By scheduling winter breaks around its All-Star Game, the NHL gives its teams a chance to refresh, reset and rethink.
The Blues will have nine days between games after playing Wednesday night in Anaheim. Players, coaches and executives will reflect on the disappointing season and ponder potential solutions.
Wish them luck because this is a team in-between. The Blues are built to win now, but they are not winning.
They aren’t in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, but they haven’t fallen far off the pace either.
Interim coach Craig Berube has made some progress with the group, but not enough to earn the job on a permanent basis.
They subtracted players who are either currently out of the NHL (Scottie Upshall, Patrik Berglund, Chris Thorburn) or failing to produce elsewhere (Vladimir Sobotka, Dmitrij Jaskin, Kyle Brodziak, Tage Thompson). Key additions Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron are performing at peak levels and Tyler Bozak has chipped in.
Yet this team is worse than last season’s version.
They have many established, well-respected veterans whom other franchises covet. Yet their whole is less than the sum of its parts.
They have an ample supply of promising prospects, but what should general manager Doug Armstrong do with them? The Blues aren’t playing well enough to sacrifice potential long-term assets for short-term help.
Then again, rushing a youth movement while the team still enjoys mathematical life in the playoff race isn’t appealing either.
The Blues have some motivation to trade away veterans and tank the season. They could keep their 2019 first-round pick if it lands in the top 10 and send their 2020 pick to Buffalo instead as part of the O’Reilly trade.
They could get into the draft lottery and have a shot at generational talent Jack Hughes. They could join the “Lose for Hughes” movement. But with so many rival teams struggling, the Blues could still reach the playoff bracket.
Jordan Binnington has stopped the team’s bleeding in goal, going 4-1-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage in his eight appearances. But he has benefited from some puck luck — making multiple saves with the knob of his stick, for instance — and the Band-Aid slipped during Monday’s 4-3 loss.
As for beleaguered netminder Jake Allen, he has been good on the road this season but generally terrible at home, where he can feel the palpable angst of skeptical fans milling about Enterprise Center.
Winger Vladimir Tarasenko has been better lately, producing nine points in 10 games this month. But he still lacks his old 40-goal swagger. Why must he ruminate about life’s complexities before firing the puck?
Scoring is up across the league with one forward after another enjoying a career season. Yet Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz, last season’s dynamic duo, have combined to score just three goals since Dec. 11.
Defenseman Colton Parayko has accepted more defensive responsibility, but his offensive production has diminished. Since returning from his broken hand, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has picked up his offense (eight points in his last 11 games), but he has struggled to lock down the defensive zone.
The Blues are in the same predicament as the once-mighty Kings. Berube faces many of the same challenges facing interim Kings coach Willie Desjardins.
“As a coach, my job is to find ways to win,” Desjardins told reporters after his team beat the Blues on Monday. “Like, I’ve got to find ways to win and keep working at that. It is kind of surprising, because I feel we can play better, and yet we’re still not totally out of it. It’s still around ... if we do get a few things better, I think we can play better. I still think we have more. But we have had some time where we haven’t got it going yet. We have to stay on it.”
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Blues should be further along than the Kings, thanks to Armstrong’s summer additions, the emergence of rookie forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, the return of Robby Fabbri and the development of young veterans Vince Dunn, Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford.
But the Blues aren’t further along, so here we are.
During the nine-day break, Armstrong will talk trade with his fellow general managers. Berube and his assistants will doodle in their down time, sketching X’s and O’s and scribbling lineup combinations. Banged-up players will rest, heal and refocus.
Maybe somebody has an epiphany on the golf course or at the beach. Maybe the answer to this puzzle will reveal itself in mid-vacation.
Fans can only hope so. Following a team in-between is an exasperating way to spend seven months of their life.