No one is sitting here saying the St. Louis Blues weren’t a great story last year. They started out just 6-7-0 under Davis Payne, due to a number of issues, and hired Ken Hitchcock instead. After losing seven of the first 13 games they played, they went on to lose just 15 more over the course of the season, allowing the fewest goals ever in an 82-game campaign, tying for second in the league and winning the division traditionally dominated by the Chicagos and Detroits of the world.
But what you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, then take from all that success — and there was a lot of it, at least until they were gutted by the Kings in the second round — is a belief that because of the team’s previous extraordinary, improbable winning, it will be able to improve to become the best in the West. That is, of course, what the Hockey News thinks is going to happen. The Blues, No. 1 in the Western Conference. Ahead of Vancouver, ahead of Los Angeles. Yes, predictions of pretty much any kind are stupid, but it takes a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to posit that this team will actually go out and win the West given a number of factors. (All this assumes, by the way, that we’ll play an 82-game season in 2012-13, which I know we absolutely will not, so you can go ahead and just hang onto those comments.)
The first is also the most obvious: They didn’t win the West last season despite literally being the best defensive team of all time. The NHL record for goals against in a season is jointly held by the 1954-55 Maple Leafs and 1955-56 Canadiens at 131. Of course, they also only played 70 games a year back then. Nonetheless, the Blues’ full-season total was just 155 — 35(!) of which were scored in 13 games before Hitchcock took over — which is a crazy number, at just 1.89 per game.
Let’s look at that more closely. We can all agree that Jaroslav Halak is a good goaltender. Is he a lock to go 1.97/.926 again next season? No, because no one ever is. Recall how bad Tim Thomas made the league’s shooters look in 2010-11, and recall his steep decline back from all-time-great numbers to those that were merely very good. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility to suppose that Halak can keep his numbers above league average for much of next season. Brian Elliott, on the other hand? He posted ludicrous numbers: 1.56/.940. And you might say small sample size, but no, he did that across THIRTY-EIGHT GAMES. It’s an amazing feat, and one that exceeds his career averages by absurd amounts. His GAA last year is more than a goal lower than his all-time number. If you think Brian Elliott can come even remotely close to putting up those kinds of stats again this season, well, you need to reassess everything you think you know about hockey, because the amount you actually know is zilch.
To be fair, these guys are backed up by an excellent defensive system with some very, very good young blue liners. And hey look, even if they tack 30 goals onto their total next season — an increase of a little less than 20 percent — they’re still top five in the league.
But what separates the teams that would have finished ahead of them, teams like the Canucks and the Rangers and the Kings and the Coyotes, is that many at least had good offenses. Yeah, LA finished 29th in goals for last season, but we all know that after Darryl Sutter took over, and then when Jeff Carter came aboard, the goals per game that team scored ballooned to north of 3.00 (only three teams in the league scored more than three goals per game last season). So St. Louis and Phoenix are more or less the outliers here, and I don’t think anyone would dare pick the Coyotes to win that division again.
The Blues, simply put, don’t have much offense to speak of, and even if they keep goals out of the net better than the bottom 85 percent of the league, that still eats away at the potential point totals they’ll be enjoying at the end of next season.
“Ah, but isn’t the Central Division appreciably worse today than it was last year, when the Blues rampaged through it for 109 points?” Sure. The Blackhawks are still backed by Corey Crawford for some reason, the Red Wings are going to be calling you to help out on their blue line any day now, the Predators lost offense and obviously Ryan Suter, and Columbus is, well, it’s Columbus. This is, to be sure, a definitively mediocre division. The Blues are going to win it, and could do so in a relatively easy walk. But your clearinghouse for all things “Great Team Beating Up a Terrible Division” begins and ends where it has the last two seasons: Vancouver, British Columbia.
By the Hockey News’ own predictions, the Central will produce four playoff teams (guess which one is sitting on the sidelines). Even if you don’t buy that, and you shouldn’t, it’s pretty easy to see the stratification here. By contrast, it says the Northwest will produce two playoff teams at most — the other is Minnesota, which ain’t there yet, dawgs — and those teams get the benefit of playing teams Nos. 12-14 six times a season. Unless everyone in the Central instantly becomes worse than everyone in the Northwest, which will never ever happen, then it’s pretty impossible to see how a team that doesn’t score and needed an all-time great defensive showing to finish second in the West last year improves on that performance.
None of this, by the way, even gets into how good the Kings can be next season which, you’ll again note, is “very good indeed.”
Again, I’m not saying the Blues are going to be bad next year, or even that they won’t be good. Last year’s team was a great one, but its performance wasn’t something you can replicate. So no, of course they’re not going to win the West, or probably even come close.