The Blues had as many injuries as early road games, and when you are missing players and missing out on having home-ice advantage, it’s a crummy way to begin the new crusade.
Now here they are, 13 games in, and looking at the record you’d think that the Blues had acquired Steven Stamkos instead of Brayden Schenn, or that they plugged in Zach Werenski to replace the injured Jay Bouwmeester.
After downing the Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings during a 72-hour period at Scottrade Center, the Blues on this Halloween afternoon have dressed up like Stanley Cup contenders. And it’s a great look. At 10-2-1 the Blues have matched the best start in franchise history are tied with Tampa Bay for the NHL’s best winning percentage (.808.) With 21 points, the Blues lead the second-place Dallas Stars by seven points.
This is a pleasurable surprise, considering the team’s arduous first-month schedule and the legal-pad length list of man games lost because of injuries to defenseman Bouwmeester and forwards Patrik Berglund, Robby Fabbri, Zach Sanford, and Alex Steen (he’s back.)
And this does not even take into account the players that are no longer on the roster. Hey, some of the subtractions were fine, or no big deal. And in one instance, one roster change was a gift from the hockey gods.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the famous “Miracle on Ice.” Well, here’s the “Miracle Off Ice” … the Philadelphia Flyers traded Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for Jori FREAKING Lehtera.
Yes, that really happened.
And the Flyers can’t take it back.
Anyway, if you add up the points produced by members of the 2016-2017 Blues who went away for one reason or another the tabulation comes to 48 goals and 92 assists. That doesn’t include what the Blues could or should have been getting from an injured reserve line of Fabbri, Berglund and Sanford.
There are seven semi-conclusions to make here:
1. Excellent goaltending is a swell thing to have going for you.
2. The Blues’ organizational depth had more roots and vines than assumed.
3. When your defensemen are contributing significantly as offensemen, that’s a major plus.
4. The Blues’ problems — most recently a monotonous power play, and an ineffective penalty kill — do not rise to the “crisis” level … even as hundreds of emotional loyalists head to the online forums and comments sections to insist that the team’s incompetency in winning faceoffs is as devastating as, say, the Galveston Cyclone of 1900.
5. If any NHL defenseman is playing superior all-around hockey than Alex Pietrangelo, then his name better be Bobby Orr.
6. Blues manager Doug Armstrong is not a wanker who must be fired because he traded for Bouwmeester, and gave a biggie contract to Bouwmeester … which causes irrational Bouwmeester fetishists to roam the village, constantly shouting that Bouwmeester is the worst defenseman in the history of the world …. really the worst athlete who ever lived … and these folks actually holler these things while sober.
Oh, and this …
7. Mike Yeo is one helluva good hockey coach, ideal for the Blues’ situation. This team is a mix of veterans and young players. It is a team short of a few good men, so the coach has to be calm and flexible and resourceful. Trouble scoring goals? OK, fine. The Blues’ defensemen can motor, and they have skill, so let’s get ’em moving forward to give a charge to the attack. Through 13 games the Blues have gotten 14 goals from their defensemen … and 32.5 percent of the team’s total goals have been scored by defenseman … and that doubles the percentage (16%) over the previous two seasons.
“I think their team game’s always been really sound,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said while his team was in St. Louis for Monday’s game. “Certainly when Hitch was here, he’s known for that, and I think he does a tremendous job and Mike’s introduced some new ideas offensively. I think their team game’s always been part of their identity here. Their defense is big and they move and I think that’s probably the one thing that’s changed.”
Yeo was elevated to head coach on Feb. 1 of this year, 50 games into the Blues’ troubling 2016-2017 campaign. It is easy to forget the Blues’ straight-up awfulness in the final days and weeks of the Ken Hitchcock regime. We knew Hitch was a future Hall of Fame coach who had done a superb job in St. Louis … but the grating Hitchcock always comes with a coaching expiration date.
On the day Hitchcock’s time ran out the Blues were a mess.
The record was 24-21-5, a .530 win percentage that ranked 18th among the 30 teams.
Jake Allen — who let Hitch’s harshness get to him — was whiffing on too many stoppable shots on goal, and the Blues had a horrendous .887 save percentage … the worst in the league. Hitchcock’s career coaching hallmark, goal prevention, was in a state of collapse.
The Blues were getting exploited by opponents for 3.12 goals per game, which ranked 27th.
Special-teams performances fluctuate and can be random. The foundation of every good hockey team is even-strength play. Up until the first 50 games of last season, the Blues had been reliably assertive at even strength in the Hitchcock system. But the deterioration was so severe, the Blues were minus 16 at even strength at the time of the coaching change. That ranked 22nd. Hitchcock hockey was wheezing to an inevitable demise.
This team’s performance with Yeo as boss has been nothing short of sensational. You’ll notice that I didn’t say perfect. We can fuss about special teams, or the faceoff struggles. But there isn’t all that much to complain about, especially considering the circumstances.
Yeo has been the Blues coach for 45 regular-season games.
Over that time the Blues have gone 32-10-3. They have the league’s best winning percentage (.744), most wins, most points. The Blues have yielded the fewest goals per game (2.00). Allen and Carter Hutton have combined to give the Blues the league’s No. 1 save percentage, .934. That’s a preposterous 47 points higher than the team save percentage over the first 50 games last season.
And the Blues are utterly dominant at even strength. In Yeo’s 45 games, the Blues are No. 1 in the league with an even-strength goal differential of plus-43.
Let’s put that into a more focused perspective: Chicago ranks second in even-strength performance since Feb. 1, but at plus-25 the Blackhawks aren’t anywhere close to the Blues’ plus-43. The Blues have allowed only 1.49 even-strength goals per game under Yeo.
The Blues block more shots now. An increasingly persistent forecheck delivers more hits. The five skaters on the ice are better synchronized, moving as one unit, and that seals a lot of open-ice gaps.
The Blues aren’t a formidable force offensively, but the personnel losses have a lot to do with that. And even then, there isn’t a damned thing wrong with the Blues’ average of 3.02 goals in Yeo’s 45 games.
A hockey-writer panel at ESPN.com was asked to select the top “sneaky good” NHL team over the first month.
Here’s Emily Kaplan:
“Maybe they’ve gotten lost in these fluky early weeks, maybe it’s fatigue because this team is always a pest in the West, but man, the St. Louis Blues are sneaky-good. As if a 10-2-1 record and four-game winning streak aren’t enough, the Blues’ most recent win was a 4-2 thriller over the next-best team in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings, on Monday. St. Louis is the only undefeated team at home, and have the league’s best winning percentage since their coaching change last season.
“Most impressive about this iteration of the Blues: They’re the same team that has made the playoffs every season since 2011-12, but with an extra element of surprise. Yes, Vladimir Tarasenko is usually the biggest threat on the ice — but now he has an equally dangerous sidekick in Jaden Schwartz. The 25-year-old Schwartz has actually been more productive, with 17 points in the first seven games (Tarasenko is doing just fine with 14 points).
“And yes, this is still a team anchored by stingy defense — their 2.33 goals per game is third in the league — but with newish coach Mike Yeo, they’ve also incorporated an up-tempo pace. Also: led by Alex Pietrangelo’s 13 points, Blues’ defensemen have been major contributors on offense.
“Remember, the Blues have suffered incredibly poor injury luck. Robby Fabbri is lost for the season with knee surgery, Alex Steen missed the first six games while Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester and Zach Sanford are still sidelined. And even still, everything has been falling the Blues’ way. Even their emergency veteran signing, Scottie Upshall, has panned out, reigniting chemistry with four points in his last two games. As long as they’re playing this well, it will be impossible not to overlook the Blues.
“They’re not just sneaky-good, they’re good.”
Thanks for reading…