St. Louis Blues 12-13 Preview: Contenders Under Hitchcock

Jonathan Willis
September 29 2012 12:51PM

The 2011-12 season was the team’s best in over a decade. Will 2012-13 see the team improve upon it or fall back to the disappointing levels of previous seasons?

The Hitchcock Effect

Ken Hitchcock – who won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach last season – made an immediate difference in St. Louis. After a 6-7-0 start under Davis Payne, the Blues went 43-15-11 the rest of the way and ultimately made it to the second round of the playoffs.

Hitchcock is a superb coach, with a Stanley Cup ring and more than 1000 NHL games under his belt. There’s little doubt that his abilities were a major asset to St. Louis last season. With that said, he’s not made of magic, and he did benefit from some things (such as a hot run from goaltender Brian Elliott) that were outside his control. His system does seem to make goaltenders better, but not as good as the Blues’ duo was last season.

Even so, the Blues can feel confident that their head coach compares well with virtually any in the game.

Forwards

Photo: Johnmaxamena2/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite the lack of high-end, marquee talent, the Blues’ forward corps is both deep and capable.

It starts with the top line of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and (usually) David Perron. That trio took on the thankless job of playing against the best opposition while also taking on the lion’s share of defensive zone assignments, and they excelled. Despite Oshie and Backes topping out at 54 points the duo finished a combined plus-30 and did solid work as the team’s top line.

A strong two-way line like that needs offensive support, and the Blues have a few options. The most important one is probably Andy McDonald, who was scoring at a point-per-game pace and led the team if playoff points; unfortunately he appeared in just 25 regular season games. If he’s healthy, the Blues’ offence gets a big boost. A pair of first round picks are also expected to have an immediate impact: Vladimir Tarasenko was a near point-per-game player in the KHL last year while Jaden Schwartz scored twice in a seven-game late-season cameo with the Blues.

The rest of the group is just as capable. Patrik Berglund (52 points in 2010-11), Chris Stewart (56 goals over the two seasons prior to 2011-12), Alex Steen (plus-24 in just 43 games), Jamie Langenbrunner (1105 career games, 61 points as recently as 2009-10) and Vladimir Sobotka give the team a core most clubs would be envious of.

Defence


Photo: Jaime4Jesus/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

There probably isn’t another team in the league that gets the same bang for buck out of its blue line as the St. Louis Blues.

The quartet of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak played a total of nearly 7,000 minutes last season. Their combined cap hit in 2012-13 is slated to be just $10.39 million. Their base salary is even lower, at just over $7 million. For the sake of contrast, thanks to Philadelphia’s offer sheet Nashville will pay Shea Weber $14 million in salary this year and he will register a cap hit of $7.86 million.

(Aside: The Blues will also be one of the teams most damaged if the lockout extends for a full season, as of their key NHL contributors just two - Jackman and Polak - have contracts beyond the summer of 2013. Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk’s entry-level deals will both expire next summer.)

The depth chart, with the exception of the departed Carlo Colaiacovo – who ranked fifth in total minutes played and fourth in ice-time/game – will likely be the same as last year. Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk serve as the anchors for two pairings; Jackman generally played with Shattenkirk last season while Roman Polak anchored an effective third pairing along-side Kris Russell. Ian Cole, a first round pick from 2007, will likely round out the top-six and may find himself paired with Pietrangelo.

Jeff Woywitka, on a two-way contract, is a decent bet for the seventh role.

In Net


Photo: Johnmaxamena2/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

The St. Louis Blues enjoyed a remarkable season from both of their goalies. How remarkable? We get an idea when we look at the team’s 5-on-5 save percentage. Consider: - The worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the league last year belonged to Tampa Bay – 0.899 - The median save percentage was 0.919, with 23 of the league’s 30 teams falling between 0.909 and 0.929. - Of the exceptions, four (T.B., NYI, PIT, TOR and CHI – please feel free to insert obligatory Marc-Andre Fleury joke) finished below that range - Phoenix, thanks to Mike Smith’s incredible year, finished just a hair outside the range above, with a 0.930 save percentage - St. Louis finished first – with a 0.936 save percentage

The difference between a 0.919 save percentage and a 0.936 save percentage on the 1785 shots the Blues faced at even-strength is 31 goals. That’s before we get into penalty-killing situations, where the Blues were also excellent.

The biggest reason was the goaltenders. Jaroslav Halak had an excellent season after a slow start – posting a 0.926 save percentage over 46 games, a shade better than the 0.924 save percentage he’d managed with the Canadiens in 2009-10. But with all due respect to Halak, the real revelation was Brian Elliott.

Between 2008-09 (when Elliott first became a full-time NHL’er) and 2010-11 (the season before he joined the Blues), 36 NHL goalies appeared in more than 100 games. Elliott was one of them, posting a 0.901 save percentage over 141 contests. By save percentage, the only goalie in that span that was worse was Peter Budaj (0.900 save percentage). Yet, somehow, in 2011-12 Elliott led the league with a 0.940 save percenatage.

It was an insane run, and it’s hard to believe it was sustainable. Strange things happen over 40-game spans. It’s probably a good idea to expect significant regression in St. Louis’ save percentage number. Even so, they’ll still likely get decent goaltending – Jaroslav Halak has a career 0.918 save percentage, and as long as Elliott can avoid sliding back to the sub-0.900 level of 2010-11 he should be a reliable backup.

Outlook

Despite the fact that 2011-12 marked only the second time since the 2004-05 NHL lockout that the Blues managed to qualify for the post-season, there’s little doubt that last season’s run was for real. They dominated the possession game, they’re deep and capable in all positions, and they’re also superbly coached.

If there’s a 2012-13 season, they should contend for the Stanley Cup.

Previously in this series

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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