Throughout the summer, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong has been among the busiest and most aggressive team builders in the league.
In free agency, the Blues made plays to add scoring depth with the signing of David Perron, St. Louis solidified themselves down the middle by bringing Tyler Bozak aboard and Armstrong tugged on some hometown heartstrings in getting Patrick Maroon to come aboard. The Blues’ biggest move, however, was the acquisition of true-blue first-line pivot Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres in one of the summer’s most notable deals. It was the single addition that headlined a summer that has seen St. Louis climb to the top of just about every list of off-season winners and losers.
Given the roster the Blues have been able to assemble throughout the summer, too, some projections have St. Louis safely in the post-season, if not as one of the Central Division and Western Conference’s top contenders. That isn’t without reason, either.
On paper, the Blues have the out-and-out scoring talent to be a threat on a nightly basis. In Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, not to mention O’Reilly and Perron, there should be more than enough pure offense to run with the best and brightest in the league. And defensively, the Blues have assembled a solid group. Captain Alex Pietrangelo and young stalwart Colton Parayko give St. Louis one heck of a one-two punch on its top two pairings, and there’s enough depth — be it Joel Edmundson, Vince Dunn or veteran Jay Bouwmeester — that the Blues need not worry about defensive deficiencies.
But as St. Louis aims for a return to post-season play, it’s not Tarasenko or O’Reilly or Pietrangelo or Parayko who stand to make or break the coming campaign. We know what to expect from all four, and chances are each will either meet or exceed expectations. It’s not even Schwartz or Schenn or Bozak or Maroon who hold the key to St. Louis’ playoff return. Rather, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of No. 1 netminder Jake Allen, who enters the 2018-19 season with considerable pressure to ensure the Blues make good on a truly successful summer.
This isn’t the first time Allen is facing the pressure of taking on St. Louis’ top job, of course. For the past two seasons, since the departure of former crease-mate Brian Elliott prior to the 2016-17 campaign, the 28-year-old has been the go-to guy between the pipes for the Blues. But to say the results haven’t been there for Allen would be somewhat of an understatement, and despite a performance worthy of a 10th-place Calder Trophy finish in 2014-15 and a stellar .920 SP across 47 games during the 2015-16 campaign, Allen simply hasn’t taken to the starter’s role in the way St. Louis was expecting.
The first signs of trouble for Allen came during his first year as the Blues starter. Handed a heavier workload than ever before in 2016-17 with nearly 30 games played before the calendar turned, Allen’s struggles were significant. In fact, it would be safe to say that on most nights during the first half of his first full season as a big-league starter, the Blues were able to win in spite of Allen. The biggest indication of his troubling campaign as St. Louis’ No. 1 netminder during that time came in late-January, when then-coach Ken Hitchcock made the bold decision to leave Allen behind ahead of a road trip. It wasn’t a decision for which Hitchcock could necessarily be blamed. At the time, despite an above-.500 record, Allen was sporting an unsightly .897 save percentage across 34 appearances.
As that campaign wore on, though, Allen found his form, and across the back half of the season, he did an about-face en route to becoming one of the bright lights of the Blues run during the home stretch. He lost only eight games across his final 27 regular season appearances, sported a stellar .935 SP and posted three shutouts. That led some to believe the 2017-18 campaign would be Allen’s best, his first truly successful season as an NHL starter. His continued success in the post-season, where he posted a .935 SP through 11 games, contributed to those high hopes, too.
The expectation was entirely different from reality, however. Despite recovering to finish the 2016-17 campaign with a .915 SP across 61 games, he was plagued with inconsistency throughout the beginning of the next season. Through November of last season, he was sporting a .907 SP. By the end of February, his SP had slipped to .904. And when the season closed, after having at times lost the starting job to now-departed backup Carter Hutton, Allen boasted a career-worst .906 SP, 2.75 goals-against average and managed just a single shutout despite 56 starts.
So, the question now facing the Blues is whether Allen can be the netminder they once believed him to be, if he’s solid enough to get the job done with an improved roster in front of him. And though there may be some consternation among St. Louis faithful, there’s reason to believe Allen can rise to the occasion.
Allen is by no means a bad goaltender. Matter of fact, he’s almost perfectly average. Since 2009-10, the league average SP has sat anywhere between .911 and .915, while Allen has maintained a .913 SP across his 219 career games. Over the past four seasons, too, Allen has been right in the middle of the pack when it comes to 5-on-5 play. Of the 40 goaltenders to play at least 5,000 minutes at five-a-side since the 2014-15 campaign, Allen is tied for 20th with Ben Bishop and Frederik Andersen, all three boasting a .925 SP over the past four seasons. But average might not be enough from Allen any longer. There are 33 goaltenders have played 60 or more games in a season while posting SP numbers between .910 and .915 in the post-lockout era. And of those netminders, 42 percent have failed to backstop their teams to the post-season, including six of the past 10 over the past four seasons.
But Allen has proven he can have extended success. The way he closed the 2016-17 campaign was no fluke, nor was his 47-game, .920 SP performance as a sophomore was proof he can piece together extended success. And while St. Louis’ success may not entirely hinge on whether Allen enters the upper-echelon of NHL netminders, the heights the Blues reach almost certainly will.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.