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Big data in icy form: The 1980’s

Time to go through the looking glass of the St. Louis Blues

SRS. Why is it potentially useful? Instead of a blind date with (kind of) a single team through the lens of (+/-), I’m going to use SRS to try and manipulate a decade of data. Let’s call it a prism of ”flow”, an amalgamation of strength of record and scoring record.

In the middle of the last century, the NHL was, itself, competing to expand and add teams. If I had to guess, this meant a wider variety of skill levels and environments those teams operated in. So you could say SRS was useful specifically because “strength of record” was an early projection by the league in an uncertain environment of new teams. The league projected what they expect, the fans demand what they want and the team’s scoring record is the bridge between those two. Want a different schedule or place in the league? Prove it. For American teams 1967-68 was a watershed of sorts, beginning a league expansion to markets with no real expectation of a self-sufficient player pool. I’ve used the joke before, but the only reason why league presence was possible at all was the advent of refrigeration and the incredible impact it has, mini-glacier batteries for our tasty little bites.

So a little over 10 years later, the NHL is absorbing the WHA and further expanding. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty realignment notes I’ve been making, but instead attempt to outline some results I see in the SRS numbers that may have indicated league structure beyond the obvious, and of course do so through the looking glass of the St. Louis Blues Hockey Club.

First, let’s acknowledge a couple points. At these points in NHL history (until this next expansion), St. Louis is one of the two or three southernmost, warmest cities in the league. From what little I’ve heard of the Checkerdome, it sounds like the most roller hockey version of the sport possible on ice. Warm weather, no air-conditioning… the league might as well have been traveling to the tropics.

So first let’s acknowledge that this type of environment is likely best suited for the “junior circuit”, coming from a Canadian and Northeastern perspective. Let’s also acknowledge that one conference always won the playoffs and the other always lost. Seven seasons after the late 60’s expansion, a western team won the Cup for the first time. The next year? They were in the East. So a western team winning the Cup isn’t considered the West winning a Cup, it’s a mandated league realignment. This premise begins to evolve as American hockey becomes more popular, but there’s likely just no way to maintain product quality across the top and bottom league that early in the era of refrigeration.

Why am I talking about the Cup instead of SRS? That mechanism of forcing promotion or realignment is the mechanism you want to hone into when thinking about SRS. Using SRS in the 80’s is also a unique view because it’s the beginning of Gretzky’s career. The nuances you might need to glean something useful from SRS? Throw ‘em out the window. In this case, you have a beyond-generational-player entering the league and you can see the league react. You get to see him move to LA.

We don’t get to see him suit up for the Blues (in the 80’s SRS sample set), but Edmonton does begin it’s journey in the Blues’ old Smythe division, providing instantly up close and personal experience, before Saint Louis gets realigned to the Norris division with divorcee Toronto and the rest of the Central teams.

We also get to see what is a form of golden age for Blues hockey. Three of the Blues 8 division wins came in 1980, 1984 and 1986. Tack on 1976 and the large gap between 86 and the next division win in 99 and you’ll see we are looking at what substantively amounts to the core of first generation fandom. By core, I don’t mean peak. The Blues had their 3 Finals appearances in their first 3 years of existence and the President’s Trophy season, which I would both consider “thrusts” instead of foundational core. Phrasing from my last article on the 99 season: periscope depth searches for land.

Without having done the research quite yet into the effects “promotion” had on different franchises, adopted into the Eastern Conference by their Canadian overlords, I think the concept of “core” versus “thrust” is an important concept for a developing fan-base and organization. Basically, a thrust of league template format seems valuable in figuring out what actually works (at some point in time). The qualities that come from developing a core identity is what is actually valuable to the league though. If everyone is doing the same thing, what incentive do the old hands have to do anything more than dynastic hot potato?

So hypothesis: after two articles I thus declare, the conceptual core of Blues hockey heading out of the 2005 lockout was 80’s roller hockey infused with President’s Trophy realism. This hypothesis may or may not be some form of basis for the next piece I write here at SLGT.

Moving from musings as your data-processor to describing process, I separated the league into top 8, bottom 8 and a middling annotation of sometimes arbitrary groupings that include the number of teams in the grouping and the value extremes. I’m going to focus on the top 2-3 SRS numbers each year, but a further analysis using the size and values of that middle could paint league-wide reactions to what’s happening as well. Focusing on the bottom 2-3 for symmetry is a little too deep for me right now, but from a quick glance the most interesting take-away was the presence of original six teams that weren’t in any sort of contention. From previous reading , you might remember me commenting on how some teams seem to have a higher tolerance for absolutely terrible teams paired with more postseason success, resulting in an essentially .500 franchise but with plenty of gold. The is true of the Blues: lesser tolerance of poor winning percentages resulting in a higher threshold for postseason success. I called it “All for one and one for all” and I think that label sticks.

Remember that the Western teams almost always end up on the bottom half of the SRS rankings in this sample. Was it because of Gretzky? Despite? Puck-watching with a furious Eastern conference throwing around curses in whatever language they speak in Boston, New York and Quebec? Regardless, starting around 1980, the Stanley Cup begins to slightly favor the West.

1980-Present: 8 Clarence Campbell Conference, 13 Western Conference, 6 Prince of Wales Conference , 11 Eastern Conference (not counting 2021 making it 12)

So coming back to the Blues navigating early franchise construction, the best team in conference during the 80s was going to be very difficult to beat and their PW/EC opponent would be their Swiss army contortion of expecting to play Edmonton but having the teeth to take out an upset opponent, having already gone through the gauntlet. So despite the appearance of Stanley Cup equality, The West is going to be a bit artificially tall and fat to ensure a proper playoff product (competitive rounds heading into the Conference Finals), while setting a standard from which the warmer-city teams learn.

Moving along, let’s do that data dump.

Ok, ok. So I barely cut off one of the Blues best SRS finishes in 1980-81. They come in 4th with .85 finishing second in the CCC to the Stanley Cup champion NY Islanders. What I find interesting with the timing of that peak is its place in realignment history. Being one of the warm weather cities without a pragmatic case for competing in the league at the highest level, the Blues sure seem to have made some concerted efforts to make just enough of a statement to validate the tenuous connection between their star entrance into the league and a more than (only) blue collar future, farming out the trophies to Chicago and Detroit. If there was realignment once a decade, we’d probably have 5 President’s Trophies.

For the majority of the 80s, St. Louis came in at the top of the bottom 8 in SRS. It’s not that there weren’t top-tier franchises in their division: Chicago, Toronto, Detroit and the Minnesota (North) Stars. I have to think there was some deference to Edmonton going on, or at least recognition from these franchises that had been around hockey for so long. Recognition of what it was going to take to acquire what those franchises actually required to field a top tier team: another Cup win. A pretty ideally formative period in franchise history.

Those dual 1.6+ SRS numbers were both in the east and I’m hypothesizing they were a reaction to Edmonton’s rise, trying to prove their place in the new league order that would result in Edmonton winning almost 5 Cups in a row, Montreal managing to interrupt the streak with one of their own. The Islanders won two in the West, heading into Edmonton’s reign, before being switched to the East and winning another two.

That 1.51 blip was a surge by the Quebec Nordiques, now the Avalanche. I’m not sure the underlying numbers or mechanisms that would substantiate the claim, but in my charts they’re the only anomaly. It can’t be ignored that Montreal is you know, a city in Quebec, the team that manages to break up the Edmonton streak of Cup wins..

Finally, the drop in peak SRS’s and 1.57 peak in 1988 would be Gretzky’s departure from Edmonton to the LA Kings and emergence of the Calgary Flames in Western Canada. Whatever the backroom politics, when considering the plans of (*all the rest of the teams who are vying for postseason success*) our Blues, it must be acknowledged that these machinations at the top would have to color any pragmatically strategic decision making. Montreal’s reign supreme was being negotiated to an end that would come in 1993 with their final Cup win. During that negotiation with the league and an Edmonton team surrounding what would eventually be considered the best player in NHL history, they charged up a battery in Quebec and still fired a shot to break up a clean history book 5 year run.

As Cardinal fans, we couldn’t possibly understand. This might seem like a cliff-hanger, but the playoffs are underway. Go Blues.