Fear the Blues

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The St. Louis Blues are getting 10/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup this season, per vegasinsider.com. Frankly, those are too high, but there may be reason for slight trepidation. After playing impressively for most of the 2013-14 season, St. Louis finished with another disappointing first-round playoff exit. The Ryan Miller trade at last season’s trade deadline, which was intended to solve the Blues’ question in goal, failed badly. But this season is different, starting with how well this team comports itself on all swaths of the ice.

The Blues’ best attribute is that they actively want to use the whole ice. On breakouts, they are comfortable moving the puck through the middle or up the boards. When St. Louis is trying to exit the zone, often the lane for the weak side defenseman is available to join the rush, and St. Louis encourages an active defense. In the offensive zone, St. Louis will control the boards to move the puck to the middle. If the home plate area is clogged, the Blues will work below the goal line and in the off-slot. Even on the power play, the Blues will move the puck around up high in a triangle before approaching the bottom half of the offensive zone.

Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko emerged on the public’s radar last season as potential stars, and now few would contest that they are among the elite wingers in the NHL. In past seasons, St. Louis has lacked the first-rate forward talent of Chicago and Los Angeles, but currently the Blues have a healthy portion of skill and speed to complement the power and grind that has been their hallmark in prior campaigns.

What makes this team so intriguing is that the demarcation between skill and grit is not black and white. Schwartz and Tarasenko can play along the half-wall and in the corners and get their hands dirty. In fact, they thrive in both areas of the ice. And Oshie and Backes have the skill to strike off the rush and covert on fantastic dishes and scoring chances created by Alexander Steen.

Ken Hitchcock knows he has a collection of forwards with different skill sets. A cup-level team must have versatility. It’s about finding players who complement each other and understand what makes their teammates valuable. When IH spoke with John Tavares during All-Star weekend, the Islanders center described in glowing terms how right winger Kyle Okposo’s talent and different skill set help generate chemistry on his line:

“When he is strong along the walls and in the corners, and moving his feet while taking pucks to the net, you really see how much ice that opens up for myself and for my other winger. He definitely has a tremendous shot and can finish off plays very well. He’s got very underrated hockey sense too, I believe. He makes great little plays and does a lot of little things well away from the puck that contribute to the team defensively and help get it back so we can create opportunities.”

The Blues have found the same kind of chemistry that Tavares developed with Okposo, but from a whole-team perspective. Like the relationship with Tavares and Okposo, it starts with players with different strengths. Obtaining hockey nirvana means finding comfort with the places and people who are closest in your life. St. Louis has assembled the right group of players who feel at home in any space on the ice.

The Blues have players who can grab the puck off the wall and power it to the net. They have the big shots and talented finishers (and skilled puck-handlers and gifted passers). They have many players who do a really good job of leading with their sticks and forcing turnovers to help the team keep possession. Tavares extols Okposo for the amount of room he creates for him and the third forward; the Blues’ skaters open up ice for themselves and their linemates because they can pound opponents in the mouth or skate past them on any region of the ice. The composite outlook for St. Louis is that of a team that offers everything on the menu.

The Blues’ offense and defense fare well in team metrics as well. The Blues are 2nd in 5 on 5 Goals For/Against, 3rd in Goals per game, 5th in goals against, tied for 6th in shots per game, and tied for 5th in shots against. They are tied for 12th in Fenwick close and tied for 13th in Corsi percentage at even strength. They are 4th in even-strength shooting percentage, and a lot of that success has come from outside the low and middle slot, per war-on-ice. But even a downtick in their puck luck should not capsize this squad because there is so much depth and skill.

The Blues’ offense and defense are hard to separate because they are inexorably linked. When they want to simplify their attack, they go heavy on the forecheck and use their defensemen at the point. On a carry-in, their defensemen can be a prominent member of the rush. The Blues’ forwards and defensemen can interchange and switch fluidly, and the team’s collective skating really gives them an advantage because they win so many races to the puck.

Another subtle advantage is that St. Louis’ forwards and defensemen do a really good job of pushing teams to the outside and challenging them along the boards. The Blues receive excellent back pressure through the middle of the ice from their forwards, which allows the defense to step up if they choose to. The defensemen do a very good job at recognizing where their outlets are on breakouts. Carl Gunnarsson was acquired through trade with Toronto, and he has fit in perfectly as a top-four blueliner for the Blues.

The following play from St. Louis’ game Sunday against Washington displays a forward and defenseman that are on the same page.

Alexander Steen wins the faceoff, and Alex Pietrangelo swings the puck around the boards to the weak side to T.J. Oshie, who has moved off the hash marks by the slot (where he was positioned on the faceoff) to the boards to be the outlet for the transition. Oshie touch passes it to Steen to spring a 2-on-1 as four Capitals are left helpless in the Blues’ defensive zone. Steen kicks the puck to his stick and fires a pass across to Tarasenko, who is moving toward the middle slot for a one-timer. The goal by Tarasenko expands the lead to 4-2, and the Capitals never recover.

Yes, Ovechkin was supposed to support John Carlson when Carlson pinched, and Ovechkin’s failing to do so led to an easy odd-man rush. But even if Carlson hadn’t got caught in no man’s land, or Ovechkin had covered Carlson’s pinch better, the Blues were going to get a three-on-two odd-man rush. The miscommunication between Ovechkin and Carlson results in a two-on-one that wound up being the game-winning goal. And that is the beauty of the Blues’ puck movement and skill on this play. The Blues systematically shredded the Capitals’ aggression and created the rush opportunity by winning the draw, moving the pressure on the zone exit to the far side, and countering the desire to hold the zone by having Steen fly the zone. Tarasenko was set to do the same, but took a more wending path.

Patrik Berglund, Jori Lehtera, and Kevin Shattenkirk are all injured at the moment – but the Blues keep on winning. The Blues are 9-0-1 in their last ten games. This team is laden with depth at forward and defense. In that same game against the Capitals, the Blues lost Shattenkirk, a Norris Trophy candidate, but were able to put Ian Cole in a top-four role and the offense and defense still hummed. At forward, David Backes was booted from the game for a dangerous hit and Dmitri Jaskin got a look with some of the top forwards and notched a goal. On Tuesday against the best team in the East, depth defenseman Chris Butler played 20:45 and notched an assist in a 2-1 OT win over the Lightning. Tarasenko scored in regulation, and Schwartz scored a highlight reel goal in extra time.

The depth at forward and defense are great, but the Blues’ ascension to Cup representative from the West will rest on how well Tarasenko and Schwartz play in the postseason. Every team needs those difference-makers who can consistently create scoring chances in the tight-checking world that is playoff hockey, and Tarasenko and Schwartz are there. Tarasenko is tied for 3rd in points per 60 minutes and Schwartz is 13th. Tarasenko, Schwartz, Steen, and Shattenkirk all rank in the top 40 in points. No other team has more than three; Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, and San Jose are the only teams to have three players in the top forty. And when forwards of Tarasenko’s, Schwartz’s, and Steen’s caliber are playing with defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Shattenkirk, it makes for a hell of a nucleus. (That said, Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester have not had their best season, so much better play will be needed from them come playoff time.)

The biggest area of concern is the most obvious one: goaltender. Currently, Brian Elliott has a terrific .929 save percentage in 25 games. GM Doug Armstrong is hoping that a stellar forward and defensive group can compensate for the lack of an elite goaltender. Adding another playmaking, two-way center like Paul Stastny, which Armstrong did last summer, would help mollify concerns in goal. Nevertheless, Elliott still has to play well. If he can make the saves that he is supposed to make come playoff time, and not singlehandedly sink the Blues in individual games, dreams of a Cup could become a reality.

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