach Craig Berube said. “We’ve got to tighten that up and be a lot harder there and have better coverage in front of our net. More than anything, the net front is a big thing.”

The Blues were not going to overpower opponents with offense, but unlike in the past they didn't have the defense to make what goals they got stand up last season.

Some of the reasons are obvious. The Stanley Cup team of 2018-19 had a lineup that included defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester and forward Alexander Steen, three prime defensive players. By 2021, all three were gone, two to retirement and one to free agency. No team is going to be able to shrug off losses like that.

To solve that the Blues are going with … the same people as last season, at least on defense. Of their top eight defensemen in ice time last season, seven are back. The only one missing is Vince Dunn, lost in the expansion draft to Seattle. And unless Scott Perunovich makes the squad, there will be no new faces.

“I thought we had a great defensive unit last year,” said forward Tyler Bozak. “I love the guys we have back there. I think it’s great again this year. It’s not just the defense that prevents goals. You need the forwards to be back-checking and putting pressure on the other team. You need the forwards back playing well in your defensive zone. Everyone has to work together for everything to work out.”

There is reason to expect some improvement from within. Colton Parayko’s back limited his play last season, keeping him out of 21 games and dragging down his performance in maybe 20 more. Torey Krug, showing a similar progression to what Justin Faulk went through the season before, began to make strides toward the end of the season. If his second season is as good as Faulk’s was, that will be another stride. The two youngsters in the group, Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman, should be improved.

Further progress will have to come from other places. The Blues were not good at exiting their own zone last season, and worked on that in camp. The more a team can get the puck out of its own end, the more it will limit opponent chances. That’s a place where quicker defensemen pays off.

“Maybe the first touch on the puck being a little cleaner,” Krug said. “I think that allows the rest of the breakout to set up and it makes our team a little bit faster. I think if you look at the DNA of our back end, we have the guys that can do that, and then we’ve added a couple faster pieces up front that will definitely help out. Those are a couple of things that come to mind. I think there were moments where we were predictable and not just to ourselves but to other teams and they could sit on our breakouts. ... We won’t allow other teams to forecheck us easily, and we can get out of our zone a little bit cleaner and that leads to good transitional offense.”

Then there is the issue of clearing the net front. It’s not just a matter of size, of being stronger than the other guy and pushing him out of the way. It’s a combination of things, both physical and strategic. Rather than moving players out from in front of the net once they get there, keeping them from getting there in the first place solves some of those problems.

“Not allowing guys to get in front of the net, beating guys to the net in races to the net from the corner, just making it tough for offensive players to get there,” defenseman Marco Scandella said. “There’s lots of goals scored around the net, on rebounds, via tips. We have big-body defensemen, strong defensemen, so just not allowing people to get there is the game plan.

“Obviously you can’t be running around with your head chopped off; definitely blocking shots and getting in guys' ways, making it tough. I feel like the harder you work defensively the less you have to work. So that’s going to be the model.”

The Blues defense was still slightly better than average last season at even strength. But being right around average isn’t where this team wants to be. Or, for that matter, needs to be.

“I wouldn’t say it was a problem,” Scandella said. “I would say we could do a better job. We’re trying to improve our team every year. Like last year, we didn’t do what we wanted to do. The ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and we want to fine tune our game in all areas. So that’s one we can get better and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Tom Timmermann • 314-340-8190

@tomtimm on Twitter

ttimmermann@post-dispatch.com

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