The Big Gainers: Part 4 St. Louis Blues

Like all of the subjects of this series so far, the St. Louis Blues laboured in mediocrity for a long period before ultimately making the leap. They bottomed out in 2005-06, finishing last in the league with 56 points and only became a going concern again in 2011-12 when they finished 2nd in the West with 109 points. They have been heavy hitters (albeit playoff disappointment ever since).

The bad news for the Blues is they wasted their one terrible season by picking Erik Jonhson first overall. The good news is they managed to accrue a bunch of other good players during the dry years. 

The Big Gain

2008-09: 47.7% corsi

2009-10: 51.0% corsi

2010-11 52.3% corsi

A 4.5% possession gain in three seasons which was actually just the precursor to one more step up in 2011-12 to 54.4%. 2011-12 is also the year the Blues returned to the top of the Western Conference.

What Changed?

While the Blues fell to the bottom of the standings in 2005, their big gain was actually sparked in part a year before that when they chose TJ Oshie 24th overall in the first round. After that, St. Louis would have three more seasons of poor showings and top picks that would help them build up their prospect pool.

In addition to Johnson in 2006, they also grabbed Patrik Berglund later in the first round. The next year they picked Lars Eller (7th overall) and David Perron (26th overall). 2008 marked another cornerstone addition when they chose Alex Pietrangelo 4th overall. 

While the seeds of improvement were mostly sewn through those four drafts, the Blues also had a couple of capable pillars in place beforehand as well. David Backes was chosen in the second round of the 2003 draft and was maturing into one the games best two-way players. Alexander Steen (with Carlo Coliacovo) was acquired for Lee Stempniak, another Blues pick from 2003. Veteran scorer Andy McDonald was also still functional at that point. He came over from the Ducks in a salary dump move in 2007. 

As is a common theme in this series, the Blues had a lot factors all come together at the same time to spark their big gain. While St. Louis didn’t pick a single high-end offensive talent like a Patrick Kane, almost all of their kids matured into a above average two-way players simultaneously. David Backes and Alex Steen both entered Selke quality territory. TJ Oshie was already a decent possession forward by 23 years old and Patrik Berglund became a 2nd or 3rd line centre and PP weapon. Of course, Pietrangelo also leaped into the league more or less a full formed top pairing defender.

Add in the trade that saw Johnson flipped for the superior Kevin Shattenkirk and the Blues make-over at both forward and defense was well on its way. 

Also common in this series is the catalyst of a coaching change. Half way through 2009-2010, the Blues moved on from Andy Murray and tabbed Davis Payne as head coach. The irony is, Payne was fired when the Blues failed to make the post-season in 2010-11, despite respectable underlying numbers. Bad goaltending sunk him that year and when thing rebounded under Hitchcock the next season (as well as another minor jump possession), they made the leap into the West’s upper echelon.

Altogether, here’s how the Blues roster changed between 2008-09 and 2010-11

2008:

  • Kariya – McDonald – Boyes
  • Steen – Backes – Stempniak
  • Tkachuk – McClemment – Crombeen
  • Perron – Berglund – Oshie
  • Winchester
  • Brewer – Jackman
  • Polak – Woywitka
  • McKee – Colaiacovo
  • Weaver

2010:

  • Steen – Backes – Oshie
  • McDonald – Berglund – Stewart
  • Perron – Sobotka – Boyes
  • D’Agostini – McClemment – Crombeen
  • Winchester
  • Brewer – Jackman
  • Polak – Johnson/Shattenkirk
  • Pietrangelo – Colaiacovo
  • Cole 

The evolution is less stark for the Blues versus other teams we’ve profiled, in part because the gain was mostly caused by natural maturation of key players plus a stepwise improvement on coaching (which would happen one more time when they switched up from Payne to Hitchcock). 

Summary

The Blues chose a lot of good two-way players in a consecutive series of drafts and added them to a roster that had at least a handful of established, quality assets. They also won a couple of trades outright, which helped them get over the hump. Here’s the key points to remember:

– Picked 6 quality NHLers between 2005 and 2008

– Won three home run trades which landed them Steen and Colaiacovo (for Stempniak), Shattenkirk (for Johnson) and McDonald (for Weight)

– Improved coaching by moving from Murray to Payne

The Blues are bit of an outlier so far, in that they never added a single, marquee talent (though Backes and Pietraneglo are both very, very good). Instead, the roster evolved into a collection of strong possession guys from top to bottom.

The Big Gainers Series

Part 1 – Chicago Blackhawks

Part 2 – New York Islanders

Part 3 – Los Angeles Kings

  • Greg

    Kent, it seems this far the themes are:

    1) get some real quality draft picks in consecutive years that all mature roughly the same time

    2) win 2 or 3 trades outright during the rebuild.

    Is anything else standing out to you so far?

  • Koolmoedee

    Great series. I’m looking forward to your summary of common elements among the big gainers.

    My initial thoughts are that the Flames have some quality building blocks in place but more work needs to be done. The thing that worries me is that a few of these teams have won some big trades to get good. That’s always a riskier road than building through quality drafting and development.

  • Burnward

    Thanks for the Article Kent, I’m really enjoying this series.

    It’s unfortunate that the Blues haven’t had a lot of success in the post season yet.

    As far as rebuilds go, I think they are a great model, in stark contrast to the Oilers ignorance of acquiring and developing support players.

  • CofRed4Life

    Great article Kent. This is a great series, and I feel enlightened.

    It also makes me excited for the future of the Flames, because we seem to be headed in the right direction. We have a lot of young talent that seems to already be maturing. Now all we have to do is find some star talent via trades.

    I’m also looking forward to a summary of common elements between all the big gainers.