Should the St. Louis Blues Give Jake Allen an Extended Break?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Blues’ goaltending has become a real area of concern. Does Jake Allen need to hit the reset button?

After a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night, there’s no longer any denying that the St. Louis Blues are in a serious slump. Since a three-game winning streak was snapped with a December 3 loss to Winnipeg, the Blues are 7-9-2 and haven’t won back-to-back games. Couple that bad stretch with the fact that the Blues are 5-11-1 on the road this season, and there’s major cause for concern with this team.

It’s not as if anyone should have had tremendous expectations for the Blues this season after they allowed David Backes and Troy Brouwer to walk in free agency and traded Brian Elliott for a second-round pick, but most would have expected them to at least get competent play from Jake Allen, the 26-year-old goaltender who they rewarded with a four-year, $17.4 million-dollar contract this past offseason.

While it would have been totally reasonable to expect hiccups from Allen, who had periods of prolonged struggle during the 2015-16 season, it’s been surprising to see objectively poor play from Allen, who many considered to be one of the league’s rising young netminders. It’s hard to pinpoint a single game that Allen has “stolen” for the Blues this year, yet there are several that could reasonably be pinned on him, even though he’s occasionally been the victim of poor play in front of him from a usually solid Blues defensive corps.

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After going 11-3-3 with a 2.38 goals-against average, .911 save percentage, and a shutout in October and November, Allen has gone 6-8 with a 3.25 GAA and .887 save percentage since December 1. Thursday’s game was perhaps the most discouraging yet, as Allen gave up three goals on 15 shots and was pulled after 25 minutes. It marked the third time in the last five games that he’d been pulled early, and it’s likely the last chance he’ll get before Carter Hutton gets a start or two while Allen takes a break to reset.

While Hutton has performed admirably in relief of Allen–in baseball terms, he’s the lovable long reliever, if you will–the fact remains that he’s 4-5-2 with a 2.88 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage. Those numbers aren’t good, and while it’s possible that Hutton’s performance would level out with regular playing time, he never stood out as an obvious starting-caliber option during his three seasons with the Nashville Predators.

With the adversity that both Blues goalies have experienced recently, it’s worth wondering whether a shakeup might do the team some good, even if it’s just for a single game so that both Allen and Hutton can mentally reset. As things stand now, the most reasonable candidate to come in and make a cameo appearance would probably be 21-year-old Ville Husso, who has starred since rejoining the AHL Chicago Wolves for a start on December 28.

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Over that period, Husso–who is in his first season in North America after previously playing in his native Finland–has a 4-1 record with a 2.60 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Those results are also negatively skewed by Husso’s most recent appearance, in which he made 30 saves but also gave up five goals in a loss to the Rockford IceHogs. Prior to that start, he had given up exactly two goals in each of the four games that he started for the Wolves since his return from the ECHL.

Factoring in Husso’s two starts prior to his assignment to the ECHL Missouri Mavericks, Husso has a 5-2 record with a 2.58 GAA and .913 save percentage in seven starts. While he’s still very unproven, there’s a rather large contingent that sees Husso as the Blues’ long-term goalie of the future, and he probably has a better chance of succeeding in the NHL than either of the Wolves’ other two goalies, Pheonix Copley and Jordan Binnington (who, for unknown reasons, hasn’t played since December 21).

With just seven AHL games under his belt, Husso almost certainly isn’t ready to handle an NHL workload over an extended period. That’s not a problem, though; the Blues are going to have to give more chances to Allen (and Hutton, for that matter) because of the money they have invested in their veteran goaltenders, so no one else in the system is going to take over the starting goalie job at the NHL level this season.

With as much as the Blues’ goalies have struggled as of late, though, there’s no reason not to shake things up for a little while if the opportunity presents itself. While that’s a strategy that’s far more common in other sports than it is in the NHL, it’s one that the Blues have utilized with Allen before. With Elliott having returned from an injury and Martin Brodeur still on the roster back in January of 2015, the Blues decided to give a struggling Allen a one-week break, with Elliott and Brodeur handling the goaltending duties.

That break proved to be wildly beneficial for Allen, as he posted a 11-2-2 record with a 1.78 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, and two shutouts in 18 games over the remainder of the season. It was arguably the most successful stretch of Allen’s NHL career to date, and he did enough to earn the Blues’ playoff goaltending duties, though he mostly struggled in a first-round postseason series loss to the Minnesota Wild.

While the Blues can’t afford to give an extended break to their starting goaltender every season, it’s worth seeing if the trick works once more with Allen. At this point, with the Blues having lost three of their past four in embarrassing fashion, any type of shakeup could be beneficial.

Pheonix Copley St. Louis Blues
Sep 22, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Pheonix Copley (30) makes a save against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

If GM Doug Armstrong wants to give Allen a break but doesn’t feel that Husso is experienced enough yet to make an NHL cameo, he could also call on Copley, who made his NHL debut in relief of Allen last season but has yet to make a start for the Blues. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has also been extremely impressive as of late for the Wolves. He has a 10-4-1 record with a 2.33 GAA, a .918 save percentage, and one shutout, and he held the Milwaukee Admirals to one goal on 36 shots in the Wolves’ Wednesday victory.

The biggest issue with bringing Husso (or Copley) up to the NHL for a spell would be creating a roster spot. Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson is currently on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, but he accompanied the Blues on their road trip to California and might not be out for too much longer. Gunnarsson’s return would restore the Blues to a full 23-man roster, so if they wanted to open up a spot, they’d need to put defenseman Brad Hunt through waivers to try to return him to the AHL.

Since the Blues have plenty of defensive depth in the minor leagues, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but they obviously value Hunt’s presence to some extent since they’ve kept him in the NHL for over a month. It is worth noting that Hunt is an undersized 28-year-old who has spent much of his career in the AHL, so the odds of him being picked up on waivers are rather low even though he has five points in nine games the season.

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Hutton probably deserves a game or two to try to assert himself as a reliable option. Especially with the Blues set for a back-to-back in San Jose and then Anaheim on Saturday and Sunday, though, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Blues to give Husso or Copley a cameo appearance and allow both goalies to take a mental breather while also perhaps motivating the skaters to give it their all for a new netminder.