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Operation Periscope: the 1999-2000 Blues

Goaltending, a 2-in-1 generational defense, and an offense headlined by Pavol Demitra and Pierre Turgeon made up a powerhouse team.

The years circa ‘99-’00 paint an interesting picture for the Blues. At first glance, it would appear to be our lottery ticket in the decade of Western Conference dominance following liberation of the Stanley Cup from Canadian grasps. At first glance, the Blues are on top of the league. The playoff waters are hued a different color.

While Detroit dominated the Central Division, the Stars were also a 100+ point team during this stretch of dominance. Detroit (2), Colorado and Dallas all took home Cups during the streak. New Jersey bagged a couple as the Eastern outcast. Chicago and the Blues were able to provide brief sparks for their fan-bases, but their playoff peaks fell short. The Blues apex was the Conference Finals one year after this President’s Trophy winning team.

The team stayed quality through the 2005 lockout but, by standings, the organization seemed to acknowledge an inability to move closer to a Cup win, letting the team slide into a hard reset.

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On first blush, my expectation was to unearth these Blues as a defensive monster, systematically breaking down their opponents, relying on offensive overflow or a splattering of finishing sauce to complete the entrée.

Instead, I’m experimenting with the idea they were just collecting chips (perhaps my favorite roster construction style) and the longest term chip was Al MacInnis. On the back end of some made-for-Broadway roster drama, Pronger became the second pillar of the team, solidifying team styles. Without guessing on that or those styles, the Blues would have expected strong defensive performance penetrating into the offensive zone, aided by MacInnis with his howitzer and Pronger (I have no idea his style of play).

The most glaring flashing indicator I’ve seen so far is the top to bottom complete dearth of negative (+/-) values. Only three players posted a negative (+/-) over the entire season. No one on the roster is worse than -4. That’s some true “one for all and all for one” idealism right there.

Was this team maxed out talent-to-results wise? Were the system’s laggards blood and soul to the beast, or vital patches navigating an opened flood-gate? Or is this just an example of a tall team, casualty to a salary cap?

While perhaps indoctrinated by the Blues of the past decade, I think of plus-minus as a function of two-way forwards, guys that can soak up minutes and still create a spark. Eventually in this analysis, I think we get to a point where the team, instead of systemic, seems more polarized. Reliant on their top defensemen to play a high-end two way game while throwing their pairing at the opponent strategically, like a heat seeking missile.

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Since the beginning, hockey has been dynasties. From 1926 until 1967, hockey was defined as Montreal holding serve. On ice, with fancy knives as feet, in that outpost of royalty, Canadian Francia. Toronto and Detroit were able to string together competitive dynasties of their own, but everyone had to have known where the door was. The last year before the game expanded more thoroughly south, Toronto beats Montreal 4-2 in the Finals.

1967. The televisions blare, radios crackle, the Wild West begins… Well, not quite like that. That doesn’t happen for another 30 years!

For the 1967-8 Finals, after slugging through the maximum in the first two rounds (14 games in all), St. Louis played host to a Montreal team who took the “Original” Six behind the shed for two series. Every game between the Blues and Canadiens was a one goal game and both home openers went to OT, still resulting in a Montreal 4-0 Finals.

I don’t think you can discuss any team in franchise history without these first formative years. They weren’t so long ago that the imprints have faded.

The next year, these same Blues were the ones that cruised through two rounds of the playoffs. Montreal’s run stuttered in Boston, eventually overcoming that year’s team in 6 games. The Blues fall again. 4-0 again.

Finally, the Bruins make good on their previous year’s love note, sending Montreal home ice-fishing. The All-USA Finals would be the Blues’ third in a row and, yet, last Finals appearance for the next almost 50 years.

Three Finals appearances in three years! Twelve losses. A baptism in a pool of blood. Welcome to the league.

Thirty years go by before our protagonists take my scribbler’s stage. For the first half of that time, Montreal continued to hold serve, bestowing a run to the Flyers before being upstaged by the Islanders. Then comes the West. As is customary, this wintery pulse begins in the Great White North. The Edmonton Oilers turn on some heavy-duty pumps, drowning a lonely Montreal Cup with two of their own on either side.

Calgary jumps into the fray - Oye! - only for Edmonton to come crashing back for another in 1990. Fittingly, Montreal won the last Canadian Cup in 1993.

When discussing the team circa the turn of the millennium, I think this is where to start. The key events of Blues history would seem to be: the Blues induction into the league with three straight drubbings from Montreal twice and our doppelganger to the Northeast, the postseason transition from Canada to the United States, and the canceled season.

This first outpost of expansion-success had been waiting 30 years for another chance at those early confrontations. The team and the fans who had witnessed those first three years, their expansion lamb for the slaughter, had not yet been able to crest the Western Conference’s Original Six division. We now know it would take a full 50 years to win the Cup for the first time, and the 1999 team was but a periscope-depth search for land along that spiritual journey.

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Through a somewhat windy path, we’ve arrived at an investigation into the whereabouts of negative values in the 1999 Blues (+/-) leaderboard. The points slaggards, (+/-) heroes, are as follows: Marc Bergevin (+27, 1 goal and 8 assists), Jeff Finley (+26, 2 goals and 8 assists) and Todd Reirden/Jochen Hecht.

This team really was a beast per (+/-) and I can’t help but think such a design was a major inefficiency for a President’s Trophy winner (hit me with the hindsight paddle if you like). My understanding is that in (+/-), power play goals don’t count for you but shorthanded goals do count against you. Initial reading?: this was a stout defensive PK and monster 5v5 team.

If we’re considering this Blues team in particular and trying to make an educated tweak based on what we know and a hypothesis, how would one go about that? We know the team took home the President’s Trophy. We know it had major defensive stars from multiple generations and the team as a whole had a (+/-) spread that describes a depth team (late edit for the sake of intrigue: does it?). And I know the name Pavol Demitra, though significantly less so Turgeon.

Picking out our (+/-) heroes, I sorted by points and started at the bottom looking at (+/-). So the only thing these guys have in common (necessarily) is there are players with more points and a lower (+/-). Bergevin, Finley and Reirden were defensemen, perhaps a reasonable explanation in itself with two point producing defensemen on the team. Hecht, on the other hand, was a 20 (+/-) guy with solid point production sandwiched between centers Mike Eastwood and Craig Conroy, wallowing in but a +5 each. I think these are the two data points we’re looking at. We have three defensemen with crazy high (+/-) for their point production and a demarcation line where the seas get choppy.

Remember the lowest negative values were -4 and 13 players were plus_20+, so that’s two point producing centers that just have no line support whatsoever, play no defense or are reliant on power play goals. In aggregate, the power play/kill numbers depict average to quite good special teams play (per number of opportunities and conversion rate). My running theory is that high-effort defensemen can soak up PK minutes to keep the big guys fresh, so essentially you’re punting ¼ or ⅓ of the game, expecting the top half of your roster to be dominant. If hypothetically, that became a worse bet (in the playoffs), dominant is exactly what they’d have to be.

Feeding off this hypothesis that a thoroughly positive (+/-) (and a strong goaltender) points me looking at the offense. My targets now are the closer scoring games where the Blues scored five or more goals. The only team with multiple such games (3) are the Calgary Flames.

Calgary actually had five games against the Blues (4-1, 7-1, 1-1, 5-4, 6-5). In that tie, the Blues took 50 shots on goal. Despite scoring rather prolifically throughout this match-up, beyond the current exercise, the notes I would take would be: the wide gap of victory early in the season, a 50-17 1-1 tie and then two close knitted high scoring affairs. The tie I could retroactively write-off as exhaustion or bad timing, a glitch of some sort. But Calgary wasn’t a good team and yet you see a non-erratic evolution. At the very least, a flag goes up for me: keep this series in mind.

Twice the Flames were able to run up the score on the Blues, with the second time being just before their first round date with the San Jose Sharks, perhaps an omen referendum on the team’s limitations as a whole. While in 2000-2001, the Blues lost the division back to the Detroit Red Wings, they did manage to get revenge on the Sharks en route to the Conference Finals.

Looking at the Blues offense as reliant on the defensive core to apply pressure, paired with a couple forward options and then further lines being defensively dependent presents me with a few potential counter-strategies: desperation attack using strong safeties to negate the Blues top point producers and opportunistically gobbling the chaos; entangle and hope for the glass-more-full; or park the bus and counter attack with an elite threat. Mob-offense, Bluesy blend or the bus is stupid (sorry Metro, I love you. Please keep transporting me places).

On the plus-minus side of the coin, the idea would be that our positive absorbs the negative, allowing Pronger and MacInnis to absorb offensive styles and defensive counter-strikes. There’s something to be learned from playing a straight up 5v5 style that seems foundational, allowing for quicker peaks when you are able to get a couple chips together. A coincidental thought that came from this peak at the books was of the Calgary Flames, all shimmying around (0+/-10). I feel like I’m once more being guided to realize the thing that I’m hunting is right in front of me, the idea that over a 5-10 year period bouncing around 0 would represent a dynamic skill. Maybe after all, what I mean is bouncing around (15+/-20).

Thirteen players on the Blues were plus_20+. Taking out Pronger’s +52, the Blues have a data spread around (15+/-20). If we add Pronger back in and then create a third sampling removing Pronger, Demitra and Turgeon, I think the aggregate analysis would give us a rough picture of this team.

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So finally, how did these Calgary – St. Louis games go?

In come the Blues: 2-1 high scoring OT; 2-0-4 medium scoring OT; 1-0-7 low to none scoring OT. You do not want to take this team to the brink. One of the top teams in the league, these guys will wear you down if you let them.

Calgary accounts for three of the Blues 15 games scoring five or more. The only other team with more than one gold star in this contest was Phoenix. As we know, the Blues are +/- monsters. In the opposite corner, Calgary daintily hovers (0 +/- 10), while Iginla skates by proudly with his immaculate zero.

I do actually like this strategy a lot as medium-to-long term roster baseline, taking advantage of the ebbs and flows of your roster’s place among the annual Cup contenders.

Game 3: October 6th, 1999 4-1 against Calgary (0-2-0-0): 29-21 SOG

Both teams needed to prove they belong thanks to rough starts, and the Blues did the proving.

Game 7: October 19th, 1999 7-1 at Calgary (1-5-2-0): 31-23 SOG

Not much has changed since these teams’ last meeting except the Blues’ record. For Calgary, being that close to zero wins is kind of like being at zero wins, just with one more. Not much changed after the game either.

Game 31: December 14th, 1999 1-1 at Calgary (12-14-4-1): 50-17 SOG

While Calgary has been playing .500 ball, St. Louis has been playing hockey. Outscored 11-2 in these teams first two games, Calgary crucified the Blues offense, denying 49 pucks from their rightful home in the back of the net. I’ll hear your argument on 10 or 20. I’ll understand you’re being a hard-ass around 30, but 49? The apocalypse is near.

Game 52: February 1st 5-4 against Calgary (23-22-5-2): 29-35 SOG

“Look Calgary, you’re still terrible but we’ve figured you out. You’re not doing that again.” No they did not figure them out, but now the defense has to mind their p’s and q’s.

2-1 after 1; 6-4 penalties against

3-1 after 2; 2-1 penalties against

4-2, 4-3, 4-4, 5-4 final; 1-0 penalties against

Game 80: April 5th 6-5 against Calgary (31-34-10-5): 35-33 SOG

The Blues have dominated Calgary and are the presumptive if not already clinched favorites for the President’s Trophy. The game started relaxed, a high scoring affair. Savard scored a hat trick and the refs awarded a cherry on top for good measure. Those fans in St. Louis really love that dude.

2-2 after 1; 1-1 penalties against

3-4 after 2; 2-2 penalties against

5-4, then 5-5 via a Calgary PP, 6-5 final; 2-1 penalties against

Not all of these numbers seem to be right. I’m getting conflicting web pages at times, but the point of this exercise was in understanding a prolific team that I knew of, but not much about. I had been thinking this was a defensive, systemic team and came out thinking it was top heavy with enforcing defense-men grinding out the bottom lines.

Next, I’ll be moving on to the 80’s Blues. My hope is to iterate across the various teams while eventually mixing in the current team (likely not until after the season). The expectation should be ‘99, ‘80s, 2010’s, 70’s, 2020’s. As I love narratives, I hope to connect those pioneering 70’s teams to the post-Stanley Cup 20’s.

So what games or opponents series illustrate how you feel about the team during this era? How could it have been improved in a way I can illustrate with the stats of the times?