Big names owe Blues big games

By Bernie Miklasz
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Chevy Chase vehicle “European Vacation” was a mediocre follow-up to the first National Lampoon “Vacation” comedy.

The St. Louis Blues should know something about that.

The aftermath of their European vacation hasn’t gone too well.

Sure, the Blues went to Sweden and won two games from the despised Detroit Red Wings, but the boys haven’t been the same since returning from the NHL’s goodwill and bad-luck tour.

Bad luck? Evidently. Most of the NHL teams that have gone overseas in recent seasons have lapsed into sluggish form. Chicago was an exception this season; the Blackhawks went 6-3-1 in their first 10 games. The trip wasn’t a problem for Chicago, but the other three tour groups are lagging. The Blues went 5-4-1 in their first 10, Detroit went 4-4-2, and Florida sagged to a 2-7-1 mark.

Last season, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Ottawa took the NHL’s guided tour of Europe; three of the four came home dragging (Rangers excluded). And all four coaches got fired last season. Even mighty Pittsburgh – which recovered to win the Stanley Cup – was around .500 when coach Michel Therrien was fired Feb. 15. And in 2007-2008 the two teams (Los Angeles, Anaheim) had slow starts after traveling to Europe. And LA fired coach Marc Crawford.

It’s been a different kind of Stockholm syndrome for the Blues, but that excuse has expired. Their malaise at Scottrade Center has been baffling, to say the least. Going into tonight’s home game against Calgary, the Blues are 1-5 at Scottrade, have scored seven goals in six games, and are 0 for 23 on the power play. They failed to score in their last two home games.

What’s going on here? Actually, it’s pretty simple.

The Blues’ best players aren’t getting it done. They’re providing little impact. Take a look at these plus-minus ratings for several important Blues in their games at Scottrade this season: Andy McDonald, minus six; David Backes, minus five; and Paul Kariya, Patrik Berglund and Brad Boyes, minus four. Defenseman Eric Brewer is already a minus three. Welcome back.

And until the top forwards and defensemen start playing up to their salary or expectation levels, the Blues will continue to stall.

Any other form of analysis constitutes an overreach. There isn’t a team among the four major professional sports leagues that can succeed when its star players, as a group, are underachieving.

The Blues’ best players have to be the best players.

Not the worst.

As coach Andy Murray said, “Isn’t that why we pay them like that? Don’t we expect them to be? When their agents come in at the end of the year and talk contracts, I’m sure they talk about what the players have done, or what they’re going to do for us in the future. And we need them to live up to that. I have no problem in saying that. We need our best to be the best.”

Murray quickly added that the coaches are accountable, too.

“We don’t ever shirk responsibilities ourselves,” Murray said. “People felt last year that we coached our team up a bit. Well, to me we’ve got to coach our team up again. If that’s what it’s going to take, then we’ve got to do a better job of coaching. We have to get the right people out there. We have to make sure that our game plan is sound. We have to do a better job ourselves.”

In an attempt to fix the malfunctioning power play, Murray went into teaching mode earlier this week in practice. Emphasizing the need for more mobility across the blue line – to create better shooting angles – was one teaching point. Murray also instructed defenseman Erik Johnson to “blast away” while manning the point.

What, you were expecting a reinvention of hockey strategy?

“Our power play concept, which was successful for us last year, is a basic one,” Murray said. “And that’s the one we have to rely on.”

After 12 games last season, the Blues were 5-6-1.

After 12 games this season, the Blues are 5-6-1.

There is a difference, however: expectations. After last season’s inspiring run to the playoffs, we assumed the Blues would have a strong launch. Kariya and Johnson were back from injuries. The stars were properly aligned. But the Blues are no longer precocious underdogs, and I think the pressure is wearing on this team.

“We performed at a very high rate in the second half last season, so why shouldn’t people expect that of us? We don’t have a problem with that,” Murray said. “People are disappointed in our play. Our fans deserve more. We have to be better than we’ve been. But we’re not that far off. The reason we got it turned around last year is, we didn’t back down. We kept battling and found a way to get our points and we were rewarded in the second half. Even though there’s a bit of negativity around us right now, we’ve got to keep working and play as hard as we can.”

And the Blues’ stars have to ramp it up. Did they leave their “A” game in Sweden? Well, it’s time to get it back.