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April 5, 2012
Not Singing The Blues Anymore
by Ryan Wagman
A quick look at last year's standings side by side with the present season provides a quick reminder of the principle of regression to the mean that is one of the core tenets of statistical analysis. Bill James also referred to it as the "The Plexiglass Principle," in the sense that what reaches the extremes of performance can only rebound to the expected average. Eight of the top ten teams last season (as measured by points in the standings) are on pace to fall below their previous mark this season. Four of those teams (Washington, San Jose, Tampa Bay, and Anaheim) are projected to fall by at least 12 points. The two teams who seem to have escaped the principle, Pittsburgh and Nashville, have only held serve more than they have jumped to another level, as the Penguins project to finish with 106 points for the second year in a row while the Predators look to improve by three points in the standings, from 99 to 102.
At the other end of the spectrum, seven of the bottom ten teams saw their records improve, five of whom saw rises of double digits, including three teams (Ottawa, Florida, and Colorado) who improved by at least 20 points each.
Year-over-year point total change Team 2010-11 Projected* Difference Vancouver 117 111.1 -6 Washington 107 91.34 -16 Philadelphia 106 104.84 -1 Pittsburgh 106 105.87 0 San Jose 105 93.42 -12 Detroit 104 102.76 -1 Boston 103 100.92 -2 Tampa Bay 103 83.05 -20 Anaheim 99 80.95 -18 Nashville 99 101.72 3 Phoenix 99 94.46 -5 Los Angeles 98 94.46 -4 Chicago 97 100.68 4 Montreal 96 75.77 -20 Buffalo 96 89.27 -7 Dallas 95 92.38 -3 Calgary 94 88.15 -6 NY Rangers 93 112.45 19 Carolina 91 80.96 -10 St. Louis 87 110.03 23 Minnesota 86 79.90 -6 Toronto 85 79.92 -5 New Jersey 81 99.65 19 Columbus 81 63.32 -18 Atlanta 80 84.08 4 Ottawa 74 95.49 21 NY Islanders 73 79.92 7 Florida 72 94.46 22 Colorado 68 90.20 22 Edmonton 62 74.64 13 *As of April 1
Those movements may be seen as reactions to last season's actions, but there are also some teams whose actions this year will lead to opposing reactions next season. Above all others in this light, stand the St. Louis Blues. Their 87 points last season were 10 short of meeting the criteria for playing in the postseason in the tough Western Conference, and placed them on the bottom of the league's middle third. This season, after stumbling out of the gate with 12 points in their first 13 games, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne and replaced him with the venerable Ken Hitchcock . In his first 66 games behind the bench, the newly directed Blues have exploded for 94 points, which would put them on pace for 117 points over a full season, a total worthy of the President's Trophy in most seasons.
Without need for qualifications, the Blues have experienced a remarkable turnaround, both in terms of season-after-season as well as in-season. The popular narrative underlying their story ties the turnaround to the change behind the bench. More analytical minds routinely decry the influence of a bench boss. The soft factors being largely unquantifiable, they cannot reasonably be tied to a quantified change in performance. Sure, there are some things that a coach has a direct role in, but for the most part, the games are won and lost on the ice, "60 minutes" at a time.
One area where the coach's influence can be easily segregated is in goalie selection, coincidentally one of the areas in which the Blues most excelled this season. According to Tom Awad's most recent GVT update, the Blues lead the league in goaltending GVT, with their 30.6 total far exceeding runner-up Vancouver's 24.7. On only two occasions has the boss had to call for a goalie switch in mid-game. More than the standard starter/back-up pairing, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott share duties in a 1/1A relationship, with the Slovak receiving a slightly more frequent assignment. Perhaps the only team with a reasonable facsimile in goaltending split this season has been the aforementioned Canucks. Olympian Roberto Luongo has received a slightly more exaggerated playing time split than Halak has in St. Louis, but "back-up" Cory Schneider has received far more ice time than the typical back-up and has likewise proven himself more than worthy of the task.
Comparing the two teams' goaltending usage patterns is where things get a little bit wacky. Outside of a three-game stretch in October and a seven-game run in November, Schneider has not played in more than two games in a row. Vancouver's typical goalie usage pattern would see Luongo protect the pipes until he needs a night off and then Schneider taking the reins for a game.
Not so in St. Louis. Even before the coaching change, the Blues would hand the reins to one goalie or another for a longer stretch, typically two to four games, before letting the other take over for a similar length. As a soft factor, it is an interesting one. A common plight among back-up goaltenders is that they do not receive enough time to prove their worth. The starter needs a night off and the backup gets 60 minutes to make an impression. His playing time has more to do with the needs of his direct competition for the job than his own abilities. In St. Louis, the reverse is true. On only 18 occasions have Halak and Elliott flip-flopped game-to-game, without any time to fully stabilize.
While this usage pattern is certainly a point of interest and something to bear in mind as the Blues roll to the playoffs as one of the top two seeds in the Western Conference, it does not speak to any effect of Hitchcock's, as after Halak started the first three games of the season, a few sputters led to four in a row (all quality) by Elliott before Payne was kissed goodbye. With the results of the season now ending fresh in mind, there is no real reason for Hitchcock to anoint one man as his crease leader in the playoffs as the Blues are better off continuing in the mode that has got them this far.
The first natural source of investigation whenever a team vastly exceeds its previous year point total would be new player acquisitions. Maybe the team replaced its dead weight with a few studs picked up in the offseason. In the case of the Blues, they did not surrender anyone worth shedding any tears over. In fact, among all departed players of last year (not including in-season trades), no one provided more than the four points that Cam Janssen did (in 54 games). Backup goaltender Ty Conklin, gone to Detroit, was sub-replacement level between the pipes (and still is).
Replacing those key contributors among position players were a quartet of 30-something veterans in blueliner Kent Huskins and forwards Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Scott Nichol. Combined, VUKOTA expected the foursome to add 11.5 GVT to the Blues' tally this year. Doug Armstrong seems to have done well with those pickups, as they have collectively overachieved, contributing a combined 14 GVT with three games left to play. Looked at from another angle, Armstrong was happy to go into this year with largely the same crew who missed the Spring Dance by ten points last time. Taking that even further, the Blues were remarkably quiet this season, making only one minor roster change shortly after Hitchcock took over, as they sent bench-warming blueliner Nikita Nikitin to Columbus in exchange for Kris Russell, a player well known to Hitch through their former joint association in Ohio.* Including the trade, the Blues only needed 43 man-games combined from players who did not start the season on the active roster or the NHL injured reserve. Suffice to say that that is an astonishingly low number, indicating great general health and success with a steady roster.
That was one move that did not go well for St. Louis, as Russell spent much of his time with the Blues nursing injuries while Nikitin blossomed in Columbus, with 31 points and 8.9 GVT (second on the Jackets) in 51 games.
So how did an 87-point team morph into a centurion juggernaut if not through player acquisitions? Well, they actually did. While the position player turnover was minimal, that new "back-up" goalie, the previously discussed Brian Elliott, turned in a season even more stunning in its excellence than his last year was in decrepitude. Last year, Elliott hurt his teams to the tune of -20.6 GVT, a figure supported by a 3.34 GAA and a .893 save percentage. For that, he received the nod a combined 55 times between Ottawa and Colorado. This year, the former Wisconsin Badger has provided more value than all but two other goalies in the NHL (Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick).
Outside of Elliott, eight other Blues have exceeded their respective VUKOTA projections, by a combined 35.4. Conversely, 17 underachievers only cost the Blues a combined 33.7 GVT compared to preseason projections. Which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. VUKOTA, as a projection system, nailed the Blues as a team. Some players a little better than expected, and a few others a little below. With one glaring exception: Brian Elliott. Take the journeyman-turned-All-Star away and the Blues are the same mid-conference team VUKOTA had projected.
For that reason, and for that reason alone, the Blues should not be expected to last past the second round of this year's playoffs, particularly if Hitchcock chooses not to maintain his goalie tandem. One way or another, neither Elliott nor Halak are likely to maintain their stellar level of play when solely entrusted with the task.
Negativity aside, there is some optimism that the Blues can remain an upper echelon team next year. Even assuming severe regression from their goaltending, they have received promising improvements by a number of young core players. The defensive pair of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo have both exceeded expectations by over 5.5 GVT. Neither have come close to reaching their prime yet and Pietrangelo is not too far off being widely considered as one of the top defensemen in the league. David Perron, not yet 24 years old, finally returned from a concussion that kept him out from all but 10 games last year. 40 points in 54 games indicates that he should be a prime offensive contributor from the top six for a few more years yet. T.J. Oshie and David Backes have both taken steps forward in their 200-foot games, and Alexander Steen was demonstrating that last year's career-high 51 points were no fluke before a concussion shelved him for nearly the entire second half.
Blues fans should enjoy and appreciate what has been a magical year while it still lasts. More high-end talent, particularly among the forward corps, is needed for them to continue battling for the Central Division title going forward. The Cinderella run has been great, but the Stanley Cup will not be making its first trip to Missouri this year.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.
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