This is part two of an eight part series that takes a closer look at the teams who are vying to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup finals in 2014.
If there is one area where the Blues are questionable its in net. The tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are an effective one-two punch but at some point one of them needs to take the next step into becoming a goalie that is capable of backstopping a Cup contender.
Halak has been given that opportunity early on in 2013-14 season, starting 18 of the teams 23 games. He’s been serviceable in those 18 starts, grabbing 13 wins while posting a 2.21 goals against average, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that he has made the necessary progress towards becoming one of the top netminders in the West. That hesitation is mostly due to a rough .911 save percentage that ranks him t-26th amongst eligible goalies. That number just won’t cut it for a team that will have to maneuver through a gauntlet of dynamic offense’s in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Brian Elliott on the other hand has been superb in his role as Halak’s backup. In his seven appearances (five of those being starts) he has accumulated a 1.79 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. In fact, he has looked eerily similar to his 2011-12 self that set a regular season record with a save percentage of .940.
So with Halak sputtering out of the gate should the Blues give Elliott a chance to take the reigns as the #1 goalie? Probably not. The last time Elliott received the bulk of a teams starts was back in 2010-11 when he was a member of the Ottawa Senators. Let’s just say that didn’t fare too well. His current role is where he excels at and trying to force anything more could be more detrimental than helpful.
That leaves Halak as the man to backstop the Blues to the Stanley Cup. The good news for St. Louis is that he has already proven that he is capable of pulling off a few heroics during the playoffs. I’m sure that a lot of you (especially Washington and Pittsburgh fans) can still recall Halak carrying the Montreal Canadiens, an eighth seed in the East, to the conference finals where they fell to Philadelphia in five games. If he can reach that level for the Blues then there isn’t anything stopping them from hoisting the Cup (unless they go up against the Kings again….)
When asked who are the most dynamic offenses in the NHL you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would be willing to toss the St. Louis Blues into the mix. The reluctance to do so isn’t necessarily unwarranted either. Their preferred method of play is a solid two-way game that focuses on overpowering their opponents and making the most of their own opportunities. Historically speaking, it hasn’t always produced the most thrilling of results, but the Blues have somehow turned this brand of hockey into an artform thanks to a roster that was handpicked for such a thing.
Despite having no legitimate superstars (we’ll get to Steen in a moment) on the roster they have somehow managed to produce a 3.44 goals per game average which ranks them 2nd in the entire league. That number is largely due to the ultra-efficient top line of Steen, Backes and Oshie who have produced a combined 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists) in 23 games. Steen in particular has been playing beyond his perceived talent level. He is only five goals shy of his previous career high (that was set in 2009-10) and is just a single goal shy of Ovechkin for the league lead. His transformation into an offensive weapon has turned what was once considered to be an effective defensive top line into one of the most productive trios in the entire league.
The offensive efficiency doesn’t stop and start with the top line though. Derek Roy, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka, and Chris Stewart all have at least ten points which means that eight of the Blues top nine forwards are on pace to crack 40 points this season. For a team that has finished in the top 10 in scoring just once over the past five years (2010-11) its a massive accomplishment to join the ranks of the Blackhawks and Sharks as a top tier offensive team.
What has really helped the Blues climb out of offensive obscurity is their talented blue-line. Alex Pietrangelo is one of the best puck-moving defenseman in the game and is more than capable of joining the offensive fray at any given moment, Jay Bouwmeester is having a career year, tallying 18 points in 23 games, and Kevin Shattenkirk is widely considered to be one of the best young offensive-defenseman in the entire league.
Trying to decipher exactly where the Blues are on the experience scale is surprisingly tricky. On one hand they only have a handful of players (Roy, Morrow, Lapierre, Jackman, Leopold and Halak) who have ever made it to the conference finals and half of those players (Roy, Morrow and Lapierre) are new to the team this year. Outside of those six the only real playoff experience was accumulated through the past two postseasons which both ended at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
On the other hand they are coached by Ken Hitchcock who has enough experience to completely cancel out his rosters deficiency. He currently sits in 11th place in playoff wins (70), has reached the conference finals in four of his 11 playoff appearances and has a Stanley Cup to his name. In fact, there are only two teams in the NHL who currently have a head coach with more success in the playoffs than Hitchcock and that’s the Chicago Blackhawks (Joel Quenneville) and the Detroit Red Wings (Mike Babcock).
In reality that coaching experience can only take a team so far. Hitchcock can draw up a masterful game plan but it will be useless unless the team can execute it correctly. They haven’t managed to to accomplish that in the playoffs just yet but with the roster that has been assembled this year they have a legitimate shot at doing so. Their forward trio of Steen, Backes and Oshie are all in their primes and now have a few years of playoff experience under their belt so they know what’s in store for them when the time comes. Adding a few veterans to the roster should bring a level of calmness to the team as they march towards the Cup and having Hitchcock calling the shots gives them a distinct advantage. All that needs to be done is for the roster to take the next step as a group and gain that crucial level of experience so that they know exactly what it is they need to do in order to become a perennial contender.
As far as the first quarter of the season is concerned the Blues are best the team in the NHL. There isn’t another team in the league that bodes a better blue-line than St. Louis which kind of makes what I said about goaltending above a little less important. If the Blues can continue to hold opponents to 25.6 shots per game (which is 4th in the NHL) they’ll loosen the amount of impact the goalie position has on their success. Of course that will change come playoff time when a top-tier netminder is necessary (food for thought: if Halak gets hurt yet again do they make a play for Ryan Miller?) but it definitely won’t hurt them.
The ultimate question surrounding the Blues is whether they can sustain this kind of success. At 17-3-3 they are playing at an unimaginable level that can’t be continued throughout an entire season, which is just fine. Record wise, all they need to do is be better than everyone else in the West (which actually might mean playing at this level all year, so yeah, good luck with that). What needs to remain though is their ability to stick with their brand of hockey. So far they have bent the wills of their opponents by forcing them to play Blues hockey. If they can do that in the playoffs then there isn’t a team in the NHL that they can’t beat.
In case you missed the previous edition:
Part 1: Chicago Blackhawks