Why do St. Louis Blues fail in playoffs? It’s entirely predictable (Trending Topics)

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Minnesota Wild's Nino Niederreiter, of Switzerland, and St. Louis Blues' Robert Bortuzzo, center, reach for a loose puck as St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott, left, defends during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 11, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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Ken Hitchcock is getting a lot of criticism these days. 

Three straight first-round exits! All in just six games! What a bad job he has done!

Now, there are some people who would argue that losing in six games to Los Angeles, Chicago and a molten Minnesota team isn't that bad. Six games is one short of seven, and that's the narrowest margin by which you can lose. But put another way, dominant opponents or not, Hitchcock's winning percentage in the playoffs is just .333 over the last three seasons, and .370 overall (factoring in the 4-1 blowout of the Sharks and 0-4 sweep at the hands of the Kings in 2011-12).

That is, you'd have to say, a bit of a drop-off from the team's regular-season winning percentage under Hitchcock of .671.

But I'd argue that, to some extent, this isn't really his fault.

What the playoffs really come down to, at the end of the day, is goaltending, and the 17 postseason losses racked up over the last four years are basically attributable to that factor in St. Louis especially. Hitchcock has never received particularly good goaltending, let alone great, in his four years behind the bench there.

In 2012, he started Brian Elliott seven times in nine games, and saw the goaltender deliver him a .904 save percentage. Frankly, he's lucky to have even wrung three wins out of that postseason. That was, however, necessitated by Jaroslav Halak (.935 in 104 minutes) getting hurt early in the second period of Game 2; the Blues lost Game 1 of that series in triple overtime, as Halak stopped 31 of 34, then all 12 he saw before his injury.

Brian Elliott — career .912, about league average — is generally not going to be a goaltender who steals a series for you, even if he did post .940 in 38 games during that previous regular season (a number which led the league and earned him fifth in the Vezina voting).

The next year was that series against the Kings, and Hitchcock went back to Elliott for all six games. The reason why is simple: Halak went .899 in the regular season, which is markedly worse than Elliott's .907 in the same stretch. Elliott was greatly improved on that season-long number, as well as previous postseason, going .919. However, Jonathan Quick outdueled him slightly, allowing 10 on 177 (.944). A team can't really do much against .944 goaltending over six games. Especially when you consider the team's best skater in the regular season that year was Chris Stewart.

These were, in some ways, excusable losses. The Kings dispatched them two years in a row because the Kings are really, really good. The Blues' roster was also very much not. And if goaltending is going to be the difference in a given series, Elliott isn't the guy to steal you four games.

And clearly, the goaltending issue was one the club acknowledged last year, even as Halak continued to be well above-average throughout the regular season. That's why Doug Armstrong inexplicably sought to trade Halak (.917 that year) for a Ryan Miller (.923) rental, and also mixed in Stewart, a prospect, and a first-round pick while the Sabres rid themselves of Steve Ott as well.

The Miller-for-Halak swap was viewed as something of a panacea for the team's postseason problems, but didn't factor in that Miller while was seeing more shots than most other goalies playing behind an historically bad Sabres team, many of them were of relatively low quality because Buffalo was already losing games pretty badly (score effects, in addition to producing fewer shots-for among winning teams, also tend to depress shot quality; teams just don't try as hard to get to good scoring areas, because they don't have to).

It was no surprise to smart viewers that Miller's abysmal performance behind a good team — .903 in the regular season and .897 in the playoffs — happened, though most people couldn't have foreseen it being quite so bad.

Which led to what happened this year. The previous year's scapegoat had been traded, and ended up on Long Island, where he helped lead a resurgence for that team because, wow, he's a good goalie. The guy who was meant to fix things was mercifully and logically allowed to walk for $18 million from Vancouver that summer (and look how great that worked out for the Canucks!). And that left St. Louis with a tandem of Elliott and rookie Jake Allen.

Both were roughly league average in the regular season, and both were awful in the postseason. This was, in many ways, also foreseeable. If you're Armstrong, you never had to think you were going to get a ton out of Elliott. You'd heard that one before. And maybe you like Allen's pedigree as a former second-overall pick who, despite being 24 already, has plenty of accolades to his name including a .928 save percentage in the AHL last season and World Junior silver (he's the one who famously gave up the OT game-winner to John Carlson in 2010). But this ignores that, at any level, his career save percentage has never been above .917, and that should have been a point of concern.

Now, you don't expect a goaltender to give up two fluke goals like Allen did in an elimination game, and the footage of Hitchcock saying, “He'll be fine,” less than a minute before he coughed up that five-hole howler is going to play on a loop in Armstrong's head for a while now.

But if Armstrong looks at this team's performance in the postseason and says, “The coach has to fix this,” and not, “Maybe I shouldn't have entered a postseason with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott as my coach's two options,” then something isn't right.

He thought Martin Brodeur would fix the problem. That's the level of goaltender assessment we're dealing with.

Look, Armstrong has made strides to make his team better, and mixing in guys like Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera goes a long way toward the Blues winning the division. They got average goaltending this year, and that was something of a best-case scenario if you get right down to it. How many goalies in the playoffs are better than either of them? If you're going by starters alone, based on career numbers, I'd say probably 14 (sorry, Ondrej Pavelec). You cannot simultaneously expect to compete for a Stanley Cup and also have goaltenders like this. It doesn't make sense.

They're almost certainly going to not bring Hitchcock back. I don't think that's up for debate at this point. Again, three first-round bounce-outs in a row. But no team in this postseason had better possession numbers, and for those who say they didn't do enough to win at even-strength in terms of scoring goals, please keep in mind they outscored Minnesota 10-9 at 5-on-5.

(As an aside, here's the stat you really have to keep in mind: Vladimir Tarasenko scored six of his team's 14 goals, and took 14 of their 159 shots. That's a shooting percentage of 42.9. The rest of the Blues? They went eight of 145, and that's just 5.5 percent. TJ Oshie and David Backes make a combined $9.25 million, and their career highs in goals and points aren't great — particularly Oshie's career-best 21-39-60. If that's your offensive leader, then it's not good enough either. They've also combined for nine playoff goals in four years under Hitchcock. At some point you have to think the goalscoring isn't enough when you're trying to prop up even great possession numbers. This team in the postseason looks a lot like the Kings in the regular season.)

And maybe that's a coaching thing. Maybe the Blues control possession but don't get to the hard areas enough. Maybe they therefore need more players like Tarasenko, and fewer like Oshie — though this is true of literally all NHL teams; it's better to have guys who score 37 than guys who score 19 — to break through the coaching-induced lack of net drives. 

But then again maybe this is a forward group that just isn't good enough to be truly competitive and a goaltending situation that won't be fixed until actual good goalies are brought in. It's plainly evident that Ken Hitchcock is a great coach. But he can't fix roster construction. And that's an area in which the Blues were lacking this season, last season, two seasons ago, and the one before that. Hitchcock wringing 377 points from a possible 562 (again, that's a .671 points percentage) with all that tells you a lot more than his inability to beat playoff teams with Brian Elliott, Ryan Miller, and Jake Allen 

It's hard to imagine anyone could do that. But the Blues are (probably) about to find that out the hard way.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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