My mid-season look at the St. Louis Blues takes on a whole new dimension with the announcement that Doug Armstrong has fired both Ken Hitchcock and Jim Corsi. This promotes Mike Yeo to the position of head coach about 40 games sooner than he expected. He takes over a team that has been struggling but is not so far gone that the playoffs are not out of reach.
We can start with player usage for this season under Hitchcock. The interactive player usage charts have returned to Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract site. They are a little different than in the past so I will walk you through it real quick. The two axis of the charts remain the same. Along the bottom is the percentage of a player’s zone starts that are in the offensive zone. Players to the right of the reference line (50%) tend to see more OZ starts. Players to the left of the reference line tend to see more defensive zone starts. The bubbles are shaded by the players corsi for % relative. Meaning their corsi for % when they are on the ice verses the team’s corsi for % when the player is not on the ice. Since the Blues tend to have good shot metrics, the relative stat helps us isolate which players are more productive on the ice than their teammates. The bubbles are sized by time on ice per game. Vollman has also included a more detailed description of the player based on their usage. When you hover over a player’s bubble in the chart, you will see Vollman’s description based on the player’s usage and performance (in terms of corsi for% rel).
I broke out the player usage for the Blues into two charts, one for forwards and one for defense. Taking a look at forwards this season two orange marks (orange is bad) stand out in the upper left quadrant. Players in this quadrant see fewer OZ starts and play against opponents’ tougher competition. The darkest orange bubble is Steen. He has been struggling this season in his current role. He deserves a closer look (and I promise one is forthcoming this week). Meanwhile Berglund, Perron, and Schwartz have been quite capable of handling the roles they have been assigned, in terms of shot metrics. Unfortunately, out of those three, only Schwartz is on the plus side of goal based stats. It is good to play with Vladimir Tarasenko is it not? Stastny, while orange, is probably what we would expect in terms of shot based metrics from an average player in this role. His goal stats on the other hand are quite good. Hopefully Yeo will give him a chance to play with Tarasenko.
Speaking of Tarasenko, Vollman describes him as a “top-six offensive minded forward.” Tarasenko is seeing mostly OZ starts and being played against opponents’ average players. In this role, both his shot metrics and goal metrics are solid. But you already knew that. Tarasenko is a beast and I look forward to seeing the possibilities under a new coaching structure. Fabbri and Lehtera have been seeing similar usage as to Tarasenko including time on ice per game. In terms of corsi, they have also handled themselves capably. Unfortunately, both players are in the negative in terms of goal metrics. Their goals for % is below 50% and their goals for % relative to their teammates are in the negative. Lehtera slightly worse than Fabbri at the moment. Surprising considering the amount of time Lehtera is on the ice with Tarasenko. Jaskin and Yakupov, as well as the third line of Reaves, Upshall, and Brodziak are all about where you would expect them to be. Yakupov has acquitted himself quite nicely when Hitchcock has allowed him to play. I hope Yeo gives him a chance to see more minutes in this same sheltered role, perhaps alongside Jaskin.
In the defensive chart, Bouwmeester stands out as the weak link in the Blues defensive grouping. Vollman describes him as a “struggling top four two-way defenseman.” Yep. That sounds about right for Bouwmeester. Meanwhile, Pietrangelo continues to be the hero this team needs. He is racking up defensive zone starts against opponents’ tougher players and still coming out ahead in terms of both corsi and goals for. Shattenkirk was being sheltered by Hitchcock and he has been handling this role in terms of corsi, but not in terms of goals. His goals for % is under 50% and his relative is in the negative (meaning the team’s goals for % is worse when he is on the ice compared to when he isn’t on the ice). Shattenkirk has been playing in and around the net in the offensive zone. I have a theory that many of the Blues’ goals against have come off of rushes. This might help explain Shattenkirk’s poor goal numbers. Keep your eye on Shattenkirk over the next few games and see if Yeo continues to play him more offensively. If Yeo is smart, he would keep Shattenkirk above the dots and Shattenkirk will see his goals for numbers turn around.
As for the team as a whole? I am going to rely on a new version of the momentum charts I created last season. You might remember an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but I have changed them since then. I removed the scoring chances from the charts, and included corsi for and corsi against per 60 and goals for and goals against per 60.
The Blues struggled early on in the season and this shows in their corsi for % chart. They started to rebound around game 40 but this is mostly from their defensive style of play. The Blues’ corsi for % started to trend upwards right around the time that their corsi against per 60 started a strong downward trend (which is a good thing in terms of corsi against because it means the Blues are limiting their opponents’ shot attempts). Meanwhile the corsi for per 60 has stabilized just underneath the league average. Limiting shot attempts is good, but the inability to generate attempts has stifled their ability to score goals sustain-ably.
Around the first of December, the Blues started their upward goals against trend, and have not looked back. Their 8 game moving average of goals against per 60 broke above the league average around game 30 and it has remained above league average, except for one small dip, ever since. The 8 game average kept pace with the 20 game average which indicates this was not just a random occurrence of bad luck. This was an on-going pattern of bad behavior. Meanwhile, their goals for per 60 at 5v5 was well above league average for a 20 game section starting at the end of November and lasting about half way through January. As I hinted to above, this was not sustainable. This goal scoring was largely based on a shooting percentage that was well above league average. The 8 game average for shooting percentage started to drop around game 36 and by game 40 the team’s 8 game average of goals for per 60 dropped under the 20 game average signaling a downward trend. And while the 8 game moving average is now above the league average, it has yet to meet or cross the 20 game trend.
Finally, let’s talk about save percentage. The Blues save percentage this season has been abysmal. I know I have dropped suggestions here and there that the culprit might be a specific goaltender, I think the recent rotation of goalies through the team demonstrates that the problem might be deeper than just an individual player between the pipes, or even the Blues defense. That is why I am grateful Armstrong also released Corsi from his duties as goaltending coach today. It was clear from the beginning of the season that Allen was playing technically different than he had in previous seasons. The Blues suffered because of it and we can see it in the Save % chart. Except for a couple of blips throughout the season to date, the Blues 8 game average team save % has remained below the league average. It doesn’t matter how many goals you score, if your opponent can score at will on your team. And with the defense putting up good numbers in terms of shot attempts, it was becoming more and more difficult to not look towards goaltending as being the culprit. That isn’t to say the blame laid on the shoulder of Allen, Hutton, or Copley. But rather the goaltending corps as a whole and there is only one person in charge of that cadre of players – Jim Corsi.
Yeo is now solely in charge of a St. Louis Blues team with decent potential to make the playoffs. They can play defensively. They just need someone who can provide them the opportunity to use their offensive talents. Hopefully Yeo will be that coach.