When Jordan Kyrou returned to the Blues bench 35 seconds into the second period of Tuesday’s win over the Panthers, he heard words of encouragement from his teammates and coaches.
“Hell of a play defensively, that goal is created from that defensive play,” Kyrou said he was told. “Offense comes from defense some times.”
Kyrou had just set up Brayden Schenn’s second goal of the night by breaking up a pass in the St. Louis slot, sending himself and Schenn racing on an odd-man rush the other way. The threat of Kyrou drew Aaron Ekblad, and Schenn beat Spencer Knight cleanly.
Kyrou later scored a goal of his own — his 24th of the season — but the play to set up Schenn may be more telling for how Kyrou has progressed this season.
“I was just coming back, just take a quick glance and see where our guys are at, see where their guys are at, see who’s marking up on who,” Kyrou said. “I see the fourth guy coming in late, so I kind of just jumped on him, anticipated quickly and got a good stick there.”
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Blues coach Craig Berube: “He did a great job having a good stick like I’m talking about. Coming back in the zone and broke a play up, ended up a 2-on-1 and Schenn scored.”
It was the second time since the Blues returned from the break that Kyrou has set up a Blues goal with a defensive play, something that has often been a criticized part of his overall game. During the win over Arizona on Saturday night, Kyrou pickpocketed J.J. Moser, disrupting a Coyotes exit from their zone and setting up Robert Thomas for an open shot in the slot.
“I think even at the start of the season, he was doing the right things, or trying to do the right things,” Berube said. “Again, he’s just got to keep working at it. You can’t go in and out. It’s got to be constant every game that that’s a big part of the game. That’s got to be a big part of his game is his play away from the puck.”
Kyrou has been a big part of the Blues’ hot return from the break, and his four points are tied for the team lead with Schenn and Pavel Buchnevich. He’ll be a big part of the next chapter of Blues hockey, as well, when his eight-year contract extension (worth $8.25 million annually) kicks in next season.
Kyrou’s deficiencies away from the puck have been known for most of his career. An electric skater and goal-scorer, his checking was subpar. The flashes of brilliance on the rush were dotted with defensive mistakes and missed assignments.
It’s not like Kyrou will become a Selke Trophy contender all of a sudden, but improvement on that side of the puck is noteworthy for a player already so gifted offensively.
“I’m always trying to improve and I’m all ears on my game, but I think that’s one part that I’m really kind of dialing in and I think I’ve been working on it all year,” Kyrou said.
Advanced metrics paint a clouded picture for Kyrou’s defensive game this season. When he is on the ice at 5 on 5, the Blues allow basically the same amount of shot attempts as when Kyrou is off the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. They allow one more shot on goal per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice, and 0.23 more expected goals per 60 minutes.
Essentially, Kyrou has been a below-average defender, but is far from an outlier on this current Blues team.
“It’s good to watch yourself and watch certain situations and you’re like ‘OK, I could have done that better. I could have been in a better position there,’” Kyrou said. “Obviously, in-game, it’s about doing it, so you’ve got to actually think about doing that stuff.”
Of course, the Blues will live with a certain amount of defensive promiscuity as long as Kyrou produces offensively — which he has this season. He has 24 goals in 50 games this season, which would put him just shy of a 40-goal pace across an 82-game season.
He attempts the most shots on the team, gets the most shots on goal, creates the most scoring chances and does it against other team’s top defensive units. That part of the game comes naturally. Defense? That’s taken some time.
“It’s learning,” Berube said. “I think in junior hockey, probably didn’t have to do it as much. He was a top scorer and it’s just different. It’s habits more than anything. It’s doing it all the time, and doing it in practice, so it becomes habit.”
Kyrou: “In game, you just try to focus on it a lot more, right?”
The Blues would welcome this version of Kyrou for longer periods of the season, and Kyrou said that making plays on the defensive side of the puck can translate to better offensive performance for himself personally.
“The better defensive plays you make, all the guys on the bench are fired up, the coaches are tapping me on the back,” Kyrou said. “Definitely always gives you confidence.”