Former Blues coach Ken Hitchcock will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight. Congratulations to one of the greatest coaches in franchise history.
Though it’s just a coincidence and nothing planned, the 2023-2024 Blues are honoring Hitch by doing a helluva job of preventing goals this season. That’s in line with the Hitchcock tradition. It is his way of hockey.
Hitchcock was hired as the St. Louis coach to replace Davis Payne on Nov. 6, 2011. He coached the Blues for five full seasons, and was dismissed and succeeded by Mike Yeo on Feb. 1, 2017.
Over the course of Hitchcock’s five full seasons the Blues allowed the fewest goals in the NHL, yielding an average of 2.45 per game. They were the league’s top-ranked team in penalty killing, and had the second-best goal differential.
This excellent foundation of goal suppression produced the most wins, and most points, by an NHL team from the start of the 2011-2012 season through the end of 2015-2016. The Blues competed in the postseason in all five seasons, and made it to the tournament a sixth straight time in 2017 after getting a boost from the coaching change made by GM Doug Armstrong.
In the seven seasons impacted by Hitchcock being behind the bench – even during the two partial years – the Blues were No. 3 in the NHL at limiting goals by their opponents. They were also third overall in wins, and fourth in points.
As Hitch accepts the most heralded honor in a hockey coach’s life, the Blues are trying to revisit the Hitchcock past by restricting opponent goals.
It’s been a peculiar season for the boys. This team has issues. The special teams are a liability, ranking 31st among 32 NHL teams for power-play success, and 24th in penalty killing. The team’s group of defensemen are adjusting to a new zone-based system and trying to recover from a brutal showing in 2022-2023. And until recently the Blues have strained to score goals.
It’s obviously difficult to score an abundant number of goals when you don’t control possession in the offensive zone, have a substantial deficit in the shot count, and are at major disadvantage in the most dangerous scoring areas of the ice. And all of those negatives can undermine the Blues.
Accordingly the Blues rank 21st in goals per 60 minutes at even strength (2.62) and five on five (2.29.) And those rates were inflated by a 6-3 win over Montreal on Nov. 4 and a pleasantly surprising goal-scoring spree in Saturday’s 8-2 invasion in Colorado.
Is the St. Louis offense coming alive now? The recent returns are encouraging but it’s too soon to know. Then again, the early-season anemia was severe and wouldn’t last. The Blues aren’t exactly the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens – record 60-8-12 and 4.8 goals per game – but they’re capable of scoring more. And will score more.
Considering all of their troubles, the Blues’ record is better than it should be.
Blues fans should take at least some comfort in seeing a solid 7-5-1 record and a .577 points percentage that ranks 13th overall and sixth in the Western Conference. The Blues have won four of their last five games, outscoring the other side 22-12. That’s new. That’s good.
None of this should prompt planning for a parade. But even though the Blues need to fix multiple components of their performance, they’re still above water with a winning record and are getting plenty of oxygen to survive. The situation could be a lot worse. That’s the takeaway message.
And this is where the value of goal prevention comes in. Here are some of the particulars:
1) Through the first 13 games, the STL goaltending was outstanding. Not perfect because nothing is. Some clunkers are inevitable. But Jordan Binnington and Joel Hofer have combined for a .932 save percentage that’s the fourth-best in the NHL. Their save percentage (.937) at five on five ranks fifth. And the Blues’ goalies are sixth with a .917 save rate at all strengths.
2) That fine work is vitally important. Here’s why, and I’ll use mostly even-strength numbers and put their league ranking in parentheses:
— At even strength the Blues have just a 42.5 percent share of total shot attempts (24th), 44.6% of the shots on goal (30th), 43.6% of the scoring chances (30th) and 42.3% of the high-danger chances (29th).
— Blues goaltenders have faced the league’s third-highest percentage of shots on goal per 60 minutes, 33.4. They’ve defended against the third-highest percentage of high-danger chances, 14.2, per 60 minutes at 14.2. Only five sets of NHL goaltenders have handled a higher percentage of scoring chances per 60 minutes than Binnington and Hofer.
3) Despite all of the duress caused by the lopsided nature of total shots and dangerous shots going against them, the goaltenders haven’t buckled.
* At even strength the Blues have outscored opponents 29-25 for a goal share of 53.7 percent. That rate ranks 12th among the 32 teams.
* At 5 on 5, the Blues have a 24-22 edge for a goal share of 52.1 percent that ranks 14th.
* Even when we account for the serious flaws in their special teams, the Blues have outscored their opponents 36-35 overall for a 50.7 percent goal share that ranks 15th.
* Despite being so vulnerable in the most important shooting areas, the Blues have been outscored by only two even-strength goals (15-13) in the high-danger zone.
The St. Louis goaltenders have made survival possible with a .839 save percentage on even-strength high danger chances. That ranks an impressive 7th among the 32 teams. That’s an improvement over last season when Blues goaltenders ranked 28th in high-danger save percentage (.798) at even strength.
As previously mentioned, the Blues have scored 53.7 percent of the goals at even strength. Based on all of the underlying factors – volume of shots and quality of shots – the Blues have an expected even-strength goal share of 47.7 percent.
Your favorite hockey team is clearly outperforming their metrics. They are defying those metrics. And that’s possible when your team has two stubbornly defiant goaltenders. Their work is much appreciated, but the STL offense must come to the rescue more often.
St. Louis scored two or fewer goals in eight of the first 13 games, and managed only one regulation-time win and one shootout victory when that happened.
Binnington and Hofer have given the Blues an opportunity to survive the rampant early-season problems and rise to a respectable place in the overall standings. But these unflinching goalies must stay strong, and they’ll need help to chase the wolves from their doorstep.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my hockey columns are sourced from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey or Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted.