In staying with the Beach Boy Theme, the Blues are existing in a mythical, fantasy-island kind of place called Kokomo. Bodies in the sand, tropical drink melting in your hand, we’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band…
Hold on now …
Where’s the reference to the eccentric goaltender, Jordan Binnington, wearing a stylish Versace shirt as he made his way onto the beach – I mean, into the hockey arena – as the tourist Blues got ready to pound the Minnesota Wild 6-4 Saturday night in the NHL’s annual Winter Classic?
And what about a mention of the goals? The Blues scored six more on Saturday. This season they’re pouring in goals the way a frozen daiquiri machine dispenses rum drinks at a resort Tiki bar. They scored so often in Saturday’s second period – five times – that the goal light felt like a warm sun lamp in the midst of the polar vortex at Target Field.
I’ll get back to the Beach Boys and the Blues at the end of the column.
Seriously, the Blues have become quite the scoring machine this season, and this development rates among the top surprises of their season. Not that we expected the Blues to be gasping for goals and requiring superhuman performances from their goaltenders. But we weren’t sure about a few things at the start of the season:
Could Vladimir Tarasenko find his younger, healthier and happier self? Or would he disturb the peace and mope his way out of town?
If the NY Rangers were so eager to trade productive Pavel Buchnevich to the Blues for Sammy Blais and a draft choice – well, what’s the catch? Why did the Rangers want to move on from Buchnevich?
Was coach Craig Berube’s preferred style of play leading to an expiration date? Would the younger, more skillful talents get wasted in the system? That was a real thing; local medias were preparing to have Berube brought up on charges because Jordan Kyrou didn’t log as many minutes per game as a few assorted grinders. Never mind that Berube is the only coach in franchise history to lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup. By all means let’s overlook the fact that Berube’s team is 5th overall and 1st in the Western Conference in points over their last 205 regular-season games. If only Kyrou was averaging two minutes more per game. Too bad the Blues didn’t have a coach that let the boys play. Shaddup already.
Through Sunday the Blues rank 5th in the NHL with an average of 3.45 goals per game. Scoring is up, league wide, so it’s prudent to keep that in mind. But even in that context, the Blues are scoring at a pace we haven’t seen from a Blues team in nearly 30 seasons.
That 3.45 average is the highest for a Blues team since the 1991-92 group scored 3.71 goals per game. But that happened after a labor standoff between owners and players resulted in a truncated 48-game regular season. For a full season the Blues’ current rate of 3.45 goals per game – if it holds up – would be the highest rate since the 1991-92 Note averaged 3.49 goals in their 80-game schedule. (NHL teams have worked an 82-game schedule, when possible, since the start of the 1995-96 season.)
The 2018-19 Cup champion ranked 15th in the NHL (regular season) with an average of 2.94 goals per game.
The 2019-20 Blues (3.1) were also 15th. The 2020-21 Blues were 13th with an average of 2.93 goals per game. And as I mentioned earlier, the Blues are fifth in the league in average through their first 33 games. And when we talk about scoring being up across the board this season, that doesn’t take away from their dramatic increase in goal-scoring firepower. Not when they’re fifth in the league.
If this was a flukish, outlier type of thing – with the Blues being carried by elevated scoring trends – we could sneer a little. But that isn’t the case. The Blues are one of the teams setting the pace. And they’ve been pumping in goals with considerable assistance from their minor-league roster at Springfield — not to mention 14 of their players missing time with COVID. For a team that ranked 14th in the league in goals per game over the past three seasons, a rise to No. 5 represents significant improvement – no matter how we try to parse it.
The Blues will have to sustain this over 82 games, and that could be a challenge. Their underlying metrics warn of potential hazards. One example: as is, the Blues score 3.41 goals per 60 minutes (all situations.) That ranks 5th. But based on shot differential and shot quality, the Blues should be averaging 2.93 goals per 60 minutes in all situations – and that would rank 12th in the league according to Natural Hat Trick. We’ll take that under advisement.
The takeaway from the metrics returns us to the starting point: (A) the Blues are scoring a lot more this season, and that’s awesome. But (B) can they keep it up? That’s a legitimate question.
I like their chances.
1) The Blues are getting healthy, and they’ll have more ways to score. More players who can create goals, and score goals. As the esteemed Jim Thomas wrote in Monday’s Post-Dispatch and STLtoday: “Five injured players returned to the lineup Thursday, against Edmonton. Four more returned from either injury, COVID, or non-COVID illness in Saturday’s Winter Classic contest against Minnesota. That’s nine players, more than one-third of the active roster, returning over three days. Many of those nine are skilled forwards.”
(Update, Brayden Schenn has been activated from the long-term injured list and and will be ready to play in Wednesday’s game at Pittsburgh. Plus, James Neal passed through waivers and has been placed on the taxi squad — along with Dakota Joshua and Nathan Walker. The Blues have a full squad. Finally.)
2) The goaltending should remain solid or better and give the Blues an advantage in stopping high-danger shots. Their goalies rank 3rd in the NHL with a high-danger save percentage of .862, and are 8th with an overall save percentage of .915 on all shots and situations. In all, the Blues are giving up only 2.66 goals per game, which ranks 11th in the league.
That’s prominent among the reasons for their success so far. Bottom line, St. Louis goaltenders have been more effective against opponents than opposing-team goalies have been against the Blues. That explains why the Blues have 56 percent of the total goals scored in their games this season despite having 50.4% of the shots on goal, and 46% of the high-danger shots on net.
The Blues percentage of shots that become goals (10.65%) is fifth-best in the league and superior to the percentage of opponent shots (9.2%) that become goals.
3) And as I wrote last week, superb special teams play is high on the list of factors that have produced a 9-9-5 record overall – including a 9-2-3 run since Nov. 26, and a 7-1-1 mark since Dec. 7. For the season the Blues rank No. 3 in the league in power-play success, and No. 6 in penalty-killing rate. In their current 7-1-1 streak the Blues have eight power play goals in 29 chances (27.5%) while limiting opponents to one PP goal in 20 attempts – a kill rate of 95%. Exceptional. And goaltending is playing a role; the Blues’ contingent ranks 9th in the NHL in penalty-killing save percentage (.889.)
4) Now let’s talk about a more obvious reason for the team’s enhanced goal–scoring might: depth and distribution.
The Blues are the only team in the 32-franchise NHL with five players that have scored 11 or more goals this season. (Calgary, Colorado and Minnesota each have four plays with 11+ goals.) The Blues five: Tarasenko (14), Kyrou (12), Ivan Barbashev (12) Brandon Saad (12) and Buchnevich (11.) And while a concussion and related symptoms has limited David Perron to 22 games this season, his rate of 1.3 goals per 60 minutes would be his second best in a season.
In their team’s 33 games this season, 24 different Blues have scored at least one goal, and 28 have at least one point. The 2018-2019 Stanley Cup champion had the same number of players (24) score at least one goal – but that happened over 82 regular-season games. And this season’s Blues team already has more players with a point (28) in 33 games than the champion Blues had (27) in 82 games.
5) Like the classic Beach Boys, the harmony is sweet. The unselfishness is there. Guys don’t care who scores the goals – as long as enough goals are being scored. An undeniable sense of purpose is there. The buy-in for Berube hockey needs some nudging from the coach himself at times, but that’s part of coaching, and part of a long season. A 5-7-2 stretch – the Blues’ only mediocre phase this season – doesn’t mean the coach has lost the team. Good grief, that knee-jerk stuff is garbage. When the Blues went 5-7-2 after a 5-0 start, six of the seven losses came by one goal, and the team was outscored by only four goals overall in the 14 games. There is absolutely nothing off kilter about this team’s chemistry.
As Berube said after the 6-4 win over the Wild:
“We’ve got to keep just working on things and getting better,” he said. “There’s a lot of hockey to be played. Like I said before, going into the spring time, you want to be playing your best hockey, which I think that’s still ahead of us. We have a lot of good players. We have real good camaraderie on our team. The team’s really doing a good job of putting the team first; that’s a big thing for us, putting the team first. I really like the chemistry of this team. But again, there’s a lot of hockey to be played. So we’ve got to keep getting better, keep pushing. And like I said, going into the spring time, you want to be really firing on all cylinders.”
Now, since we’re on the subject…
This reminds me of a Beach Boys song: Sail on Sailor. Considering the COVID and the injuries and the waves and waves of turbulence and chaos endured by this team so far, Sail on Sailor works for me.
Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor
Other Beach Boys songs that fit the 2021-22 Blues:
– Do It Again: Lyric: “Well I’ve been thinking ’bout
All the places we’ve surfed and danced and
All the faces we’ve missed so let’s get back together and do it again.” (Comment: I’d like to revisit the happy past and enjoy the thrills of another run to the Stanley Cup. Wouldn’t you?)
– Good Vibrations: Self explanatory. And it’s timely as well; Tarasenko mentioned the team’s “positive vibe” after the Blues won the Winter Classic. Indeed. Ah, ah, my my, what elation.
– Fun Fun Fun: On full display Saturday at Minneapolis. There is a joyful energy to this team. The players have a sense of humor. They are serious about their work but don’t forget to have fun while doing what they do. It’s a happy team.
– Be True To Your School: Or, in this case, Be True To The Lou.
(OK, you have my permission to wince, hah.)
Thanks for reading…
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Statistics used in this column were sourced from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.