Mailbag: Blues legitimate Stanley Cup contender, second-half surprises

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Here is the Dec. 29 edition of the mailbag, where we answer your questions asked on Twitter using #OvertheBoards. Tweet your questions to @drosennhl.

Do you see the St. Louis Blues as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender? — @Polter_is_here

Yes. The Blues should be good enough to finish in the top three of the Central Division, which would put St. Louis in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that makes it a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Blues are scheduled to host the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET; SN360, BSMW, ESPN+, NHL LIVE), their first game since Dec. 19, and have a strong test against the Minnesota Wild in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE). 

Scoring depth makes a big difference. The Blues have 12 players with at least 10 points through 31 games. They had 16 players who scored at least 10 through 45 games in 2019. A big part of their success is the addition of forward Pavel Buchnevich (11 goals, 18 assists) and how he and Ivan Barbashev (11 goals, 14 assists) have helped reignite Vladimir Tarasenko (12 goals, 17 assists), who is vital to the Blues’ success. Tarasenko is happy playing with Buchnevich and Barbashev, and the importance of that can’t be understated.

They defended well during their 2019 run, allowing 2.18 goals per game, and they’re good enough now at 2.68 goals against per game. Their power play is better (29.6 percent) than it was then (21.8 percent) and their penalty kill is a few percentage points off (82.9 percent now, 84.8 percent then). The numbers show us that there are similarities. We also know they’re coached the exact same way. Craig Berube does not waver in his beliefs of what makes a winning hockey team when it matters. His fingerprints were all over the Stanley Cup-winning team in 2019 like they are now.

Video: STL@WPG: Tarasenko finishes off a sweet passing play

I like the Blues. They’ve won through adversity in the past month, with several players out of the lineup because of COVID-19, including goalie Jordan Binnington, and having to play with 17 skaters three times. Their call-ups from the American Hockey League have paid off, a sign of a strong, stable, in sync franchise. They’re mentally tough. There are 11 players left from the championship team, all core players. They know what it takes, and they have to be seen as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Which non-playoff team(s) currently will surprise us in the second half of the season and make the playoffs? (My guess for one is the Vancouver Canucks.) — @Putsky88

The Canucks are my pick too. They’re already experiencing the Boudreau Bump, which I referenced in my mailbag three weeks ago. They are 6-0-0 under coach Bruce Boudreau, a huge improvement from the team that was arguably the most disappointing in the Western Conference for 25 games under Travis Green (8-15-2). They’re aggressive, they’re confident, and they believe. As much as the Canucks probably just wanted to keep going, the extended break (they haven’t played since Dec. 16) is a good thing for them entering their game at the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; SN, BSW, ESPN+, NHL LIVE). It gave Boudreau extra practice time before the holiday break and coming out of it.

Instead of constantly inputting systems and language on the fly, the Canucks had time to work on them slowly and methodically. But they were already doing things that Boudreau’s teams have historically done well: Unleash offense through an attack-mode style that leads to more high-danger chances for than against. He encourages aggressive forechecking to create turnovers and implores his team to play fast through the neutral zone, using the puck to create the speed. The Canucks are thriving with the aggressive approach. I don’t see it changing much either. They have the skill, talent and speed to make it work.

The New York Islanders are clearly in a bad spot and have clearly underperformed. Even though they lost a lot of guys due to COVID-19 and injuries, they still lost games. Good teams should find ways to win, and the Islanders have not. Can they still make a push or is it too late? — @JCheris17

The Islanders have 56 games remaining. It’s still early, but it needs to happen ASAP, and they weren’t showing enough prior to the extended holiday break for me to think they’re ready to get rolling coming out of the break. 

They’re 3-2-4 in December, better than their 2-8-0 November when they lost eight straight to close the month, and three wins in nine games isn’t inspiring confidence for a sustained run of success. The Islanders struggle to score consistently. They’re not fast or dynamic. New York’s bread and butter was suffocating the opposition and relying on its fourth line to be able to play against any line. That’s not happening. I don’t see it turning around quickly.

Video: BOS@NYI: Beauvillier rockets slap shot home for PPG

Even if the Islanders get hot, it’s unrealistic to think they will break into the top four of the Metropolitan Division. They have four games in hand on the fourth-place Pittsburgh Penguins, but they’re 17 points behind them. Get all eight points available in those four games and they’re still nine points back. They’re chasing the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, which means right now they’re chasing the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres in their way. It’s too much, even with 56 games to play.

If only one Red Wings player could be considered for the Calder Trophy, who would you pick thus far: Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond, Alex Nedeljkovic? — @AmadoDesperado

Seider has to be the favorite for the Calder Trophy given to the player voted NHL rookie of the year. A 20-year-old defensemen averaging 22:26 of ice time per game with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in his first 31 NHL games is rare and should be celebrated. Raymond, a forward, has been dynamic with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists), but I’m going to side with the defenseman if it’s close because he must play more and handle more responsibilities, including shorthanded situations. Raymond, through no fault of his own, doesn’t play on the penalty kill. 

Seider plays with confidence and swagger. He’s good, and maybe the best thing about him is he knows it and doesn’t shy away from it. Seider projects to be for the Red Wings what Victor Hedman is for the Tampa Bay Lightning, what Roman Josi is for the Nashville Predators, what Cale Makar is for the Colorado Avalanche, what Adam Fox is for the New York Rangers and what Drew Doughty is for the Los Angeles Kings.

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