It was amusing to observe the overreaction to the trade that sent walk-year defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27. The Blues were “throwing in the towel.” They were “rebuilding.” GM Doug Armstrong had given up on his team, the season was over, the sky was falling on the Scottrade Center, and wild dogs would be roaming the corner of 14th and Clark, looking for carcasses.
Oh, wait a minute…
That’s right …
None of that has happened.
The Blues are 8-3 since making that obvious, necessary trade.
Washington is 5-3-3 since the deal went down.
But wasn’t the Blues’ attack destined to wither and fade after losing Shattenkirk’s offensive-oriented skills?
The Blues have improved their goal-scoring rate and are having more success on the power play since moving Shattenkirk — and they’ve permitted fewer goals per game.
A Blues team that was a minus 9 at even strength with Shattenkirk on the roster this season — he was a minus 11 is a healthy plus 8 since the trade.
The Blues have not only survived Shattenkirk’s absence, they’re probably playing their finest hockey of the season. The Blues completed a superb 4-1 road trip Tuesday with a 4-2 victory at Colorado. The eighth win in the last nine games moved the Blues into third place in the Central division.
Why are the Blues prospering without Shattenkirk?
–– I said this many times before the trade, and I’ll say it again: while Shattenkirk was an obvious plus on the PP and in the Blues’ transition game, he isn’t sturdy at even strength. This season Shattenkirk was on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs only 41 percent of the time, the least amount by a Blues’ defenseman. Every other regular Blues’ defensemen was over 50 percent in defensive zone deployment on faceoffs. Do you think Washington may have noticed? Since joining the Capitals, Shattenkirk has been used on 35 percent of the team’s defensive zone faceoffs.
— Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has elevated his game since the trade; he is tied for the Blues’ lead with eight points (a goal and seven assists) and is a +8. With Shattenkirk gone Pietrangelo is getting more time on the power play, and he’s handling the added responsibility without a problem. Since the trade Pietrangelo has a goal and four assists on a Blues’ power play that has a 27 percent success rate since the trade. Before the trade, the Blues scored on the PP at a rate of 22 percent. Young defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson continue to improve. And while the whiners love to kick Jay Bouwmeester around, the aging defenseman is a plus 8 since the trade.
— Goal prevention, as always, is the No. 1 indicator: And that’s been the biggest factor in the turnaround. Since Mike Yeo took over for Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 2, the Blues lead the NHL in fewest goals allowed (1.73 per game) and save percentage (.941.) Since the Shattenkirk move, the Blues have yielded only 1.64 goals per game and have a .943 save percentage. They’ve also killed 87 percent of opponents’ power play.
— Since the coaching change, Jake Allen leads the NHL with a .942 save percentage among NHL goaltenders that have made at least 20 starts since Feb. 2. He also has the lowest goals-against average, 1.68. The Blues certainly are playing tighter defense in front of Allen, and they’ve blocked more shots, but he’s been fantastic. The Blues’ stinginess is carrying them on the road. They’ve given up only seven goals in going 6-1 in their last seven road games. It’s damned near impossible to do better than that.
— Young players are contributing to the cause. Forward Zach Sanford, who came to the Blues in the package for Shatty — a deal that also brought a first-round draft choice and another conditional pick — has a goal and two assists in his last three games, all wins for the Blues. Did you see Sanford’s patience with the puck and his slick passes that set up two goals Tuesday at Colorado? Geez, maybe Armstrong was right to covet Sanford. And if Sanford, age 22, emerges as an impact player that’s part of the core in the near future, the Shattenkirk deal is a win for the Blues. Shattenkirk wasn’t going to re-sign here, and the Blues couldn’t afford him, anyway. Center Ivan Barbeshev (age 21) has a goal and two assists in his last four games. And while winger Magnus Paajarvi (age 25) has been around for a while, he’s never gotten much of an opportunity until recently. And he’s taking advantage of it, with six goals in 22 games this season — and two goals and two assists in his last six contests.
— By the way: when Armstrong traded David Perron to Edmonton for Paajarvi, the Blues also collected a draft choice. The pick was used to select Barbeshev. And Perron was signed by the Blues as a free agent last summer. So Armstrong not only has Perron back in the fold — Perron has 15 goals this season, and dished two assists in the win at Colorado — but the Blues are benefiting from the presence of the players obtained in the Edmonton deal. Not bad.
–– For the most part, the Blues’ best players are playing like the Blues’ best players. That includes forward Jaden Schwartz, who has a goal and six assists and is a plus 5 since the Shattenkirk maneuver.
It’s interesting how this season is playing out.
In an obvious transition season, the Blues are on pace to finish with 96 or 97 points. I use that going by the Blues’ average points earned per game (1.36) since the reins were handed to Yeo, who is 15-7. The Blues’ winning percentage under Yeo (.682) is the fourth-best in the league since Feb. 2.
If the Blues don’t slip up while trying to move ahead on an easy schedule over their final 10 games, I’d say finishing the regular season with 95+ points would qualify as a success in a transition season.
Consider the changes since last season: this team lost David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency … and lost forward Robby Fabbri to a season-ending knee injury … a team that traded goaltender Brian Elliott to Calgary … only to endure a horrendous collapse by Allen, who had one of the league’s poorest save percentages over the first 50 games … a team that coped with a confusing coaching situation for 50 games … and went through a major change in leadership, with Pietrangelo moving into the captain’s role to succeed Backes … a team that didn’t get close to maximum value for its investment dollars in rewarding several players with new contracts … a team that traded Shattenkirk at the top of the stretch run.
All of that, and the Blues are on pace for 95+ points?
That point total would be down, a little, from the past five seasons.
The Blues, in their previous four full seasons, averaged about 109 points.
But this is a transition season. We knew that going in. And a 95-point total is respectable.
And this season isn’t exactly hell on earth.
Thanks for reading …