The St. Louis Blues power-play has been the team’s greatest asset this year. They’ve been truly dynamic, scoring 16 goals in 61 power-play opportunities. This gives them a 26.1 percent success rate, the third-best of any NHL team this year. In her latest piece, Ariel Melendez dives more into the unit’s role in the team’s recent success.
The power-play’s dominance goes to show how tremendous a job general manager Doug Armstrong did when he signed Marc Savard this summer. Savard joined the team as an assistant coach with one goal in mind: fixing the power-play. After putting a completely new system in play, Savard has done just that.
Full Breakdown of the Blues Power-Play
Last Year’s System
The Blues had a very old-school power-play last season. They ran what’s commonly known as an ‘umbrella’ power-play. The team’s top-unit was quarterbacked by Alex Pietrangelo, who would wander the middle of the blue line. Flanking him on either side would be Vladimir Tarasenko and David Perron, both playing on their strong-side. A mix of Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak, Jaden Schwartz, and many more was often found somewhere in the low-end of the zone or around the high-slot and Ryan O’Reilly was always firmly planted in front of the net.
The Blues used this line in a very specific, virtually never-changing way. Tarasenko and Perron would play very high in the zone, hardly ever dipping below the tops of the circles, with the latter often controlling the puck. O’Reilly favored playing slightly off-center while in front of the net, opening the option for Perron to deal him the puck, where O’Reilly would then use his tremendous edgework, shooting, and strength to quickly pivot and attempt to lift the puck over the goalie immediately beside him. The middle-man would serve to almost exclusively provide support while O’Reilly pulled off this move, often fending off the defenders fighting to stop him.
With that said, the Blues only chose to cycle the puck down to O’Reilly a handful of times. They more often preferred to keep the puck up high in the zone, passing it between the three players manning the blue line. It’d be a simple waiting-system, with Perron and Tarasenko vying for open space. When they became just open enough, they’d receive the puck and rip a clean, quick shot off, normally from the top of the circles. This system, as slow-moving as it was, worked fairly well. Tarasenko and Perron both proved very reliable in this role, respectively first and second on the team in power-play goals. Coming in at third was O’Reilly, who provided a great outlet, with his aforementioned play, when neither wing could find an open shot.
The system overall led the Blues to a 21.1 percent success rate, about 1.3 percent higher than the league average. This ranked them at a modest 10th in the league. There was more to be desired, though. While, yes, O’Reilly, Tarasenko, and Perron were all working wonders with the man-advantage, they were still scoring less than their counterparts from across the league. The system’s exclusion of great offensive-talents such as Schenn and Schwartz was also fairly weird. While the power-play overall didn’t struggle as much as fans thought it did, these factors served to prove that the Blues special teams needed a hefty overhaul.
This Year’s System
Simply put, the 2018-19 Blues used a power-play strategy that was outdated. It saw success thanks to the offensive prowess of the team’s stars but was shut down by the league’s best. In the post-season, the Blues power-play was successful only 16.3 percent of the time, third-worst among any teams that appeared in more than six games.
Savard came in and quickly changed what the team did on the man-advantage. Now, instead of running the ‘umbrella’, the Blues have followed the trend and run what’s known as a ‘1-3-1’, or ‘buffer’, power-play. This is by far the most popular system in the modern NHL, as it most-effectively stretches out the penalty-killers and opens up great passing options.
The system is referred to as a ‘1-3-1’ to illustrate how the players are staggered in the zone. One player sets up camp in front of the net. Another is found at the top of the slot, slightly above the upper-hash marks, with two players almost perfectly aligned with him, flanking along either wing. The entire unit is topped with a defenseman who serves more as a passing outlet than a quarterback like in the ‘umbrella’. In St. Louis, these roles are, usually, filled in respectively by Schwartz, O’Reilly, Perron and Schenn, and Pietrangelo.
The Unique Tweaks
The Blues have found a way to put their own unique spin on the typical ‘1-3-1’, though. It is custom to put your largest, strongest player in front of the net no matter what system is used, hence why O’Reilly took post there last year. Just about every team that runs this system follows this unspoken rule. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have used the 6’4”, 205lb Frederik Gauthier almost exclusively for this role.
St. Louis doesn’t follow this ‘norm’, though. Instead, the 5’10” Schwartz fills the big-man’s shoes. At first glance, this seems like a mistake more than anything but the Blues have made it work. They’ve managed this because Schwartz, frankly, doesn’t stay in front of the net on the power-play. Instead, he snakes around the area between the top of the slot to the corners, practically begging for passes.
By doing this, Schwartz takes advantage of the team’s newfound love for passes to the middle of the ice. As Schwartz and O’Reilly move around the middle of the zone, the wings look to continuously feed them passes. The constant movement of these two middle-men has significantly bolstered the Blues shot-rates from the high-slot. The power-play almost never shot the puck from that area last year. The increase in both high-danger shots and the resulting overall PP success is a true testament to Savard’s terrific system.
Savard has also shifted the dynamic of who is quarterbacking the power-play. Most teams, although not all, have the defenseman at the top running the show in almost every system. From the top of the zone, the defenseman has a complete view of the happenings in the zone. This gives him an almost omniscient view of where to move the puck to.
The Blues don’t follow this trend, though. Instead, they run the power-play from the right sideboards, where Schenn is stationed. The team’s entry and puck-retrieving strategies focus almost solely on somehow getting the puck to Schenn. The team has put their full trust in his ability to read the ice and take advantage of the truly elite skill-set he possesses. In return, Schenn has embodied the Blues power-play. The new system has given him a chance to flaunt his great shooting and passing, something he has clearly taken advantage of.
Perron is also seeing a significant improvement in his already great power-play abilities, largely thanks to Schenn’s tremendous work quarterbacking the man-advantage. Schenn’s favorite pass to make is a direct dish to Perron, usually threading the puck through defensemen’s legs. The dynamic between the two has been terrific and, as a result, the sharpshooting Perron is shooting the puck much more. He leads the team with 16 power-play shots in 19 games. This is only three shots away from his total from last year, showing how the new system has transformed his play. Perron also leads the Blues in power-play goals-scored and is tied for the lead in points on the man-advantage.
Schenn has been the perfect addition to Perron’s fire and Savard knows it. He has built the team’s man-advantage around the terrific ability boasted by each player, making sure that each aspect of the system complements the duo. This is the largest reason for the team’s recent success on the power-play. As long as Schenn can remain a terrific passer, and Perron can remain one of the best shooters in the league, the Blues power-play has no worries.
Even if these two fall off, both O’Reilly and Schwartz have proven their prowess on special teams and will surely pick up the slack.
In the End
While it may be hard to wrap one’s head around the intricate details, one thing is very apparent: the Blues power-play is among the best in the league. Even without Tarasenko in the lineup, the Blues have recorded a power-play success rate of 26.7 percent, sixth in the league.
Savard’s addition has been truly impactful for the lineup. The once amazing offensive talent is now translating perfectly into a coaching role, beautifully recognizing the unique offensive skillset that every Blues player brings to the table. The new, and wildly unique, power-play perfectly reflects this. While the system may seem fairly out-of-the-box, it has brought out an unstoppable power-play from the Blues.