Sputtering rivals keep slumping Blues from falling far behind

Sports columnists Jeff Gordon and Ben Frederickson dig into the Blues’ early-season scoring troubles and attempt to (well, sort of) calm the concerns.

Ben Frederickson

Jeff Gordon

Chris Drury

The Blues have fallen into one of their deepest funks in recent years. After winning their first three games, they lost their next four in regulation time while threatening to fall well off the playoff chase pace.

Fortunately no Central Division team has raced to a fast start this season. The injury-depleted Colorado Avalanche began their Stanley Cup defense by going 4-4-1 in their first nine games.

The two Blues’ two immediate rivals, the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators, are 4-4-1 and 3-5-1 respectively. The Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets are the division pacesetters with 5-3-1 records, so the front of the pack is still within sight.

Oh, and Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger suffered a lower-body injury Saturday, so keep an eye on that.

Over in the Pacific Division, the bottom five teams are at .500 or worse.

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The Vancouver Canucks are just one of many Western Conference teams that suffered a poor start. The Canucks expect to bid for a playoff berth this season, but they were threatening to end that bid before November arrived by going 0-5-2 in their first seven games.

President of hockey operations Jim Rutherford threw fuel on the fire during a broadcast appearance.

“We may very well be in a rebuild in the direction we’re going,” Rutherford warned. “But ideally, we’d like to transition this team on the fly. We do have some core players, some young players that are really good.”

The threat of a rebuild created some buzz around cornerstone center Bo Horvat, who is playing with an expiring contract. Efforts to lock him in ahead of his looming free agency have failed, so his contract status and the team’s poor start sparked some trade speculation.

There were also rumblings that coach Bruce Boudreau was in peril, but Sportsnet reported that the Canucks front office warned key players that personnel changes were more likely that a coaching change.

The Canucks are still paying former coach Travis Green. Firing Boudreau would force them to put a third head coach on the payroll, which helps explain why Vancouver GM Patrik Allvin gave Boudreau the dreaded vote of confidence.

The team made two trades last week, adding defenseman Ethan Bear from Carolina and depth forward Jack Studnicka from Boston. The Canucks have been playing without injured defensemen Quinn Hughes, Travis Dermott, Tucker Poolman and Riley Stillman plus injured winger Brock Boeser.

Against this backdrop, the Canucks pulled their stuff together and won 5-4 at Seattle before returning home to drub the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1.

“I think you guys can probably feel it in the room, just when you walk in here,” Horvat told reporters after the second victory. “Obviously, there’s a lot more energy, smiles on our faces. But I mean, we’ve got to dig ourselves out of a hole here. Just because we won two games, you can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to keep going here.”

True, but imagine where the team would be if they lose those games.

“You could tell it was like the weight of the world was lifted off our shoulders,” Boudreau said. “Every other third period has been like, ‘Oh-oh, what’s going to happen that’s negative?’ Once we got through the first three minutes (tonight), it was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ And everybody just played. I think confidence is an amazing thing. When you don’t have it, it kills you. When you have it, it’s really good. And it looks like we’re gaining a little bit right now. We’re not out of the woods . . .  but, I mean, we’re better than we were a week ago.”

And they are feeling better than the Blues are right now. Can the Note muster their same sort of reversal and get back on track?

The Los Angeles Kings roll into town fresh off an impressive 4-2 victory over the staggering Toronto Maple Leafs. Coach Todd McLellan has balanced up his scoring by moving eternal prospect Gabriel Vilardi up to the top line with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe.

McLellan also has trade addition Kevin Fiala driving offense on the third line. Fiala had an even-strength goal and a power-play assist against the Maple Leafs while Vilardi, the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, has three goals and an assist in his last three games.

First-year Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice came into the season looking to spread out his offense over his forward lines, but it finally occurred to him to put Our Town’s Matthew Tkachuk on the top line with star center Aleksander Barkov. And it worked very well. Imagine that!

The depleted Philadelphia Flyers started this season 5-2-0 with taskmaster John Tortorella at the helm. But sustaining that pace won’t be easy. No. 1 center Sean Couturier seemed on track to return earlier this season, but additional back pain sent him back into the shop for more surgery. At best he will miss much of the regular season. He’s in first year of an eight-year, $62 million contract, so the Flyers are hoping this doesn’t turn into a career-threatening scenario.

Also, Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk could miss six weeks after needing his broken index finger repaired. And winger Cam Atkinson remains off the ice due to an upper-body injury, so there is no timetable for his return.

Toronto needs at least stopgap help on its depleted blue line, but GM Kyle Dubas took a pass on trading for Bear because he doesn’t want to sacrifice  another draft pick. The Buffalo Sabres could also use defensive help since Mattias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju have missed time.

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun will need a few more weeks to recover from his surgical repairs, so GM Bill Armstrong won’t be trading him any time soon. But he will trade Chychrun at some point as he continues his tank-and-rebuild process.

Our old friend Jaden Schwartz has put his injury-marred 2021-22 season behind him. He has produced 10 points in his first 10 games while averaging more than three shots per game.

The Ottawa Senators hoped to make their big move back into serious contention this season, but losing forward Josh Norris to shoulder surgery could undermine that bid. Fortunately it appear forward prospect Shane Pinto is ready to produce.

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