It has been a long, laborious rebuild in St. Louis over the years. For a long time, they resembled one of those clubs who is always lousy, always picks high, but never seems to get anywhere (*cough* Islanders and Oilers *cough*).
Until a couple years ago. All of sudden, the Blues hit a sort of critical mass of quality players and things started to click. David Backes emerged as a Selke quality center. He’s joined by David Perron, Patrik Berglund, Andy McDonald, TJ Oshie, Alex Steen and Alexander Tarasenko up front these days, backed by a blueline featuring quality kids like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
As you can see, there aren’t any established superstars on the Blues roster (maybe in the future), but what they do boast is line after line of quality, effective skaters. The Blues can shut you down in waves, as evidenced by their league leading shot against/game average (21.9). The only other team even in spitting distance of the Blues by that measure is the Kings (24.9). No one else allows less than 25 shots per game.
St. Louis has some of the best shot metrics in the league (both this season and last) so don’t believe their recent struggles. Like the Flames their primary issue this year has been goaltending (spiked by injuries), but that’s unlikely to last. Even if they just settle out to average puck stopping, the Blues will be one of the best in the West.
Calgary’s obviously in tough this evening. The Blues will be the best team they’ve faced this year, so it will be interesting to see how the Flames do shot and scoring chance wise against a true contender.
There will be some changes to the roster despite the win over Dallas. Paul Byron has a broken hand and will be replaced by Roman Horak. The third defense pairing will be turned over completely as well with Anton Babchuk and Derek Smith replacing Butler and Sarich. The latter two guys have looked behind the pace for the last two contests, so their ouster isn’t too much of a surprise. Babchuk isn’t the fleetest of foot either, but at least he offers something in the offensive zone.
Here’s how the lines may settle out based on how Hartley managed things against Dallas.
- Cervenka – Tanguay – Hudler
- Cammalleri – Stajan – Stempniak
- Glencross – Horak – Iginla
- Comeau – Jones – Jackman
- Bouwmeester – Giordano
- Wideman – Brodie
- Babchuk – Smith
Irving gets another go after a so-so start last game. The kid has made some nice saves in just about every appearance, but the overall performance just isn’t quite there. He always allows at least one stoppable puck by him every night and there’s segments of the game where he seems to over-commit, lose his net or just look jittery in general. In five games he now has an .895 SV% and he managed precisely one quality start out of four thus far (quality starts = 91.7 SV% in game, or at least 89.8% while allowing 2 or less goals).
Those aren’t notable results by any stretch. Of course, four and a bit appearances is a tiny sample. Irving’s problem is he doesn’t truly have the organization’s confidence so he needs to be outstanding more often than not to change some minds. If he has another 3+ goal against outing tonight, you can be sure MacDonald will get the next shot and Irving will likely find his way back to the AHL once Kipper is healthy.
- Perron – Backes – Oshie
- Mcdonald – Steen – Tarasenko
- Schwartz – Berglund – Stewart
- Sobotka – Nichol – Reeves
- Cole – Pietrangelo
- Jackman – Shattenkirk
- Russell – Polak
The big concern up front is the Backes line. They are Hitchcock’s PVP unit and they tend to win the shot and chance battle more often than not. The second line is also threatening, if partially because Ken is giving them the Sedin treatment through the early going: Tarasenko, Steen and McDonald would be worrisome as a unit in general, but with zone starts cresting 70% they are getting the high ground almost exclusively.
If the Blues have a true weak spot, it’s that third unit. Berglund is a quality middle-tier forward but the other guys aren’t. Jaden Schwartz is a former first round pick, but he doesn’t quite have his pro legs yet. Chris Stewart is known for being a big guy with a great shot, but he’s had terrible underlying numbers since his Colorado days. When he’s not running hot, Stewart is a liability which is why he has spent some time in the pressbox under Hitchcock over the last calender year. Of course, they also get sheltered quite a bit (Kenny buries his first and fourth lines to give his middle rotation as much of a push as possible), so they’ll be difficult to take advantage of.
Of course, Jake Allen is also a question mark. The rookie ‘tender is in because Jaro Halak is hurt and Brian Elliot has come crashing back down to earth after his high water mark last year. Allen has been a good but not great goalie during a two year stint in the AHL, so there’s no reason to expect the 22-year old to suddenly step in a become a stud at this point.
Sum it up
The Blues are legit. There’s no Crosby or Malkin types in their line-up, just great coaching and a strong collection of good-to-very-good skaters. The Blues can choke the life out of the opposition’s offense, so they will be a very stiff test for a Calgary team that has been pretty decent at getting shots and chances through (if not goals quite yet).
The Flames are in a familiar position: they need to start collecting wins and points sooner rather than later if they hope to be a going concern in the Western Conference playoff race. The slow start means the club is rapidly running out of runway, leaving little room for moral victories if the post-season is the true goal.