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A Kinder, Gentler, Defense

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A look at the softening of the Blues Defense.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Blues were once a team built on blue collar ideals. It wasn't that long ago that our defense paired Roman Polak with Barret Jackman. Neither were very active on offense, but both would lay the lumber on any player who dared to enter our zone. This past season I watched time and time again as teams skated freely into our zone. The defense looked soft all season. They seemed to employ a more bend but don't break mentality rather than a break you mentality. This lead to extended zone times. I could almost predict when a goal was coming before it would happen as we let teams skate freely around our zone almost unchallenged. I finally compiled the numbers and they confirm exactly what I saw.

In the 13-14 season the Blues dressed 8 different defensemen compared to 11 in the 14-15 season. Below are the charts for both season, look them over and I will break them down.

1314 hits

2013-2014 Hits

1415 hits

2014-2015 Hits

Now the number that jumps out is that Roman Polak laid a ton of hits in 2013-2014. He landed 2.1 hits per game. The following season the highest hits per game went to Barret Jackman with 1.4 hits per game. Which was up slightly from his 2013-2014 number of 1.2 hits per game. The next number that jumps out at me is Alex Pietrangelo. Pietro is not a physical defenseman. He plays with positioning and is more offensively inclined. In the 13-14 playoffs the Hawks neutralized him by simply hitting him every time he was on the ice. He is not a bruiser by any means, nor should he play like one. In 2013-2014 Pietro landed 0.3 hits per game. In 2014-2015 he laid 0.9 hits per game and was the second leading hitter on the team. Personally I don't want to see Pietro out attempting to lay the lumber on opponents.

Due to the uneven number of defensemen who saw time between the two seasons I'm breaking it down to the top 6 in games played. In 2013-2014 those players were:

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2013-2014 Top 6

These 6 players averaged 0.94 hits per game. The majority of the hits came from the bottom pairing of Jackman and Polak.  These weren't empty hits. The top 6 averaged 0.31 takeaways per game and 0.32 giveaways per game. This defensively minded group also touted a shooting percent of 4.6%.

Now let's peak at the 2014-2015 season:

correct14top6

2014-2015 Top 6

These top 6 averaged only 0.75 hits per game. down drastically from the previous season. The lack of hits were telling in other areas. The big change was Polak for Gunnarsson. Polak is a defense first wrecking ball. Gunnarsson was touted for his ability to play top minutes and his ability to pass the puck up the ice quickly. You would expect with a more offensively inclined defense the giveaways would drop. The opposite was true. In 2014-2015 the defensive giveaways rose to 0.38 per game while the takeaways eroded to 0.26 per game. Not only this, but the more offensively gifted group saw their shooting percentage drop to 4.2%

For Quick Reference

Stats: 2013-2014 2014-2015
Hits/g 0.94 0.75
Takeaways/g 0.31 0.26
Giveaways/g 0.32 0.38
Shooting % 4.6 4.2

There was one stretch when our defense looked strong, just before the playoffs. It was a time when more physical players were on the ice. Players like Bortuzzo, Lindbohm, and Butler. None of those players saw any ice time during the playoffs. During the regular season those players averaged 1.4 hits per game. Each player hovered right at 1 hit per game with the exception of Bortuzzo who averaged 3.2 hits per game. They were also 3x better in the takeaway/giveaway battle than the top 6.

The early exit from the playoffs can be blamed on any number of things, but the truth is it was a mixture of many problems. One year after winning many close low scoring games the Blues began winning close high scoring games. They needed their stars like Tarasenko and Schwartz to pick up the slack. This was the case all season, not just in the playoffs. It was just on display for the world against MIN. I think the numbers show what my eyes saw, that the less physical defensive play lead to a far worse defense overall. I sincerely hope to see the Blues deploy a more physical defense in 2015-2016.