(Jen Lute Costella is Puck Daddy’s analytics writer, breaking down the fanciest of stats for you each week. She's a mom. She's writing for this site. Hence, she calls this slice of stats heaven Puck Momalytics.)
Atop their perch in the Central Division, the St. Louis Blues have gutted out wins in their last two games and hold a one point edge on the second-place Nashville Predators.
Last season, watching the Blues was not all that exciting, to be honest. They had some bright spots, but their style of play was never very flashy in terms of offense. This season, they have become appointment viewing due in large part to some young players who are lighting up the scoreboard. Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera have been putting up points at a merciless pace. Vladimir Tarasenko has become one of the more electrifying young players in the league and seems to score one for the highlight reels in every game.
T.J. Oshie returned from a concussion in the Blues game versus the Predators on Thursday night and got himself onto the score sheet when he lasered a point shot in during a first period Power Play. Paul Stastny, recently activated from the Injured Reserve list, continued to shake the rust off and got himself a goal in the third period to give the Blues the game.
The Blues have only played 16 of their 82 regular season games, but it’s not too early to take a look at how the team is playing and ask whether they can sustain their winning ways. After a few seasons of first round exits in the playoffs, the Blues of course have their sights set on going further this season. No one disputes that they are a good team. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has refined the team’s defensive systems to the point that they are continually among the league’s best in terms of shot suppression. They may not have the best goaltending in the league, but it is likely good enough to hold the line for them over the regular season because of their stifling defensive work. The thing about the Blues over the last few seasons is that their defense hasn’t really been the problem.
When it comes right down to it, the thing the Blues have sorely lacked when the postseason rolls around is offense.
St. Louis did a pretty good job of trying to be aggressive offensively during the last postseason posting a 60.59 CF60 during the series versus Chicago. After starting the first two games of that series with an On Ice sh% of 10.81% and 16.67% respectively, they posted 0%, 8%, 4.35% and 4.17% marks in the following four games, losses, during 5 on 5 play and ended up going home. Combined with not so great goaltending numbers in the last three games of that series, there wasn’t much they could do and the postseason PDO monster ushered them out. That’s just how the postseason works. The systems that have made you a good team all season are still very important, but the playoffs are also about getting hot at the right time.
The Blues are hot right now in this young season, but everything we’ve learned about how hockey works over the course of a long season says that this will probably go cold. It may well heat back up again for the Blues and if the timing works out, it could lead to good things for them, but there are some problems in the lineup that may make this difficult.
Looking at data from the 2008-09 season through the present, the Blues have been a consistently strong puck possession team. As a team, their sh% right now is a little on the low end of what we’ve seen from them but only by a very small amount. Their goaltending numbers right now (at 5v5) are better than they ever have been (94.85% On Ice Sv%). Their Team Goals For per 60 (2.08 TGF60) is right on the mark for where they have been in the past with their Team Goals Against per 60 the best it’s been during the timeframe we’re working with (1.36 TGA60).
How could any of this be a problem you may ask. The problem is that all of the offense at 5v5 for the Blues is coming from the same place. They’ve definitely dealt with injuries early in the season so they may well start running on all cylinders soon, but at this point, they are really only running on one cylinder, or forward line.
As a team, the Blues have 26 goals during 5v5 play. Tarasenko has been on the ice for 18 of those. Lehtera has been on for 14 of those goals followed by Schwartz at 11 and Steen at 9. With players returning to the lineup, the Tarasenko, Lehtera, Steen line has been changed to include Schwartz so that Steen can lead a line of recently returned players. When you ignore the defensemen in the graph above, the forwards outside of those four players have not given much in the way of offensive production.
The graph above will help put this in perspective. From left to right is the Player’s percentage of the team’s ice time during a game. Ryan Reaves plays the smallest percentage of time for the Blues during a game with defensemen Alex Pietrangelo holding the largest share. On the vertical axis is the percentage of the team’s goals scored while the player is on the ice. Tarasenko has a league leading 69.23% percentage of Team Goals For even when defensemen are included. Lehtera is 9th in the league among forwards. That is an awfully big chunk of a team’s offense being tied to one player (Tarasenko). Even Schwartz is higher on the list than the defensemen. All of this points to the vast majority of the team’s offensive production coming from very few players.
Above is the breakdown of the players’ CF60 and CA60 during 5v5 play. Stastny’s numbers are a bit of an outlier based upon the small number of games he has played so that will probably even out some after he gets a few more games under his belt this season. What is clear from this graph is that the Blues line of LaPierre, Ott and Reaves is getting out possessed on the regular. Tarasenko, Steen, Schwartz and Lehtera are certainly driving play well.
As we see from this graph, Tarasenko and Lehtera are getting some good zone starts to optimize their offense and likely minimize any defensive weaknesses Hitchcock my see in their play. The vast majority of the Blues players have strong possession numbers as shown by the circles which represent their CF%. The players near the top have the highest PDO marks for the team. PDO is simply sh% plus Sv% during 5v5 play. 100 is considered the baseline for PDO. Tarasenko’s high shooting percentage and the lack of goals against (i.e. a good Sv%) have led to a high PDO for him.
This graph illustrates what the real problem for the Blues could have.
With players returning to the lineup, the Blues changed the Steen, Tarasenko, Lehtera line (STL line) to Schwartz, Tarasenko, Lehtera (fortunately still able to be named the STL line). The potential problem here is that the players with the best Goals Per 60, Assists Per 60 and Points Per 60 are all on one line with this set up. Concentrating nearly the team’s entire scoring prowess on one line makes the overall lineup weaker. Having the biggest offensive threats on one line makes the Blues easier to match up against. Spreading offense throughout the lineup tends to make match ups more difficult and gives the team a better chance of scoring.
Certainly there is something to be said for keeping players who are performing well when on the ice with each other together. This is one of the toughest decisions coaches have to make. Ken Hitchcock is a very smart and savvy coach so he deserves the benefit of the doubt here. If the other players on the team, many who have recently returned from injury, start to get into the swing of things then this likely will not be much of a problem. At this point though, it should not take all that long for teams to figure out how to cover the new STL line to minimize their impact on games. When that happens, the other forward lines for the Blues will have to contribute offensively or the team will have serious problems.
It’s early in the season and as noted above, the Blues are just getting their players healthy so this likely is not a big problem right now. It does bear keeping an eye on as the season moves forward. If the Blues want to make their fans happy by getting past the first round of the playoffs, the offense needs to improve. A team with this strong of a defensive system already has the foundation for success over a long regular season and the postseason, but they still have not taken the next step to become a true contender.
*All data herein current through November 14, 2014 and was collected from www.puckalytics.com and war-on-ice.com