Subtle Shifts Lead to Big Improvements.

Frederick Breedon

Sometimes the smallest change can carry the biggest consequences.

Take a look at the current St. Louis Blues roster. Then flip the view back a season. The differences between the two are not many. A few additions and subtractions are about all there is to highlight.

So why then is virtually the same lineup earning points at a breakneck pace, taking over 80% of the points possible before Saturday's loss in Tampa, to start the 2013-14 campaign when less than a year ago they mustered only 60 out of 96 (63%) points?

Certainly the lockout played a major role in curbing the Blues' proficiency under Ken Hitchcock to rack up totals in the points column that have not been seen for a decade. Goaltending is the great equalizer the delayed start to the season did not benefit Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott as neither went overseas during the work stoppage. Nor did key personnel like David Backes, Alex PIetrangelo, David Perron, Barret Jackman, and TJ Oshie.

It would take repeated exposure to real game situations to knock the rust off. Which is why through March 2013 they accumulated only 36 of 66 points. Just 54.5% of those possible. Far below the pace they set the season before when they steamrolled their way to a Central Division title.

The next month they would close out the regular season with 12 wins in 15 games or 24 of 30 points (80%).

The acquisition of Jay Bouwmeester made all the difference. He brought a renewed element of speed and transition that the Blues were lacking at the time on their top pairing. Not that Pietrangelo wasn't capable of providing it. He is and was, but he was encumbered. In one transaction Doug Armstrong eased the burden on his workhorse by adding a second to share the load. No subtractions to the everyday lineup, but an addition that changed the trajectory of the season and many more down the road.

With the blueline now set for the foreseeable future the attention turned up front over the summer.

Those who didn't fit in to a specific mold were cast out. David Perron's steep regression in production and attention to detail over the course of 48 games earned him a one way ticket to Edmonton. Coming to St. Louis was Magnus Paajarvi. Anecdotally, they are equally inconsistent in the application of their tremendous skill sets, but the newbie carried a much smaller price tag. Making a reduction in playing time much more palatable from the coaching, management, and PR perspectives.

Further, this opened the door for the Blues' two first round picks from 2010, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Both coming off solid performances that showed they were ready to take on more responsibility. It didn't hurt their case that they appeared, especially Schwartz, to have a much higher attention to detail and willingness to do all the little things asked of them by Hitch than Perron. Again, the lower cap hit and smaller paycheck tipped the scales against Perron.

The change in left wing depth led to Alexander Steen reuniting with Backes and Oshie. Schwartz shuffled up a line to join Patrk Berglund. The big Swedish center has taken tougher assignments in the Hitchcock era. Going from a .303 Quality of Competition rating in 2010-11 under Davis Payne to at least double that.  His offensive zone start percentage dropped from around 60% to between 48% and 50% in thee same timeframe.

Berglund was being used as a Backes-lite and responded to the challenge. Posting his best overall, aka two-way, performance since the first half of his rookie year to the tune of 19 goals and 38 points in 82 games. In 12-13 he was second on the team in goals with 17 in 48 games.

Keep adding on and he'll keep going, right? Maybe, maybe not.

With Schwartz and Tarasenko on his flanks seeing the same level of competition was not going to happen. Counted on for more, but thrown under the bus the two youngsters would not. At least not with Derek Roy brought in to stimulate Chris Stewart's goal scoring ability. Those two lines would share the secondary scoring load. Berglund with a slight two-way slash borderline shut down twinge and the Roy/Stewart duo being more sheltered.

This increased Schwartz's and Tarasenko's slice of the even strength time on ice pie. Moving up from 20% and 22% respectively to 27% and 24%. Those jumps don't make up for all the shifts Perron and Andy McDonald took, but the balance has fallen on to Backes' line. In fact, those three have taken on even more considering Stewart's percentage has dropped (26% to 22%) and Roy's is well below McDonald's (22% vs 28%).

Hitchcock has stratified the usage of the depth at his command. Throwing even more weight on his thoroughbreds and reducing what burdens are put on his ancillary producers all while asking for more from long term roster cornerstones expected to reach thoroughbred status.

So far, it's working. The question is, for how long.

Both Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are not seeing an excessive increase in work load. They are both at 40% of the team's even strength minutes played which is right where they were last season in the 38% - 41% range. Even though it appears otherwise, nor are Bckes, Oshie, and Steen. In 2012-13 they were in the 31% - 33% range and they are at 32% - 34% this season. What has changed is the quality of competition they are facing. Yes, it is possible for that number to increase. In 2012-13 they ranged from 1.3 to 1.8 in QoC. This season they're in the 1.8 to 2.0 range. All three were at a point per game scoring pace heading in to Saturday's game in Tampa. Two of the three are afterwards.

That's an individual pace that's not likely to be sustainable. If that cannot be, the team pace is going to follow suit.

The Blues have taken on just five teams currently over the .500 mark and are 2-2-1 in those games.

The conclusion is that the Blues are on par, but not excelling against those they will have to go through in order to achieve a deep playoff run... and they haven't even faced Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, or Colorado yet. Nor have they played eastern powers like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston, Toronto, and Detroit.

To date the subtle shift in the winning formula is working, but the sample size of tests is too small to say the hypothesis will be proven correct.


Thanks for reading. Please check out my daily coverage on the Blues for Hockeybuzz.com.

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