I think that if you are familiar with my work anywhere, or subscribe to my Twitter feed, you’d be aware that I am an unapologetic fan of David Backes. He’s the proto-typical two-way hockey player—He’s a two-time 30 goal scorer but also can say he owns good underlying numbers that cement his reputation.
The St. Louis Blues captain is big, 6’3″, 225, and could be viewed as a highly-effective checking forward if it weren’t for the fact that he can also score you 30 goals. And, if he weren’t big, and not considered a checking forward, he’d still be a damn good possession player: 61.7% of all the shots when Backes is on the ice are on the opposition’s net. He leads the team in that metric.
Basically, the point of this is that I really like David Backes. He’s one of those players that fans of advanced statistics and fans of “hey, just watch the games, man” would come to agreement over. He’s big, he hits, he pushes people around, he doesn’t back down, he drives to the net, he works hard in the corners, all these things show up in his pretty remarkable stat-line: he faces the toughest competition and arguably has the hardest minutes among St. Louis forwards, and not only manages to win possession battles, but also scores a bunch.
I like Backes, and I kind of like the St. Louis Blues, as well. They’re a team that’s generally pretty foreign and I’ve only caught a handful of their games this season, but I had some pretty good hopes for them coming into this season. They spent wisely in the offseason, only really opening the chequebook for Jason Arnott, and their youth was ready to take a big step forward.
But then they stumbled out to a 5-7 start. It didn’t really matter, all they had to do was fire coach Davis Payne, bring in defensive whiz Ken Hitchcock, and all will be well. Since the coaching shakeup, the team has won 13 of their last 19. Simple stuff, right? All the players needed was the right system. Sunrise, sunset.
Well, maybe that’s the case, but it probably is not. What’s under-reported about St. Louis is just how good the team was under Davis Payne. With the score tied, the Blues had excellent possession metrics (53.8% of the Corsi events) and, a season before, were 10th in the league. What kept St. Louis from breaking out was the goaltending. Jaroslav Halak has not been the same goalie that he was in the 2010 playoff run.
Halak rode a pretty good Montreal penalty kill to a good save percentage, and a defensive-minded system to a strong goals against average. Certainly, in the wake of just how good he played in 2010, where he single-handedly knocked the two most dangerous players in the hockey world out of the playoffs, it was easy enough to get carried away with his talent. Doug Armstrong pulled the trigger, sending a tidy sum for Halak, expecting him to come in and backstop the team.
Unfortunately for the Blues, as a team they stopped only 91.2% of the shots they faced, a measure that was 3rd worst in the entire league last season. And at the start of this season, Halak was even worse. While Payne was still behind the bench, Halak just stopped 85% of shots he faced, and Davis isn’t the only coach to be fired on the back of some crummy goaltending this season.
That’s unreasonably low. Hitchcock came in and began platooning his goaltenders, giving the team a 1 and a 1A option. Brian Elliott has had a fantastic season, rejuvenated after tough, tough seasons in Ottawa and Colorado. He’s playing out of his mind (.963 save percentage at even strength, which won’t last) and St. Louis has been getting some bounces. They’ve won more under Hitchcock, but this was always a good team that just could have used some goaltending. And that they’ve earned, since his arrival, their goalies have stopped 95.7% of the shots at even strength, going into last night’s game against Columbus.
Obviously, Hitchcock’s defensive system will take a lot of the credit for turning the team around, but we are aware that Ken Hitchcock doesn’t have the ancient secret of preventing quality shots against, and, if he did, he did a damn good job of not telling anybody the secret when he was in Columbus.
Right now, the Blues are riding a pair of hot goalies and it’s easy to be carried away by their success, having won five of their last six games. But they’ll come back to earth a bit, in part because their goaltending is unsustainably good and is the beneficiary of some good puck-luck around the crease, and also because Hitch has been lucky enough to coach a team that has only had six road games since his arrival.
So yeah, the team is quite good. And, for the first time in about a year and a half, the team is getting the results on the scoreboard that they deserve.