The NHL has reached and passed the quarter mark of the 2014-15 season and what a surprise, the St. Louis Blues
are in a tie for first in their division sit in 2nd in the very competitive Central Division. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Blues though as they’ve enjoyed four straight successful regular seasons; it’s really the playoffs that concern the fan-base. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves now, as the regular season is far from over. Instead, let’s look below at some interesting statistics and observations that I’ve compiled for you.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock shuffles his lines about as often as Pierre Mcguire mentions an NHL’ers development team. So, the following stats are based on the notion that the ‘usual’ top 9 forwards are on lines like this, and that these players have spent the majority of the season one a line together:
1. The Blues compared to the NHL
· 50.9 5v5CF% puts them at 14th in the NHL. The top 5 ranked teams in this category? The Blackhawks, Wild, Predators, Lightning, and Islanders.
o However, the Blues sit at 6th in the NHL in shots for % (53%) so there is the possibility that their style just calls for quality of shot rather than the sheer quantity thrown at the net. It’s important to note the 5 teams ahead of them in SF% though. Can you guess who they are? It’s the same 5 teams that sit atop the 5v5CF% rank.
· 2.07 5v5 Goals For/60 minutes for a team stocked with this much offensive talent is unacceptable. If the Blues didn’t rank in the top 10 in goals/60 minutes during 5v4 play, there’s a good chance their point total would be closer to the Wild than the Ducks.
o While the Blues are ranked 18th in the NHL in 5v5 GF/60, they are a top ranked defense at 5v5, ranked 4th in 5v5 GA/60.
§ A combination of great goaltending and a defensive system that emphasizes shot suppression (on goal, not corsi) has propelled this team to a strong start. The Blues need scoring production from guys like Oshie and Steen.
· 5v5 GF%: Tarasenko (72%), Lehtera (73%), Schwartz (65%)…Oshie (58%), Steen (50%)
· 16th ranked PK (80.5%) and 13th ranked PP (20.6%) in the NHL. With the amount of offensive talent on this team, it’s not surprise that the Blues are in the top half of the league in PP%. It’s the mediocre PK% that’s worrisome. After watching some film, I believe the Blues penalty killing woes are due to the team’s inability to prevent carry-in’s into their defensive zone. It’s too easy for the opposition to gain control of the Blues defensive zone, whether it’s via dump in or carry in. If there is one area on defense that needs work, it’s the Blues penalty kill.
2. The STL line is carrying the load
Vladimir Tarasenko. Do I need to say much more? Thus far, the Blues trio of Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera, and (especially) Vladamir Tarasenko has been sensational. Some stats for you:
· In the 11 games in which Tarasenko has scored a goal, the Blues are 10-1...they are 6-7 when he doesn’t score.
o Furthermore, in those 13 games Tarasenko didn’t score a goal, a member from the STL line contributed at least one point in 4 of the Blues 6 wins.
· The trio has combined for 32 5v5 points this season. The next best line? Ott-Lappierre-Reaves with 11 5v5 points. The Berglund-Backes-Oshie line has 5 5v5 points.
o Wow. At the beginning of the year, the idea was for the STL line to provide secondary scoring while their top two lines, consisting of guys like Backes, Oshie, Steen, and Stastny, would be the team’s main offensive contributors. A big reason has been their ability to put the puck on net:
§ As a group, the STL line generates ~28shots/60 minutes. The next best line at putting shots on net is the Oshie-Backes-Berglund line, but they pale in comparison as they produce ~19shots/60minutes.
***Hitchcock has experimented with his lines a lot thus far, but for some reason, he’s kept Lehtera and Tarasenko together for the majority of the season. In 350 minutes of 5v5 time, Lehtera has played only 42 5v5minutes without Tarasenko. Other than Hitch’s obsession with pairing players, there is a reason why Tarasenko and Lehtera are rarely split up: their styles of play mesh well together.
Let’s be honest, Tarasenko is a phenom and can play with just about anybody. Lehtera, on the other hand, is a puck-distributing game manager. He doesn’t have the scoring touch that a guy like Paul Stastny has so is it really out of the realm of possibility that Lehtera would be far, far worse without Tarasenko on his wing?
Thus far, Lehtera’s wingers have primarily been Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Steen. Schwartz is the perfect compliment to the Lehtera-Tarasenko duo because he’s a skilled hustle player, much like the Wild’s Zach Parise. In the offensive zone, Schwartz can create room for Lehtera to distribute and for Tarasenko to get open for clear shots on net.
However, in order to spark some of his other lines, Hitch has tried to get a second sniper alongside Lehtera (Alex Steen). This allows him to put Schwartz with Stastny and Oshie, a line that consists of the same style of players that the STL line has. The idea is to get Steen with some play makers and Schwartz with some scorers. Although, this would all be moot if the Blues top UFA signing of the 2014 offseason "played better".
3. Defense wins championships
On paper, the Blues have one of the best defensive cores in the league; through the quarter-mark of the season the statistics support that claim.
· 1.55 5v5 GA/60minutes (prior to their losses against the Blackhawks and Predators this week). That would be the 2nd best 5v5 GA/60 in the entire NHL. A big reason the Blues are so successful at keeping the puck out of their own net is Hitchcock’s system. When the opposition has control in the Blues defensive zone, they often have a difficult time getting clean shots on net:
o 26.4 5v5 shots against/60 minutes puts them in 5th in the NHL in shot suppression. The Blues ability to prevent shots from reaching their net is a culmination of skill and system, as the Blues do a very good job at keeping the opposition along the boards and away from premier scoring areas.
· The Blues are 14-3 in games where a defenseman contributes at least 1 point.
o They are 2-5 in games in which a defenseman doesn’t record a point. However, Tarasenko put the team on his back in those 2 wins as he recorded 2 goals in each of those games.
§ Before this week, the Blues hadn’t lost a game this season in which Tarasenko scored a goal and a defenseman recorded at least 1 point.
The Blues defense can’t take all the glory though. Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have proven to be a more than formidable duo. Currently, Elliott is on the shelf with a lower body injury (which is believed to be a knee sprain).
Thus, Allen has been given the reins This forced the Blues to sign the legend himself, Martin Brodeur, because going forward with Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington for the foreseeable future had bad news written all over it.
o Thanks to Travis Yost’s article at TSN.com, I was introduced to a feature on the fancy stats website war-on-ice.com, which tries to take team play and shot quality into consideration when determining a goalie’s even strength save percentage. It’s called Adjusted Save% and if you’d like to know more about it, Yost did an excellent job explaining it here.
§ Amongst goalies who have played at least 500 minutes, Brian Elliott ranks 15th in the NHL in Adjusted Save% (92.7%) and Jake Allen ranks 35th (92%). Not too shabby. The important stat though is their delta, or, the difference between their unadjusted and adjusted save-percentages. Elliott has a 93.2 unadjusted save%, so his delta would be -.5. On the other hand, Allen’s unadjusted save% is 91.6, so his delta is +.4. Thus, one could make the claim that while Elliott has a better save%, Allen has dealt with more difficult shot events. This is important to monitor throughout the season.
Prediction-Blues finish 2nd in the Central Division
There is no reason this Blues team should miss the playoffs this year. It’s quite clear that the STL line, especially Tarasenko, has carried the Blues offense thus far. They need to get more out of Stastny and Steen. However, I still believe they’re 1 player away from becoming a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Ironically, the 1 player that could put them over the top is the guy they refused to pony up for: Vladimir Sobotka. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a Blues uniform by the end of the season.