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On Fancy Stats — and the Michael Del Zotto Era

The Blues are defying their numbers, and that’s just fine.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Jan. 13, 2020 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

I was all-in on “Fancy Stats” from the second I started learning about them. There was, of course, Corsi, named for former Blues goalie coach Jim Corsi. When he held that role in Buffalo, he’d had a revelation: While a shot attempt that went wide of the net or was blocked didn’t show up on the official score sheet, his goalies still had to react to it. They’d had to fight through screens, drop into the butterfly, and wing out their blocker or glove before seeing the puck sail into the glass or carom into the corner.

Yes, this is the man who revolutionized hockey.

Corsi decided to keep track of shot attempts instead of shots on goal to determine his goalies’ true workload. In time, the statistic took on more meaning: It was discovered to have much better predictive value than just shots on goal. That is, teams that won the Corsi battle tended to win more often because it meant they almost certainly possessed the puck more.

There was also Fenwick — pretty much the same thing except it removed blocked shots from the equation. There was PDO, an attempt to measure luck. There was zone-start percentage, which I learned was important because a player who tends to start shifts in the offensive zone naturally has an advantage over players who start in the d-zone.

I found out that goals-against average is practically worthless as an attempt to evaluate goalies. A goalie who gave up three goals on five shots would have the same GAA as one who gave up three goals on 100 shots. Save percentage was much better, and even-strength save percentage was better still.

I spent more time than I care to remember learning about, studying, and above all, applying these statistics to my understanding of the St. Louis Blues. When Doug Armstrong acquired a player whose reputation outpaced his numbers (cough cough Steve Ott), I became angry. When he acquired a player whose Corsi was strong (Nail Yakupov), I was happy. In short, numbers came to make up my entire hockey worldview.

I’m thankful for that period in my hockey fandom. I think I’m a smarter fan for it. But when I read a quote like Henrik Lundqvist’s, from Saturday night (via Lou Korac), I realize how misguided I was to go so all-in.

For what it’s worth, the Blues aren’t excelling at any of the things that would typically portend a tied-for-first-in-the-league perch in the standings. They’re 12th in Corsi and 15th in Fenwick. They’re 15th in scoring chances-for percentage and 20th in expected goals-for percentage. And yet, they just keep winning. I realize now more than ever: That’s all that matters.

Five thoughts while liking every minute of the day.

1. The Blues are cleaning up against bad teams on this homestand. That’s no knock against them; cleaning up against bad teams is what great teams do. Win 100 percent of the games you’re supposed to win and split the rest, and you’ll lift a big, silver trophy at the end of the season.

2. But don’t let that deceive you: They’re also kicking ass against good teams. The Blues have played 18 games against teams that are currently in the top five of either conference and are 11-3-4.

3. Speaking of Fancy Stats, the Blues’ youngsters are holding their own. They’re small sample sizes, yes, and these guys have all benefitted from favorable zone starts and relatively easy competition. But Jordan Kyrou is sporting an impressive 52.95 expected goals-for percentage at 5-on-5. Niko Mikkola, albeit in only three games, is at almost 59 percent.

4. This might be the most amazing thing of all. All this winning … this relentless dismantling of the rest of the NHL … has been done without Vladimir freaking Tarasenko. The Blues went a modest 4-2-3 in the 9 games he’s played this year, and are 25-8-4 without him. For a majority of his career, it was simple: If Tarasenko wasn’t scoring, the team wasn’t winning. He was, for so long, the guy who made everything go. Imagine what these guys will look like when he returns in mid-April.

5. Let’s give a hearty welcome to old friend Michael Del Zotto. This dude played on the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues. That’s the team that, as you might have heard, WON THE STANLEY CUP. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who played for that team is a hero now and forever. And that includes the immortal Jakub Jerabek.

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If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.