In An Obvious Transition Season, The Blues Overcame Plenty Of Change and Turmoil To Shine

If you would have told me that the 2016-2017 Blues would lose key forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, and trade goaltender Brian Elliott to Calgary, and have the NHL’s worst save percentage and 28th goal-against average through January, and fire Ken Hitchcock and promote Mike Yeo to the top job 50 games into the season, and lose promising young forward Robby Fabbri to a season-terminating knee injury, and trade offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington, and play the final 10 games of the season without No. 1 center Paul Stastny  … and end up with 46 wins and 99 points … well, I would have probably told you to stop sniffing glue.

The Blues have gone 22-8-2 under Mike Yeo this season.

The playoffs, which begin Wednesday with the Blues playing at Minnesota, are a separate season. We’ll evaluate the Blues’ postseason performance when their work is done, and it’s time for the boys to go home.

But the Blues have no reason to apologize for their regular season. They should be proud of it. This was supposed to be a transition year. After all of the changes last summer, especially the loss of team captain Backes, reasonably intelligent and fair-minded people knew the Blues would take a step back in 2016-2017. And technically they did, finishing with 99 points after averaging 109 points over the three previous campaigns. But one would have to be an All-Pro, Hall of Fame whiner to complain over the Blues’ regular-season showing … especially considering their superb rush over the schedule’s final two-plus months.

Slogging along with the league’s 18th best winning percentage (24-21-5, .530) on Feb. 1, the Blues were in real danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Hitchcock’s vaunted goal-prevention system had pretty much collapsed.

The team was often adrift, with an effort level that fluctuated from game to game. On that first day of February, the Blues were mucking in mediocrity, sitting with the eighth-best record in the Western Conference. And only two of the 14 Western Conference teams were giving up goals at a higher rate.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made a difficult decision to replace Hitchcock, his longtime friend. But even though I respect the hell out of Hitchcock and hate the way coaches are scapegoated in this league, this much was absolutely clear: Blues’ players were no longer responding to Hitch. So why continue?

Yeo was placed in charge. We didn’t know what to expect. Coaching changes often provide a bounce, but reality usually sets in after the initial improvement. But sometimes the coaching switch can dramatically alter the course of the season, and that’s the story for the 2016-2017 Blues.

Consider:

— With Yeo the Blues went 22-8-2 and posted the NHL’s second-best winning percentage (.719) since Armstrong fired Hitch.

— The Blues plus-minus rating at even strength, was +25, which ranked No. 1 in the league since Feb. 2.

— Yeo and Armstrong also asked the great Martin Brodeur to step in to coach wobbly Blues goaltender Jake Allen, who was having a terrible season through the team’s first 50 games. Before the coaching changes, the Blues were dead last in the NHL in save percentage (.887.) After the coaching moves, the Blues were No. 1 in the league with a .937 save percentage. It was a remarkable turnaround, and Brodeur’s role in this cannot be understated. Allen gets the credit for pulling himself together, but Brodeur was a significant stabilizing influence.

— With Yeo and his assistants giving the team a better, sounder defensive structure –with less running around — the Blues allowed only 1.88 goals per game. Allen didn’t face as many high-danger shots. Rebounds were immediately cleared. The transition was cleaned up for smoother exits out of the defensive zone.  The Blues’ strict goal prevention under Yeo, that 1.88 GAA, was the best in the league since Feb. 2.

— The Feb. 27 trade of Shattenkirk didn’t slow the Blues … at all. They not only held their own, but thrived.

I was absolutely astounded to read this line from a local columnist over the weekend:  “No matter how you spin it, the Blues are a tremendously weaker team without Shattenkirk.”

After trading Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues went 15-4-2.

Huh?

Before trading Shattenkirk, the Blues were 17th in the NHL with a .549 winning percentage. After the trade, they went 15-4-2 for a .762 winning percentage that ranked third in the league.

The Blues also cut down on their goals against, allowing 2.89 goals per game before the trade, and 1.90 goals per game.

Shattenkirk is a power-play artist, but the Blues PP success rate fell by only 1.7 percent after the deal — and much of that can be attributed to a mediocre faceoff percentage in the offensive zone after Stastny limped off.

The Blues also scored more goals per game (2.95) after the trade than before the trade (2.80.)

And after the trade, the Blues’ penalty-kill percentage improved by 2.3 percent.

Before the trade: Blues were a minus 9 at even strength. After the trade: Blues were  +18.

So yeah …

Other than than the Blues having the league’s third best record since dealing Shatty, and scoring more goals and allowing fewer goals since dealing Shatty, and being substantially better at even strength after trading Shatty … the trade left them wheezing and weakened and on the verge of being rolled, lifelessly, into the Mississippi River to sink to the bottom.

Just a reminder: Shattenkirk had the Blues’ worst plus-minus, a minus 11, at the time of the trade. He was minus 8 in the 2016 postseason, and a minus 11 overall in the postseason during his time with the Blues. There’s a reason why you didn’t see Shattenkirk on the ice as often as other defensemen for defensive-zone faceoffs.

(The columnist also accused Armstrong of setting up Hitchcock to fail by letting Backes and Brouwer walk as free agents. Two things on that: Number one,  there’s this little something called a salary cap. And number two, Yeo did not have Backes and Brouwer but somehow managed to go 22-8-2.

Pardon my redundancy, but the The Blues’ revival was obviously keyed by more confident goaltending and a stronger defensive system. But many players had to make it work, and they did. This was a collective effort.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo was especially outstanding after the Shattenkirk trade, doing his usual stellar work in the defensive end but also scoring 5 goals with 13 assists in 20 post-trade games. And with an expanded role, two of the Blues’ younger defensemen, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson, raised their game.

Meanwhile, the Blues’ depth was better than many believed. They benefited from positive contributions from forwards Ivan Barbeshev, Magnus Paajarvi and Zach Sanford (who came over in the Shattenkirk trade.) Nail Yakupov chipped in as well. And there some things to like in rookie defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, who came up from the AHL late in the schedule. Of course, the young guys came through because Yeo put faith in them. And Yeo gave them ice time, and responsibility.

Jaden Schwartz was fantastic down the stretch. At his tenacious and persistent best at both ends of the ice, Schwartz scored 5 goals, had 12 assists and was a +13 during the Blues’ 15-2-2 closing run.

Vladimir Tarasenko had 39 goals and a career-best 75 points. No surprise there; over the last three seasons Tarasenko leads the NHL with 88 even-strength goal, which is 10 more than Chicago’s Patrick Kane, and 12 more than Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who respectively rank second and third over that time.

And speaking of that 15-2-2 stretch run, here’s the cool part …

The Blues were led by players who were part of the new generation of Blues back in 2008.

Over the final 19 games Pietrangelo and forwards David Perron, Patrik Berglund and Alex Steen combined for 21 goals, 30 assists and were a collective +27. Three of the four were drafted and developed by the Blues; an unproven Steen arrived here in a 2008 trade with Toronto. He was only 24 at the time. All four players rank among the top 29 of most games played in a Blues uniform, and their leadership and terrific play over the final weeks was pretty special.

The Blues finished third in the NHL Central, edging out a Nashville team that was a preseason darling of the hockey pundits. The Blues’ 46 wins were tied for ninth most in franchise history. Their 99-point total was tied for 10th in team history. And that’s certainly commendable in a transition season that contained plenty of turmoil and adversity.

For the sixth consecutive season, the Blues have qualified for the playoffs.

Only three other NHL teams — Chicago, Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers — have done it over the last six seasons.

Now we get ready for another Stanley Cup tournament.

I don’t know what will happen in the playoffs, but the Blues have nothing to lose. With all of the idiotic shouting about Armstrong quitting on the season, and with the fearful predictions of another rebuilding project, the Blues are playing with house money. And the pressure is on Minnesota in the coming first-round matchup.

Good luck to the Blues.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie

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