Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1

The beginning of any sports season is a unique and fun time. Regardless of what happened during the prior season, there is a renewed and genuine sense of optimism and hope that this could be our year, that this season is going to be one to remember.

Here in St. Louis, we’ve been saying those adages for 50 years now, without fail, every October when a new hockey season rolls around for our beloved Blues. For 50 years we have hoped and yearned and cheered, and for 50 years we have had our hopes dashed, in often extremely painful ways.

But that doesn’t stop us from hoping, and it certainly won’t stop us here in 2016.

Coming off of an appearance in the Western Conference Finals that finally gave Blues fans at least some sort of a taste of playoff glory, however minor and quickly extinguished it may have been and felt. If the world were a perfect place, the Blues would be able to learn from and improve from their deep playoff run, and the 2016-17 season would be dripping with optimism and potential.

But, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the 2016 election, the world is not a perfect place. And, thus, while there is still a sense of optimism about these 2016-17 Blues, we St. Louisans have watched too many seasons of these Blues and become too conditioned to letdowns and failure to buy in too fully.

Is that sad? Yeah, it really is, but that doesn’t mean we will root any less hard or bleed any color other than Blue this winter. To say the least, the Blues look…..different this season.

Gone is the longest tenured Blue and team captain of the last 6 years, David Backes.

Gone is playoff hero and fan favorite Troy Brouwer.

Gone is Brian Elliott, the man who saved the 2015-16 season and delivered year after year of incredible goalkeeping, as underrated and underused as he frustratingly was during his time in St. Louis.

Gone is the poster boy of the ‘grittier’ Blues teams of the past few years, Steve Ott.

Ken Hitchcock, the man behind the bench for the past 5 seasons, is in his last year as coach of the Blues before giving way to Mike Yeo in 2017-18.

In are David Perron, Nail Yakupov, and a much smaller, faster version of the big and bruising Blues that we have become so accustomed to. The Blues, in their own words, will rely on “tempo and tenacity” in hopes of rekindling and improving upon the playoff success they experienced last season.

The Blues are younger, they are faster, they will play an up-tempo game that will focus on dominating possession and getting quick rushed up the ice. It’s new, it’s different, but will it be better?

That’s the question…

……….

WELL THAT WAS FUN, WASN’T IT?!!!!!

blues
Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski for USA Today

The Blues just beat the Chicago Blackhawks, at the United Center, 5-2; and for at least one night at the very outset of the season, all of our hope and optimism has been rewarded with a wonderfully satisfying win.

Despite giving up the opening goal to a Blackhawks power play unit that looked incredibly dangerous all night long, the Blues battled back to notch two equalizers and eventually pull away in a dominating third period.

Don’t let that 5-2 scoreline fool you, this game was tight and wonderful to watch.

Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Kevin Shattenkirk all tallied 3 points for the Blues, while Richard Panik and rookie Ryan Hartman scored the Blackhawks goals.

……….

As entertaining as this game was, it was actually a very strange contest to watch. Blues-Blackhawks games in the past have made their living by using a recipe that includes a lot of heavy hits, relentlessly physical forechecks, countless post-whistle scrums, gritty net-front battles, and just a general level of physicality and competition that is unmatched by any other rivalry in hockey.

This game was almost a complete about-face from the traditional style of play that is seen in a Chicago-St. Louis game. Both teams mostly lacked the relentless physicality that this rivalry has instead been known for, and this game was all about tempo, pace, and puck possession.

Instead of seeing David Backes and Andrew Shaw brutally battling for position in front of the net, a typical sequence tonight included tight neutral zone passing, a maze of poke checks from aggressive defensemen, and both teams looking to stretch each other horizontally. It was definitely different, and the Blues certainly seemed like the more effective team while implementing this new style.

St. Louis out-shot Chicago 34-19, won 60% of the faceoffs, and tended to dominate possession at times – the possession stats have not been made available from the game yet.

So, while both St. Louis and Chicago had a much different vibe and style to them, St. Louis’ play felt like a good different, while the Blackhawks looked like a shell of their formerly dominant selves.

……….

In my eyes, tonight was about as good as St. Louis could have hoped to look.

For a team that’s trying to develop and adapt to a completely different playing style, the Blues sure looked sharp for long stretches of time. Right off the opening face-off, St. Louis made a clean entry into Chicago’s zone and kept the puck buried in the offensive third for a good minute to minute and a half of solid possession.

There were a lot of really positive things that St. Louis did tonight. So, in no particular order, here they are.

  • The Blues’ power play was spectacular tonight. Capitalizing for 3 goals on 5 Blackhawks’ penalties, St. Louis looked phenomenal tonight with a man advantage. My main gripe with the Blues’ power play in the past has been that the zone entries are inconsistent and that it relies too heavily on a point man to run everything. Tonight, the Blues’ pace and speed helped them create clean zone entries with puck possession and time, and the power play had a much clearer willingness to shoot the puck instead of passing it around incessantly. It was refreshing and effective.
  • Combined with an outstanding power play was the always effective St. Louis penalty kill. Chicago’s power play will suffer this season without the presence of Andrew Shaw causing trouble down in front of the net, but after scoring the opening goal on a power play, Chicago was shut out on the man advantage in their next 3. The St. Louis defense was incredibly effective in forcing Chicago to make rushed passes and causing turnovers, and when the puck was cleared out of the zone, the Blues’ were aggressive in chasing it down and keeping possession in order to kill more time. An always terrific St. Louis penalty kill held its reputation strong tonight.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in shots on goal! The most dangerous goal scorer wearing the blue note finally decided that he needs to shoot more often, and it resulted in two goals and a constantly threatening presence every single time he touched the puck. Blues fans have long clamored for Tarasenko to be more selfish, which doesn’t mean hog the puck and try to do everything himself, but just shoot more often when the chances arise. Tarasenko was more willing to pull the trigger tonight and look what happened. More of that please.
  • Did anyone else see how aggressive Colton Parayko was in the offensive third? Tarasenko led the Blues with 5 SOG, and Parayko – the Blues’ next great defensemen – was second on the team with 4 SOG. He led rushes, he was a Shea Weber-type threat on the power play, he was a force on the defensive end – making 5 hits and garnering 3 takeaways to only 1 giveaway – and has clearly separated himself into the upper echelon of the Blues’ defense corps. It doesn’t look like Parayko is interesting in suffering through a sophomore slump in his 2nd NHL season.
  • Nail Yakupov possesses the type of speed that can transform a game and I was very impressed with his raw tools tonight. The man can absolutely FLY, and his handles are impressive as well. He does appear to lack ideal finishing ability at the net, but the Blues can absolutely turn him into a weapon. As I said, his speed can transform a game and create chances on chances on chances for his line mates. The Blues have the defensive structure to be able to cover for his liabilities on that end of the ice, so just turn him loose and let him fly all over the offensive end. He’s not a complete player, but if he’s used properly this could add an offensive facet to the Blues that they have never had.

…………

The hockey fire of optimism was already burning brightly in St. Louis following the Cardinals’ absence from the MLB playoffs for the first time since 2010, and tonight’s opener against the Blackhawks did nothing to dim things in any way.

Marching into the home arena of the most hated Blues rival and coming away with a convincing 5-2 win on national television could not feel any better, and the Blues looked as sharp as they probably could have hoped tonight.

Let’s hope they carry that momentum into tomorrow night’s clash against the Minnesota Wild in the team’s home opener in front of a raucous crowd in St. Louis.

Hockey season is back. It’s lit.

Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1

Colton Parayko: The Blues’ Next Franchise Defenseman

It was a rainy summer day this past July when my dad and I decided to head down to the St. Louis Mills Mall to check out the St. Louis Blues’ open prospects camp. As it was a prospect camp, I knew few of the guys going in; Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev were really the only names that I knew by heart going in.

But as soon as I got there and took my seat in the bleachers, my eyes were immediately attracted to a monstrous looking defenseman, wearing #55, gliding through drills like nothing I’d ever seen before. He was tall, strong, had a bomb of a slapshot and was gliding around on skates. Who in the hell was this graceful beast and why did I not know him?

Parayko going to work at the Blues' prospect camp. Photo by St. Louis Blues
Parayko going to work at the Blues’ prospect camp. Photo by St. Louis Blues

The crowd was given access to a few of the rookies after the game, and this #55 was one of them. His crowd was sparse, but I was drawn to him. I walked up to his autograph table with nothing to autograph and simply asked for his name.

”Colton Parayko” he firmly and comfortably answered, before briefly telling me about his long and winding journey to get to where he is today.

I left that day with the name ‘Colton Parayko’ firmly planted in my subconscious, and he had gained a new fan that day in me. Besides being an incredible talent on the ice, Parayko’s easygoing, down-to-earth, genuinely friendly demeanor off of it gained my respect and admiration. There was no way this kid wasn’t going to be special someday.

Well guess who made the Blues opening night roster and started on the third defense pairing against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday October 13th. That’s right, Colton Parayko was going to get his shot.

I expect that Parayko’s story will be released in far greater detail in the coming weeks as he gains more popularity and garners a greater following and respect among the hockey community, but for now here’s Ryan’s cliff notes version.

Parayko’s journey to St. Louis began with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. That’s not quite Siberia, but when I looked up Fort McMurray on Google Maps it was so far north in Canada I had to scroll almost all the way up to the North Pole to find it. Suffice to say, it’s not on a lot of hockey scouts’ typical Canadian travel list.

But a Blues scout stumbled upon Parayko slicing up the Alberta Junior Hockey League, and quickly notified the rest of the Blues scouting department. As Bill Armstrong, Blues director of amateur scouting said, “We sneaked in to see him at odd times because we didn’t want to give away who we were watching.”

Parayko became the Blues biggest scouting secret, and the Blues eventually drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2012 NHL Draft, and their secret became relatively official.

He continued playing for his college team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and continuing a trend of playing high level hockey in really obscure places.

Parayko going to work for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo by uscho.com
Parayko going to work for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo by uscho.com

In his junior season for the Nanooks, Parayko put up 6 goals and 17 assists in 23 games before reporting to the Blues AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, to finish up the year.

Coming into training camp, Parayko was viewed by many Blues pundits as a camp defenseman who would gain good experience and be ready to push for a job prior to the 2016-17 season. But nobody told that to him, and he came in with all intentions of winning a job.

And win a job he did, which circles us back to our starting point on Opening Night 2015, with Colton Parayko suited up for the St. Louis Blues.

Parayko going to work against the Oilers on Opening Night 2015. Photo by Getty Images
Parayko going to work against the Oilers on Opening Night 2015. Photo by Getty Images

9 games into the season, the 6’5” 226 lb. – did I yet mention how big this dude is? Because if I didn’t, my bad – defenseman is already delivering upon his promise. He’s produced 6 points, 3 goals and 3 assists, to go with a +6 rating in an average of 19:44 minutes on ice every night. He’s producing at a very high level while playing top tier minutes for a defenseman. And he’s only been around for 9 games.

From Barclay Plager and Al MacInnis to Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo and another tall, imposing fellow named Chris Pronger; the Blues have had some exceptional defensemen in their franchise history. Get ready to add Colton Parayko’s name to that list in short order.

As advanced statistics are still in their primal stage in hockey, I’m not really able to throw a bunch of numbers at you to show just how great Parayko has been in his first taste of the league. But I can tell you that if you want to appreciate his greatness, just watch him, (kind of funny how that works, huh?).

The same smooth skating defenseman that I saw in the Mills that rainy day in July is the same guy that anchors the blue line for the Blues every night.

He plays big minutes on both the power play and penalty kill, showing that he’s already earned the trust of Coach Ken Hitchcock. But don’t get me wrong, he deserves those minutes. Parayko runs a smooth power play from the point and has an absolute bomb of a shot that he already has a tremendous feel for and shoots at impeccable times – see: the shot that lead to Scott Gomez’s goal yesterday against Tampa Bay.

Parayko celebrating his first NHL goal against the Calgary Flames. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images
Parayko celebrating his first NHL goal against the Calgary Flames. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images

On the penalty kill, he’s a strong net front presence that can cut off space with his tremendous size and plays a really smart game. And as much as his size and physicality can jump out at you, don’t you dare go around thinking Parayko’s just a big brute back there with little to no offensive skill.

Tuesday night against Tampa Bay, in the middle of the second period, Parayko took a pass from Jori Lehtera at his own blue line and sensed the Lightning taking a change. He put his head down and turned on the jets. Victor Hedman started out skating in front of him and Parayko – all 6’5” 226 lbs. of him might I add – went flying by down the right wing to generate a terrific 1 on 1 scoring chance against Ben Bishop.

Veteran NBC announcer Mike Emrick was absolutely in awe of the speed demonstrated by Parayko, stating that “normally we see guys like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel skating like that, but Colton Parayko just did it.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I say declare that Colton Parayko will become the Blues next great franchise defenseman.

He has absolutely everything you could want in a defenseman. Size, physicality, durability, tenacity, shot blocking ability, offensive skill, tremendous skating ability and athleticism, a high hockey IQ, and the ability to play big time minutes every night. If you were creating a defenseman from scratch, his body type and skillset would be a really good start.

But, seeing as how it’s only been 9 games, Parayko definitely needs to keep up his exceptional play level for him to truly deliver on the promise of becoming what I just prophesied him of becoming.

Earlier today I implored you to enjoy the Blues while you can, well the same goes for Parayko. Great defensemen like him are rare gems, and the Blues have mined one out of the middle of nowhere.

My dad always tells me that Chris Pronger is the greatest hockey player he’s ever seen, and that there won’t be another player quite like him for a long time. Well dad, I think we may have found the next Chris Pronger-level defenseman.

And we barely even had to wait 10 years.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

Colton Parayko: The Blues’ Next Franchise Defenseman

Ryan Riffs: How Seth Russell’s Injury Affects the College Football Playoff

Back in August, as the college football season was starting, I set my College Football Playoff field to Ohio State, TCU, LSU and Baylor, (yes, I had two Big 12 teams don’t judge me). I had Ohio State winning it all, and felt pretty confident in that prediction.

Fast forward about three weeks of Ohio State struggling and Baylor dominating and my National Champion pick had switched over to Baylor. An breathtakingly dominant offense combined with a more than adequate defense, and Baylor had me sold.

Photo for Associated Press
Photo for Associated Press

Entering week 7 my pick hadn’t changed. Baylor’s offense looked dominant once again in the first half against Iowa State before I turned the channel away to focus my attention on a more exciting game. Well, while I turned away something happened that is going to change my National Championship again.

First off, I want to wish Seth Russell a quick and speedy recovery from a scary neck injury that will keep him out for the rest of the 2015 season. His health is the thing that matters most and I wish him all the best in his recovery.

The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 1). Photo by Ron Aydelotte for Waco Tribune
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 1). Photo by Ron Aydelotte for Waco Tribune
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 2). Photo by Ashley Landis for Associated Press
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 2). Photo by Ashley Landis for Associated Press

But holy smokes does it shake up the Playoff picture.

Baylor’s offense has been just stupid good so far with Russell, averaging 686 yards and 61.1 points per game. That is absolute insanity and you couldn’t even put up those type of numbers in a video game because you’d get too bored with scoring so much.

Russell has been leading the charge, throwing for 2,109 yards with 26(!) touchdowns to only 6 interceptions, and adding 402 yards and 6 more touchdowns on the ground. He’s up at the top with Leonard Fournette in the Heisman picture and is just insanely talented.

Without him? No one knows what to expect from the Baylor offense.

Art Briles insists that the team is “in good hands” with back up Jared Stidham, but consider me skeptical. The Baylor offense has always relied on really good quarterback play – read: Robert Griffin III, Bryce Petty, Nick Florence – and without Russell I don’t know what kind of team Baylor will be.

Baylor has looked way better than TCU so far this season, but does Russell’s injury open the door up for TCU to snatch up the Big 12 and secure a spot in the playoff barring another bad loss? Can Oklahoma State possibly even slip in and surprise some people?

Russell’s injury completely shuffles up the Big 12 picture, as well as the Playoff picture, and now I have to make a pick a new national champion. So who is it? Stay tuned.

………….

I don’t talk about the NBA much because I think their product is a bit of an insult to basketball. It’s just dunks and three pointers and there’s barely any quality defense played. But for the first time in at least 10 years, I can honestly say I’m excited for the NBA season to begin.

In the past, the NBA’s been predictable. It’s been LeBron and Kobe and Durant and some boring team – like the Heat or the Lakers or the Spurs or something – was basically guaranteed to win the championship. But this year? This year is different.

The NBA had some refreshing variety in the 2014-15 season, and it actually pulled me in as a fan. Instead of all of the typical mundane things I talked about above, the league was fairly unpredictable.

The Warriors were the best team around, Anthony Davis emerged as an MVP candidate, James Harden played exceptional basketball, Kevin Durant wasn’t even the best player on his own team, the Hawks and the Raptors were two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team actually thrived. The NBA was actually exciting.

The Warriors won their first title since 1975 and have a good chance of repeating in 2016. Photo by Getty Images
The Warriors won their first title since 1975 and have a good chance of repeating in 2016. Photo by Getty Images

And this year? I really have no idea what’s going to happen. The Cavaliers might finally win a title, the MVP is a total crapshoot, there’s a good crop of exciting rookies, and young upstart teams – like the Timberwolves – have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs this year.

Unpredictability is the spice of life, and the NBA has it in spades this year. Hopefully the league can deliver on the promised excitement, but suffice it to say I’ll be paying close attention this year for the first time in as long as I can remember, and that’s a new and exciting endeavor for me.

…………..

After having my heart ripped straight out of my chest for the fourth consecutive year last April, I’m really trying to keep my emotions about the St. Louis Blues in check this season.

Every year I tell myself that “this team is different this year, and this is gonna be the year they finally do it.” And every year I’m sorely disappointed. So this year I’m just trying to enjoy what the Bluenote puts out on the ice and not get too emotionally attached.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not incredibly impressed with the team already this year.

For years the Blues have been an extremely disciplined defensive team with not a lot of offensive flair. You had to really enjoy the grit and grind of hockey to enjoy watching the Blues play. But with Vladimir Tarasenko putting on a breathtaking show every night and the emergence of Robby Fabbri, the Blues have a lot of excitement and flash now.

The Tarasenk-show in full effect. Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Tarasenk-show in full effect. Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

They have guys that excite a fan base, that can sell tickets. Every night I find myself looking forward to watching the Blues, because with the Tarasenk-show and Fabbri doing their thing every night, you never know what could happen.

Robby Fabbri reacts after scoring the game winning goal against the Oilers on opening night. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images
Robby Fabbri reacts after scoring the game winning goal against the Oilers on opening night. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images

And on top of that, the team has weathered a crazy storm of injuries beautifully so far. Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and Paul Stastny have all bitten the injury bug so far, which has been absolutely brutal to watch.

But seeing guys like Colton Parayko and Scottie Upshall step up their games to fill in those voids has been amazing. The team hasn’t really missed a beat without 4 of their best players, and that’s a testament to the outstanding depth and mentality this team has.

It’s okay to be excited about the Blues, because oh my gosh they are so fun to watch, but don’t be sold yet. When mid-May rolls around and these Blues are still playing, that’s the time to believe.

But like I said about the Rams the other day, enjoy what the Blues have going. Tarasenko is a once in a lifetime talent who would be considered the best player in the NHL if he didn’t play in St. Louis. And Fabbri has a chance to be that special as well.

There was a long period of Blues futility, where winning hockey was as foreign to the city of St. Louis as winning football is nowadays. But these days are not those days, and winning hockey is customary and expected. Don’t take it for granted and enjoy this team while they’re good.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat for Getty Images
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat for Getty Images

The Blues are a unique gift, featuring an owner that actually cares about his fan base – very deeply so – and an on-ice product that’s on par with any team in the league. So watch it, enjoy it, wear your blue proudly, but make them earn your belief and respect in April and May.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: How Seth Russell’s Injury Affects the College Football Playoff