Benjamin Hochman: Scratching Hoffman was a start, but Berube and Blues must find motivation — or could miss playoffs

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Eleven scores and a fortnight ago, you read a column here about actual confidence in the Blues.

But with those 11 goals in seven games, and just five added points in the standings later, the Blues have even the most-optimistic observers wondering what has happened — and if it’s too late to fix the problems.

And what’s interesting is that Vladimir Tarasenko is playing really well. Some thought a returning jolt from No. 91 would rejuvenate the Blues. Instead, the team has gone 2-4-1.

There is still a good amount of hockey to play. The Blues are in a good place to nab one of the four playoff spots in the West Division. But the Blues blew a golden opportunity — five of their last seven games were against teams below them. Craig Berube’s Blues are letting a lot of people down, in part because they’re not consistently playing Craig Berube hockey.

The postgame quotes are sounding similar to those from the first months of the 2018-19 season. This Blues club has a new captain and some new faces, but still has many of the same players from that infamous stretch, which is now a famous stretch, because it was a precursor to the amazing Cup run. The current Blues just seem to have so many issues. For a while, the talk was the team was playing poor defensively. Now, the team isn’t producing much much offense (while playing some inopportune defense).

“Yeah, I definitely didn’t expect us to be in this position,” Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues’ captain, said on a postgame Zoom after the club lost in overtime Sunday to last-place Anaheim. “I know how good we can be and our personnel and how good it is. This happens. I think none of us expected it, but there’s definitely growth to be had -— we have to find a way out and the only way we’re going to do this is together. If we don’t, we obviously won’t be where we want to. But it’s challenging for every one of us, coaching staff, every player, our goaltending. We have to help each other out — and it’s frustrating right now.”

One thing Berube did during the once-woebegone December of 2018 was bench a high-paid player. Blues forward David Perron was playing poorly and making maddening penalties. So, the coach made Perron a healthy scratch on Dec. 9, 2018. The Blues were demolished, 6-1. At home. But Berube pushed the right button — it seemed to push Perron. And Perron’s teammates noticed — and were put on notice. Before his scratch, Perron played in 27 games, had 16 points and was minus-five. After his scratch, Perron played in 30 games, had 30 points and was plus-eight.

That, of course, brings us to Mike Hoffman. The one-year, $4-million deal the Blues gave him seemed like a win-win — it gave him a chance to play for a a seemingly strong playoff team and boost his status, and it gave the seemingly strong playoff team a proven scorer.

Well, here we are. The Blues might not even end up a playoff team — and part of it is because the scorer isn’t a scorer. He has netted two goals since Feb. 20. So, Berube benched him. Hoffman was a healthy scratch in Sunday’s home loss. The move was a smart one — the coach is trying to find ways to shake things up, but he only has so many options. If one missed game can inspire Hoffman to play many passionate games, it’s worth it.

Some wonder if the Blues should just trade Hoffman at the deadline, get a draft pick or a young player for a guy who will become a free agent. No, don’t do that. See him through. Try to unlock the scoring he’s got in him. He’s too talented. And if he has any pride, surely the benching will motivate him. Maybe he’ll provide more in other facets of the game, too.

Hoffman isn’t the only Blue trending down now. For instance, Zach Sanford has two points in the past 11 games. Jordan Kyrou has struggled lately — and he was the energizer of the team earlier in the year, when hopes were high.

“I think it’s just the confidence in our scoring ability right now,” said O’Reilly, whose team scored more than three goals in just three games in March. “We’re just not scoring enough. Even I felt (Sunday) some of these passes I gave guys were just on edge. Usually I can get that flat to a guy, give him time where he doesn’t have to settle it and he can shoot it right away. It’s just little things like that that are kind of not giving us the best chance to score. It’s frustrating because we worked hard to get the puck back and put ourselves in a good scoring area — and the puck’s not going in.”

Tarasenko provides optimism. He recently scored on a one-timer. He’s making dazzling passes. He’s hustling up and down the ice on every shift. But as we’re learning, one guy can’t change four lines.

Meanwhile, here’s your latest reminder that the upcoming Blues schedule is brutal. They have 21 remaining games — 17 are against the teams in first, second and third place in the division. That includes Colorado. The Blues head there for their next two games, on Friday and Saturday.

So, as for that confidence, Tarasenko said Sunday, “To make it clear, there is no depression. We’re pretty confident in ourselves.”

But having confidence in the Blues is tougher to do than it was 14 days ago — and even then, the glass was only half full.