31 in 31 NHL Season Review: St. Louis Blues
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
St. Louis Blues
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the St. Louis Blues. A team that was 60 minutes away from making the playoffs despite trading Paul Stastny at the deadline. They are a team who many observers have expected to take a step forward and possibly contend for a Stanley Cup for a couple of years now. Well, we’re still waiting and now I think it is time to wonder if it is time to make some major changes to the roster.
Season Bright Spots
The Blues’ possession numbers indicate they were a good team this past season. They finished sixth in the league in Corsi For % at 51.7%. They also finished with a PDO of exactly one. When looking at the team’s numbers, I don’t see how they did not make the playoffs. Everything about them says playoff team. They had good possession numbers and did not get unlucky. The way I look at it, if the team performs at the same level next season it is hard to see them fall short of the playoffs again.
Jaden Schwartz was great for the Blues in the games he played. Unfortunately for the team, he missed 20 games. Had he been healthy all season, the Blues likely were in the playoffs. Schwartz led the team in Relative Corsi For % at 6.86%, meaning the Blues were that percent better in terms of shot differential when Schwartz was on the ice versus when he was off. He also led the team in Points per 60. All of those stats are solely during 5v5 play.
I think it is also important to highlight Brayden Schenn here. The Blues paid a lofty price to acquire him at last year’s draft, giving up last year’s first rounder and this year’s first rounder in addition to Jori Lehtera. At that price, the team better have acquired a top end talent and in his first season Schenn lived up to that billing. Schenn was the team’s leading point scorer in all situations. The team also improved their shots by 4.30% when Schenn was on the ice. If this is your first time reading my writing, I want to be sure I clarify that when I discuss shots, I am referring to Corsi. I subscribe to the thinking that there is no want to attempt a shot. When shots on measured in soccer everything kicked toward goal is counted as a shot and then shots on goal are separately denoted. I think the same logic should be applied in hockey.
This season bright spot section is shorter than many that I write not because the Blues had a horrible season but because many of the players played exactly at the level that was expected of them. I don’t feel it is necessary to praise players who play at the level expected of them. I have generally used this section to look at those players whose underlying numbers tell a different story than the general perception of them or players who played at a much higher level than many others. In honesty, very few Blues fit that bill.
Something had to go wrong for the Blues to miss the playoffs and I think the starting point has to be looking at goalie Jake Allen. I have never been a huge Jake Allen fan. To me, he seems to have issues as the pressure ramps up on him. I wonder if it is a mental issue or if he truly isn’t as talented as many have thought he is. Why do I think talent might be an issue? The answer is in higher pressure situations opposing teams play close to or above their true ability and if Allen can’t handle that, it may be a talent problem. Allen allowed 2.5 goals below average at 5v5 play, which isn’t terrible but the team would obviously want to see Allen perform above average. The real issue with Allen is he allowed a whopping 16 goals below average during all situations! WOW! I think this somewhat confirms my theory about the pressure. At 5v5 play he actually improved from last season and still was not that great. It might be time for the Blues to move on.
The next player to look at is Jay Bouwmeester. Let’s start with the good news: he only has one more year left on his contract so he shouldn’t be a long-term issue. The Blues were a good possession team but when Bouwmeester was on the ice they performed 4.7% worse. Bouwmeester was among the team worsts in this regard. Injuries may have played a role in his poor play this season, but that isn’t really a reason for optimism either. Once players get in their mid-thirties, durability becomes a concern and Bouwmeester is no different. The biggest cause for concern has to be that his season ended as a result of a hip injury. It seems the end is probably near for Bouwmeester.
Much like the bright spots, I don’t think there is that much to highlight here. As I have written in other reviews, I am trying to reserve this section to highlight players who performed dramatically below what was expected of them. As I’ve been discussing for most of this discussion, the Blues performed pretty much as expected across the board, which is good and bad. You always want to see players take a step forward and play at a higher level than they have before but there also is something to be said of players who can continuously play at the same level without any let downs. I will confidently say the Blues would have made the playoffs if one of the following two things did not happen: 1) Jake Allen played at or around an average level in all situations. 2) Jaden Schwartz doesn’t miss 20 games.
The Blues enter the offseason with plenty of cap space (potentially as much as $18M) while needing to strength their top six. What makes the team very interesting is the fact they have some highly touted prospects who appear to be close to making the jump to the NHL. They also only have two unrestricted players, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak. Neither of those players should be retained. The Blues, if they choose could essentially fill out their roster while still have having as much as $12M in cap space. They also have plenty of money coming off their cap next offseason as well, giving them plenty of flexibility. This could make for a very interesting offseason in St. Louis.
Many teams are going to be connected to John Tavares. However, the Blues, in my opinion, are one of the teams where the connection truly makes sense. They have the cap space this offseason, their largest long-term contract on the books is Vladimir Tarasenko’s, this contract carries a cap hit of $7.5M. Adding a contract with a higher cap hit than that is very possible, especially considering the team will likely have around a quarter of their roster comprised of entry-level contracts for at least the next three years. Adding John Tavares would likely take the Blues from border line playoff team to Western Conference contender. The Blues could have one of the top lines in the league with Schwartz-Tavares-Tarasenko then potentially follow that up with Robby Fabbri (if healthy)- Schenn-Alex Steen/ Patrik Berglund/Tage Thompson (two of who would play on the third line). That forward group would be extremely hard for teams to deal with.
If the Blues fail to land Tavares, the rumors connecting them to the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly will really build steam. The connection has been made since the trade deadline and there is no way those rumors are going to go away. Many people will point to this being a fit because the Blues are stockpiled with top end prospects. I am going to make a bold statement here: If the Blues want to acquire O’Reilly, they should steer trade discussion around roster players. I don’t think O’Reilly is any better of a player than Paul Statsny and the Blues’ roster came up short with Statsny. I don’t see O’Reilly making that big of a difference so mortgaging their bright future to me makes little sense though acquiring him will solidify the Blues as solid playoffs contenders.
The number one priority for the Blues this offseason has to be solving their issues in net. Carter Hutton was very good in the games he played but a 32-year-old career backup is unlikely to be a long-term solution in goal. Ville Husso is the team’s top goalie prospect and it could be time to give him a chance. He, of course, is no sure thing as he has yet to even appear in a NHL game.
If you’ve been reading our other team reviews, it should be apparent that I am a fan of both Washington Capitals goaltenders, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. The team likely has to make a decision this offseason as Grubauer is arbitration eligible and only a year away from unrestricted free agency. Holtby carries a $6.1M cap hit for two more years. The Capitals also have highly regarded prospect Ilya Samsonov for the future. Either goalie would be a very viable option for the Blues. The Capitals will take plenty of calls so either goalie won’t come cheap but I think both would be an upgrade over Jake Allen. I also think Jake Allen would have enough value that the Blues would likely be able to recoup some assets if they make a trade for a goalie. I think the team needs to find a goalie to act as a stop gate for two to three years while Husso is eased into the NHL. I don’t know if that goalie is available in free agency.
The Blues offseason could take many different paths. The smart one is probably to go all-in for John Tavares and supplement their roster with their young talent. If they could land Tavares on a three or four-year deal, that would give them a nice window of opportunity without completely killing their future salary cap. If I were running the team and missed out on Tavares, I would likely look to change up my core, attempting to trade roster players for roster players. The only players I would keep off the table are the top prospects and Colton Parayko. I may sound crazy to not include any of the team’s other top players but none of them bring anything unique enough to completely rule out a trade on them. I would not trade top players for cents on the dollar but I would be willing to listen on “hockey trades,” as the Blues’ roster has proven it isn’t quite good enough. The worst plan, but the one I see as the most likely route, is to trade one or two of the team’s top prospects for players who they think will come in and make an immediate impact, only to be disappointed, then be on the hook for a long-term, high money contract, and be out a top prospect who likely will quickly outperform the veteran player they just acquired.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Florida Panthers. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.