Last week the first major injury news of the season landed in St. Louis and the outlook was not good.
Patrik Berglund out four months following a shoulder surgery in late August, meaning that he should be back around Christmas or so if all goes as planned. But that's a long time to go without any player, and Berglund is ostensibly one that St. Louis relies upon somewhat heavily.
He carries a cap hit of $3.7 million (giving him a cap hit that's currently fifth among Blues forwards), and has been a pretty good scorer for the team for some time. Over the last three seasons, his goals and points per 60 at 5-on-5 rank fifth and eighth on the team among forwards, respectively. The goals number actually puts him ahead of captain David Backes and the now-departed T.J. Oshie.
Losing a guy who, over the course of three seasons scored 0.68 goals per 60 minutes at full strength seems quite worrisome, doesn't it? Especially for a team that doesn't exactly score goals by the barrel. That's a solidly second-line level of performance by any measure, but it comes with a huge caveat: Ken Hitchcock doesn't seem to trust him very much.
Berglund is a natural center, but plays there very rarely, and for a guy who posts second-line goalscoring numbers, he's pretty solidly middle of the pack in terms of how he's deployed relative to the other forwards on the team. He's used more like a Vladimir Sobotka — middling competition, middling zone starts — than a Jaden Schwarz — better competition but easier zone starts — or in a first-line role against the real toughs and often deep in their own zone, along the lines of Backes or Oshie. And in fact, he's been trending toward easier treatment for some time now.
Below is a breakdown of how Berglund was used prior to Hitchcock's hiring (in yellow) and after (in blue).
As you can see, he gave Berglund a the heaviest load of his career in 2011-12, and he got manhandled in a way that had never happened to him before. He finished negative in terms of relative possession, chance generation, scoring, and so on. Which led to his even more easier usage in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. We know that Hitchcock is a guy who uses these kinds of numbers to figure out whether what he sees on the ice matches what shows up in the data, so doing a better job of controlling these things is probably a pretty good indicator that Hitchcock did not like what he saw. The results actually got worse the next season.
All of which led to last year, when Berglund was used more or less exclusively as a defensive player in a checking role against other checking lines. His time on ice per game has remained more or less constant over the last three seasons at just 12.4 or 12.5 minutes a night — which is basically high-end third-line stuff — and it's pretty clear that this is all Hitchcock would be willing to give him anyway.
Moreover, even as the 5-on-5 ice time has stayed relatively consistent over the last few years, Berglund has effectively seen his special teams play wiped out almost entirely. He now plays only about 50 seconds per night on both the power play and penalty kill. And along with his stalled-out 5-on-5 usage, it doesn't really paint much of a pretty picture.
So the question becomes one of whether Hitchcock is right to do this. The reduction of his ice time by about a minute a night at 5-on-5 and the near-total elimination of his special teams play indicates to me that Hitchcock has learned — or thinks he's learned — that Berglund is not to be trusted in situations that are very likely to influence the outcome of a game. That is, he doesn't put him out against tough competition in any situations, and tough competition is the most likely to both score on you, and potentially be scored upon as well.
However, that's not reflected in the quality of his linemates, which has materially improved in recent years. Last year he most often played with Dmitrij Jaskin and Paul Stastny, but the year before that, it was Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. In the lockout year, it was Chris Stewart and David Perron. You'd rather skate with any two of the first four than the latter pair, and I think that's a partly testament to St. Louis's apparent realization that the forward group needs to be improved.
But apart from Stastny, who likewise found himself playing away from top competition last year despite the dollar value of his contract, it looks like Berglund's being used to shepherd along kids with high ceilings. Schwartz, Tarasenko, and Jaskin are all considered to be pretty high-level prospects (well, not so much Tarasenko any more, given his coming-out party last year), and these are kids you want to put in a position to succeed; which is why Berglund, who clearly has some offensive skill, seems like a decent guy to put with them. He doesn't do so well himself against top competition, and if he can get the puck to these high-test talents, or bury chances they give him, then all the better; goals count just as much when scored against grinders as they do against first- and second-line players.
But with all that having been said, it's tough to find evidence that Berglund has a significant positive influence on his linemates' ability to either score or prevent goals even against these weaker players. In a lot of ways, it feels that this is just Hitchcock putting him in that part of the lineup because there aren't other options left. Let's put it this way, once Tarasenko and Schwartz “graduated” from third-line duty — and it seems Jaskin will do the same this season — Berglund didn't get a diploma too. And that's for a reason.
Those guys were going to score with or without his help, and that stuff Hitchcock said about this surgery happening far enough out from the start of the season that he's not super-worried about finding a guy to fill that role instead is pretty telling. None of this is to say that Berglund won't be missed, because again he can score some goals and not in any way hinder the performance younger, developing players.
But this is a guy who clearly doesn't have a lot of favor with the coaching staff, and it appears as though he's earned that standing.
(All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.)
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