The St. Louis Blues have started the season a far cry from how they looked when they made it to the conference finals last season. The team that finished third in the league last season now sits at 10th place overall with a .500 record and a negative goal differential (thanks to the blow outs they suffered at the hands of the Blue Jackets and the Rangers). Now that we have a sufficient number of games played, we can start taking a look at the team’s performance. Why are the Blues playing so poorly so far this season? One word, penalties. This team has taken the most minor penalties, and seen the most penalty killing time than any other team so far this season. As a result, the Blues have seen a significant drop in 5v5 time compared to the same number of games played last season. They are currently below the league average in 5v5 ice time and 6 teams who have played one less game than the Blues have actually played more 5v5 hockey. Less 5v5 time on the ice, fewer opportunities to score goals. Fewer opportunities to score goals, the fewer games you will win.
Granted, the Blues also have the 2nd best penalty kill in the league right now with 90.5% of their penalties kill. Carolina is at the top of the league with a 90.7% penalty kill. But the Hurricanes have also spent the second least amount of time on the PK. So while we can be grateful for the Blues adept penalty killing skills, what sort of impact does this have on the players and the team as a whole? To help answer this question, I turned to St. Louis Game Time’s resident on-ice consultant Art Lippo. I asked him if spending so much time on the penalty kill can drain a player’s energy or should a player’s conditioning be good enough to overcome this. First he laughed. Then his reply confirmed what most of us would consider to be common sense, penalty killing is very taxing on a player’s endurance. During a penalty kill, players are required to do a lot of quick starts and stops. For anyone who has ever ice skated, you can probably understand the amount of energy that is required to stop your mass from moving as well as overcome inertia to get yourself moving again. So not only are the Blues taking all these penalties that require additional energy to kill, but they are killing most of them which means they are spending a full two or more minutes on the ice expending energy that would be better spent scoring goals.
Let’s take a quick look at the types of penalties the Blues are taking. The Blues are one of the top teams in tripping penalties, and ranked higher than most teams in the number of roughing and high stick penalties. The most commonly called penalty league wide so far this season is hooking, and the Blues are solidly in the middle of the league for that penalty. Blues are also ranked relatively high in the number of slashing penalties, but this penalty has not been called as often this season.
Stastny has spent the most time in the penalty box for minor penalties so far this season. He has racked up 7 minors with 2 each for interference, hooking, and holding. The only player who has NOT taken a penalty so far this season has been Hutton. Even Allen has had a tripping penalty called on him.
So what are the results of all this energy draining penalty killing? Not only have we seen a drop in 5v5 time this season, but a drop in shot attempts (corsi), shots on goal (shots for), and goals themselves. This time last season, the Blues had scored 35 goals at 5v5 compared to the 24 goals so far this season. While their corsi for per 60 and shots for per 60 are either at or above league average this season, their goals for per 60 and on ice shooting percentage are both under where they were last season and under league average.
Hockey moves fast, and that requires players to constantly adjust to keep up with the game. When players find themselves out of position or lagging the play, penalties are likely to happen. We will need to take an individual look at each of the penalties to determine what is the cause of all these minor penalties. It would be useful to know where they are occurring (OZ, DZ, NZ) and when they are occurring. First period penalties can set the team back energy-wise and leave them struggling for the remainder of the game. One thing is for certain however, if the Blues do not stop taking minor penalties, they are going to continue to flounder at .500 even with a top rated penalty kill.