As sports fans get ready to say good riddance to 2021, COVID and its variants are here to remind us that they are still going to impact the sports world into 2022. With the Omicron variant causing new cases at alarming rates, the NHL has become the first major sports league to fully shut down to try and get a grasp on this new strain and its approach moving forward. College basketball has seen 32 teams go on a pause and the NFL had to move 3 games off of Sunday in Week 15 to ensure that teams would have enough eligible players on their rosters to compete.
Per the norm in response to the various league and sports’ actions, many players and coaches took to social media to voice their opinion. Many players and teams are frustrated by the fact that they are vaccinated, boostered, and asymptomatic, but they are being forced to sit out 10 days while their team plays on without them. Regardless of your political affiliation or opinion on the virus, it is difficult to not agree with their frustration. They have done everything asked of them, but are still being forced to miss games or seeing their season shortened.
One team that has been hammered by Covid issues this year are my beloved St. Louis Blues. As of this date, the Blues have had 6 players miss time due to being placed on the Covid list. That doesn’t seem like a ton compared to other teams, but when that list includes your captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner and former All-Star, Ryan O’Reilly; leading +/- defenseman and former All- Star, Justin Faulk; Stanley Cup winning goaltender and former All-Star, Jordan Binnington; and big offseason forward acquisition that is second on the team in goals and a former All-Star, Brandon Saad; the losses have been significant. Complicate those losses with substantial injuries to last year’s leading goal scorer and former All-Star; David Perron; along with assistant captain and top six forward Brayden Schenn; rising forward Robert Thomas, who was in the top ten in the league in assists; Jordan Kyrou who was leading the team in scoring and looking like an All-Star when he got injured; and back-up goaltender, Villie Husso, who was sporting an unbelievable .927 save percentage in his seven starts; and it is amazing the Blues haven’t had to go on a pause of their own. So while the Blues may not be at the top of NHL man games lost this seaon, it the significance of the players they have lost that is so alarming.
What is even more incredible about some of those personnel losses is that due to salary cap issues or the abruptness of a positive test, the Blues have played at least 5 games short a man on the roster. One game in Florida they had to have the local emergency goaltender as their backup. Once they were able to stabilize that situation, they suddenly had to thrust their third string goaltender into action due to injury, and all he’s done is go 5-0 with a .958 save percentage, despite only getting 23 NHL starts in his 5 years in the league prior to joining the Blues. In between one of those starts, the Blues used their fourth string goaltender, and all he did was stop 36 of 39 shots to help the Blues earn a point before being traded away to help create cap space.
With all of the injuries an illness the Blues have endured this year, the club has seen 4 guys make their NHL debuts and left most fans scrambling to figure out who is in the lineup before each game. Yet one thing is constant with this club, you don’t hear anyone complaining and they just keep on winning. A lot of teams and coaches talk about the next man up mantra, but then you see their coaches talking at press conferences about the guys they are missing or how things will be different when they return to full strength. Coaches often give time-tables for when key players will return as a reminder to the media that they are missing pieces that will result in better team performance when they return. Coaches don’t want to make excuses, but many times they have to find something to explain why their team is faltering while players are out with injuries.
However, Blues fans and media don’t hear those excuses. Craig Berube doesn’t believe in excuses, and the job he is doing this year might be the best of his career. Just about everyone is familiar with how he took over a team in 2018 that was failing on and off the ice. The Blues had put pieces in place, again, to be a serious playoff contender, but they stumbled out of the gate and fired their head coach before Thanksgiving. Not long after Berube took over, a fight between two players at practice went viral. The Blues continued to sputter before eventually having the worst record in the league. That is where the steady hand of Berube’s leadership and straight-forward demeanor help the Blues go on one of the most magical runs in sports history. Literally a worst to first, mid-season turnaround that resulted in the Blues winning their first Stanley Cup, but I’m here to say that I believe the job he is doing in the 2021-22 season stands tall over that 2018-19 Cup winning team.
Before the season even started, the Blues long-time superstar Vladimir Tarasenko demanded a trade, citing irreconcilable differences. After exposing Tarasenko in the expansion draft, Blues GM, Doug Armstrong, refused to just give the star winger away without getting a far exchange in return. As the season approached, it became more clear that the disgruntled forward would likely be forced to play for the only franchise he knew, the one he said he didn’t want to play for anymore. Nobody really knew what to think or expect, especially since it had been two years since Tarasenko had been fully healthy, which is why he was wanting a trade and why so many teams passed on him or offered little in return. In typical Berube fashion, he did not have much to say publicly except that he was glad to have #91 still with the Blues. Now after 31 games, the franchise icon is leading the team in scoring and possibly playing the best two way hockey of his career, all without any complaints or whispers of still wanting a trade.
The Chief has not just worked his magic with the star players, but he is getting the best out of guys he has helped develop at the NHL level. Kyrou and Thomas were having breakout seasons, but possibly the most improved player on the roster is Ivan Barbashev. Berube has long been a fan of #49, as he famously would start his 4th line centered by Barbashev during their Stanley Cup run, but Barbashev’s main responsibilities were to center a line focused on physically wearing down the opponents top defensive pairing or forward line with puck possession in the offensive zone. Barbashev also had some penalty killing responsibilities, but he hadn’t show consistent scoring touch or faceoff prowess to really force a top 6 type role. Now this year with all of the injuries and paired up with fellow Russians, Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich, Barbashev is just three goals off his career high 14 and 1 point off his career high 26 not even halfway through the season.
Berube’s patience and persistence with his younger players has paid off in big ways this season. One of the keys to the Blues sustained success over the years is their ability to maneuver the salary cap by not getting locked into monster contracts. The Blues typically spend to the cap with very good players, which means they constantly have to develop younger guys from their own system or make savy trades to stay under the cap. This year another one of those young guys seems to be flourishing under Berube. Prior to this season, Logan Brown had only played 30 NHL games despite being the 11th player selected in the 2016 draft by Ottawa. Due to all of the injuries and illness, Brown was called up and has shined. In his 30 games with the Senators, Brown recorded 1 goal and 9 points in his career, but in his first 10 games with the Blues he has 3 goals and 6 points, and he looks like a guy that will be with the Blues the rest of the season. He was acquired for a player with a similar profile in Zach Sanford, but Berube could never seem to consistently bring out the best in Sanford. He would show flashes before eventually falling back into the doghouse, frustrating both the coaches and fans.
Berube’s other big revelation this year has been Niko Mikkola. The Blues have never quite been the same since Jay Bouwmeester was forced to suddenly retire due to a heart issue. His loss, along with superstar captain Alex Pietrangelo’s free agency departure, has really created a void on the back end for the Blues. During their Cup run in 2019, the Blues used their big and mobile defensive unit to hem teams into their own end and squeeze the life out of them once they got a lead. Last season was frustrating to watch the Blues routinely get pushed around in their own zone and not be able to keep teams on the outside defensively. Mikkola had the size the step into a bigger role last season, but he never looked comfortable. It seemed as if he didn’t quite have the skating ability to play against other teams top forwards or the ability to move the puck cleanly against a heavy forecheck, which led to him finishing the season with a -11 rating in just 30 games. Berube and the staff must have felt the same way because Mikkola was a healthy scratch for the majority of the first 15 games of the season, and he didn’t seem to be more than a depth piece. However, The Chief didn’t give up on Mikkola, as his 6 foot 4 frame is something the Blues desperately needed on the back end. Instead, when the injuries mounted and the hungry young player had been getting coached up in practices, Mikkola has seized his opportunity. He looks like a completely different player this year, throwing his big frame around and not letting rushing forwards dance around him. He has gone from a depth piece to a player that is averaging over 20 minutes per game, often times going up against one of the opposing team’s top two lines. Despite the tough assignments, he is even in the +/- and he has matched his career point total from his previous 35 NHL games in just 16 games this year.
All of these revelations and the steady hand of Craig Berube have the Blues sitting one point out of first place in their division and the Western Conference as the league has officially paused all activities for a week. That pause should allow some of the Blues key players an opportunity to return. It would seem that this would make the team that much stronger, but it could take away some of the grit of playing guys on two way contracts that Berube seems to relish.
Maybe this year’s Blues team has been so successful because it more closely models who The Chief was as a player. Despite playing in over 1,000 career games, Berube was a guy who couldn’t take a shift off and had a defined role. He was a tough guy, when the league allowed tough guys and enforcers to patrol the ice. While playing over 1,000 games, Berube only scored 61 goals, but managed to acquire over 3,000 career penalty minutes. He was a fighter in every sense of the word, and he’s brought that straigh-forward mentality to the Blues. He has most of his guys playing the best hockey of their career right now, and this team is truly fighting to win every game with the talent that they are missing. Their is still a long way to go in this season, and when the Blues get all of their pieces back they’ll likely be among the league’s best teams and poised for another Stanley Cup run. However, as talent returns most people don’t give the coach enough credit for winning and holding things together. While it remains to be seen how this season plays out, I don’t think there is any doubt that Craig Berube is doing a hell of a job and deserves to be in the running for the Jack Adams award next summer.