On Monday night, the St. Louis Blues beat the Dallas Stars 1-0 and moved into first place in the Western Conference. Has anyone noticed?
The Blues definitely seem to be flying completely under the radar: despite being tied for first place in the NHL, the Blues have only one player going to the All-Star Game. Oddly enough, that representative is Brian Elliott, who is still, technically, their backup goaltender.
He is, however, outperforming the much higher paid Jaroslav Halak and is second in the NHL to fellow backup Tuukka Rask in goals against average and save percentage. I speculated a month ago that Elliott could not only steal the number one job from Halak, but also actually be in the running for the Vezina if he keeps up his high-level performance throughout the season.
I think it says something about the team if their most notable star is a backup goaltender on a one-year, two-way contract for $600,000. More than any other team in the NHL, the Blues are committed to the team concept. They have a number of superb players, but their focus is entirely on team success rather than individual performance.
The Blues top scorer is David Backes, who has 32 points in 45 games. He’s not even in the top-60 in NHL scoring and he’s being outscored by two defencemen, Erik Karlsson and Brian Campbell. By points per game, their top scorer is David Perron, who has 15 points in 20 games, for an average of 0.75 points per game. He’s 72nd in the NHL in points per game.
When it comes to defencemen, the Blues have a bit more star power. Their top scoring defenceman is Kevin Shattenkirk, who has 23 points, good for 18th in the NHL, and Alex Pietrangelo has 21 points and is 26th in the league.
It’s not too surprising, then, that the Blues aren’t exactly lighting up the league offensively. They are tied for 18th in goals per game, averaging 2.56, and have one of the worst powerplays in the league, converting at just 13.8%, just a percentage point better than the Montreal Canadiens’ league-worst powerplay. The Blues simply don’t score a lot.
Defensively, however, they are one of the best teams in the league. They are second only to the Boston Bruins in goals against per game, allowing just 1.98 per game, and allow the fewest shots against per game in the league. At even-strength, the Blues are one of the most dominant in the league, just behind the Bruins and Red Wings.
Did I mention they are coached by Ken Hitchcock? Suddenly their defensive strengths and offensive disinterest make a lot more sense.
The Blues started the season with Davis Payne behind the bench, but after a 6-7-0 start, he was fired and replaced by Hitchcock. The team has been lights out ever since. Some of that was simply regression to the mean: the Blues were not as bad as their record indicated. The best sign of that is their 4-0-1 record in the 5 games immediately after Hitchcock took over and before he had much time to get his own systems in place.
Still, the team is 21-5-6 since Hitchcock took over and they have been phenomenal defensively, something that couldn’t be said about the team under Payne. Since Hitchcock’s name is nearly synonymous with the trap, that has been a frequent accusation. Blues fan are awfully defensive about it too. The tagline on Blues blog St. Louis Game Time is currently “Call it a trap if you’d like, it just lets us know you’re not paying attention.”
The Blues’ system certainly doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to the systems Hitchcock employed in his previous years as a coach, but the Blues are certainly willing to clog up the neutral zone if the situation calls for it. The difference seems to be that Hitchcock is far more easy-going about taking risks offensively. Witness this quote from Hitchcock on the return of David Perron from a concussion:
I think when he came back, he was excited and then he started to play careful, which is natural. Now he’s back to playing reckless again, and that’s good for us. Because when he’s playing reckless and he’s playing with the flair that he’s playing with now, he’s dangerous.
Yes, Ken Hitchcock said that. He praised recklessness over being careful.
Is the Blues’ success sustainable? There are both positive and negative signs. Their PDO, a measurement of luck, has been a little high of late, indicating that the bounces have been going their way at both ends of the ice recently. That said, their underlying statistics are incredibly positive.
One of the strongest indicators of future success is a team’s Fenwick rating when the score is close. A Fenwick rating is essentially even-strength plus-minus that includes goals, shots on goal, and missed shots. By restricting the rating to just when the score was close, we avoid what is known as score effects, the tendency of teams that are down by several goals outshooting their opponents through the rest of the game.
The Blues are currently second in the NHL in Fenwick when the score is close, behind only the Detroit Red Wings. Over the second half of the season, the Blues should continue to rack up wins and battle with the Blackhawks and Red Wings for top spot in the Central Division.
The Predators, on the other hand, may fall behind with such tough competition in their division. I hate predicting anything other than success for the Predators because they’ve proven so many people wrong in the past and have done so well to start the season, but they are currently second last in the NHL in Fenwick when the score is close, which is an indication that the second half of the season might not be kind to them.
The Blues don’t have to worry about that. There is very little doubt that they are one of the best teams in the NHL right now and they’re doing it without the benefit of star power.