Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 13, the St. Louis Blues.
No team in the Central Division underwent more offseason changes than the St. Louis Blues. From having their home arena renamed from Scottrade Center to Enterprise Center to significant on-ice changes, the Blues hope to erase last season’s playoff miss by just one point out of their minds. It was the first time in seven seasons St. Louis failed to qualify for the postseason.
The Blues were hit hard with injuries right from the start when Robby Fabbri was lost in the preseason with a torn ACL and was lost for the entire year. Patrik Berglund was out until December after offseason shoulder surgery and Alex Steen started the year on the IR with a broken hand and missed the first two weeks of the season.
Many thought (myself included) a slow start would be inevitable and too tough to overcome in the expected tight Central Division, but the Blues stormed out of the gate with four straight victories and were 10-2-1 by the end of October. Goaltender Jake Allen had his troubles throughout the year, but backup Carter Hutton stepped up with his best season to date and led the entire NHL with a 2.09 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
It was a roller coaster ride the rest of the season as the team’s early cushion slowly evaporated and a broken ankle to their leading scorer Jaden Schwartz in December decimated the offense. Schwartz missed 20 games and the team scored just 1.5 goals per game over the first ten, going 3-7-0. They never seemed to fully recover and after a 1-7-2 run in February and early March dropped them to tenth in the Western Conference, the Blues sat five points out of a wild card spot. Allen continued his struggles over that ten-game stretch with a .881 save percentage and 0-5-0 record but the play of Hutton also fell off a cliff with a .894 save percentage and just one win in the other five games. Despite finishing the season with the league lead in save percentage, Hutton came down to earth after the All-Star break with a .908 save percentage until the end of the season.
It was actually Allen who caught fire in March and almost saved the Blues, going 6-0-0 with a .920 save percentage over a stretch from March 17 to March 27 to propel them back into a wild card spot. It was not meant to be, however, as Allen’s difficult season ended with a 0-4-1 run and .882 save percentage, including a loss in the final winner-take-all game against Colorado to end the season.
General Manager Doug Armstrong was busy this summer and instead of blowing up the roster after a disappointing season, he made moves to add to the existing core. After trading second line center Paul Stastny before the trade deadline for a first-round pick, Armstrong’s biggest need was to fill that hole and he did that with the July 1 trade for top-six center Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres. The Blues gave up depth forwards Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka along with a very good prospect in Tage Thompson. The price tag also included a 2019 first-round draft pick and a 2021 second-round pick.
Armstrong continued to add to the top-six with the signing of hometown boy Patrick Maroon who came at a discount. Forward David Perron was brought back for his third stint with the Blues, this time on a 4-year, $16 million contract and former Maple Leaf Tyler Bozak was also added in free agency to bolster the depth down the middle. Carter Hutton was a free agent this summer and signed a deal with Buffalo, so Armstrong went out and signed backup Chad Johnson to a one-year contract. A significant blow to the goaltending.
A lot of changes with half of the top-six being replaced. If the pieces can fit together on the ice, the Blues should be in position to get back to the playoffs this season.
Stanley Cup: +3000 (Bookmaker)
Western Conference: +1400 (Bookmaker)
Central Division: +900 (BetOnline)
Regular Season Points: 96.5 (-110) (Bookmaker), 97.5 (-105, -115) (BetOnline), 97.5 (-110, -120) (Bovada)
Make Playoffs: YES -180, NO +150 (BetOnline), YES -175, NO +145 (Bovada)
Current odds as of September 29, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 12
Ryan O’Reilly immediately slides into the top spot on the depth chart and will help create better balance in the top six. Last year’s offense was life-and-death dependent at times on the top line of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. Head coach Mike Yeo plans to pair Tarasenko with O’Reilly while keeping the Schwartz-Schenn duo together on the second line.
Newcomer Tyler Bozak slots in on the third line and gives St. Louis excellent depth down the middle. He posted outstanding shot differentials last year and could be underrated here with just a 3.3 Point Shares value if he can find his goal scoring touch again.
The Blues top rated prospect in their pipeline is slated to open the season with a full-time roster spot. Robert Thomas destroyed the OHL last year with 75 points in 49 games split between the London Knights and Hamilton Bulldogs. Thomas then was named the OHL playoff MVP with Hamilton after another 32 points in 21 games. He is an all-around talent with future first line center upside and Armstrong even went as far to say over the summer he could see Thomas between O’Reilly and Tarasenko by Christmas. Thomas is much better than his Point Shares projection of 2.2 suggests but takes a big hit due to the lower projected ice-time usage starting on the fourth line.
NHL RANK: T-7
Three of the four slots are set but it is the third line spot of Robby Fabbri which bears watching. Fabbri missed the entire 2016-17 season after a second torn ACL and was finally healthy heading into this year’s training camp. It did not last long as back soreness and a hip flexor limited him early and then a groin strain suffered in his second preseason game has sidelined him this week. Fabbri is slowly taking on-ice workouts again but there is no timetable for his return.
If Fabbri is not ready for the season opener (which seems highly likely at this point), the door is wide open for prospect Sammy Blais to step in after an impressive preseason. Blais has been outstanding in camp and was knocking on the door for a full-time spot as it was but has a great chance of being in the opening night lineup now, even if just for a few games until Fabbri returns. He needs some work on his defensive game, but his offensive game is outstanding as a talented playmaker and could be a good fit with the defensive-minded Kadri. Yeo might even decide to give Blais a shot in the top-six and move Steen to this side and drop Perron to the third line. The Blues have options this year with their depth and skill and that is a wonderful thing.
NHL RANK: 6
Vladimir Tarasenko leads the way on the right side. His offense slipped a bit last year with 33 goals and 66 points after three consecutive seasons of 37-40 goals and 73-75 points, but he has led the Blues in goal scoring for four straight years now and should be a good bet for a fifth consecutive. He suffered a dislocated shoulder in the final game of the regular season and underwent reconstructive surgery over the summer. With a 4-6 month recovery timeline, Tarasenko was back on the ice before the five-month mark and appears ready to go for the season opener next week. His strength seems to be fully back, but it will be worth monitoring early in the season.
The middle-six looks set with solid secondary scorers filling out the Blues top-nine and giving them the projected sixth-best top-nine in the league. The offense is stacked.
The fourth line spot has Dmitrij Jaskin penciled in right now but is still up for grabs with prospect Jordan Kyrou knocking on the door. Kyrou was the OHL’s most outstanding player last year after 109 points in 56 games and dominated with Canada at the World Juniors with ten points in seven games on the way to the gold medal. One of the top prospects in the Blues pipeline, Kyrou is an offensive gem with top notch speed and playmaking skills. He is going to be a good one. I think he sticks around through the final cut and makes the opening night roster with Fabbri moved to IR to begin the season, creating a spot for both Blais and Kyrou in the lineup. Personally, I would love to see a fourth line of Blais-Thomas-Kyrou. I am not sure if Yeo could handle the headaches in the defensive end but what an incredible speed/skill line. If Kyrou does earn a regular roster spot, his Point Shares value would be 2.5, a 1.7 point increase over Jaskin and would make the Blues a 100-point projected team.
NHL RANK: 21
The Blues left side on the blueline lacks a high-end talent but has two solid second pair guys and then Jay Bouwmeester, who might still project higher here than he should be. Bouwmeester was limited to 35 games last year due to a hip injury and was shut down for good in March. He had a good summer of rehab and although the Blues are being cautious and limiting him in training camp, Bouwmeester has been playing preseason games and should be ready to go for opening night. He mostly paired with Pietrangelo last year and found himself there again in Friday night’s game. Yeo said he is still mixing and matching, looking for the right fit, but Edmundson and Bouwmeester will slot in some order in the top-four.
Vince Dunn had a good rookie season while being sheltered on the third pair but has a lot of potential. The Blues will likely test him with more responsibility at times this year. Dunn suffered an upper-body injury this week in camp and is day-to-day but will hopefully be ready to go for opening night.
Prospect Jake Walman is expected to fall victim in the final round of cuts as he is waivers-exempt but has showed well in camp. He should gain more experience in the AHL this year and be among the first call-ups if more injuries strike.
NHL RANK: 9
The right side is locked and loaded with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, but the third pair is going to start a little different than the above depth chart. Carl Gunnarsson is expected to be the regular third pair guy on this side when he is healthy but is currently sidelined as he recovers from offseason knee and hip surgeries. It is unknown exactly when he will be ready to go which opens the door for Robert Bortuzzo to bump up a slot, except that will not happen for the season opener. Bortuzzo was suspended for the final two preseason games and the first game of the regular season after elbowing Washington’s Michal Kempny in a preseason game.
That means prospect Jordan Schmaltz will get a look to begin the season, in Gunnarsson’s spot for game one and then as the seventh defender until whenever he returns. Schmaltz is no longer considered a rookie having played nine games in 2016-17 and another 13 last year but has not been able to find his spot yet. Schmaltz has mixed reviews from scouts but is viewed as a good puck mover and should be okay in a sheltered role with Dunn for however many games he plays.
NHL RANK: 31
(Starter – 28, Backup – T-58)
After missing the first couple weeks of camp due to back spasms, Jake Allen has returned to practices and saw action in his first preseason game this week. It looks like he will be ready to go for opening night, but back problems tend to not ever go away so the Blues will be keeping an eye on him closely this year.
If Allen has to see less playing time, the backup option is newly signed Chad Johnson – yikes! Johnson has been sharp so far in the preseason to keep the critics at bay but expect to see prospect Ville Husso (who has also been solid in preseason) on speed dial a lot this year. Johnson has seen his save percentage drop over the last three seasons from .920 to .910 to .891 and his GSAA from 6.13 to -3.14 to a disastrous -20.57 last year. GSAA is an advanced stat used to measure Goals-Saved-Above-Average – or in Johnson’s case – below average. Johnson ranked 67 out of 69 qualified goaltenders in GSAA last season, ahead of only Craig Anderson of Ottawa and Scott Darling of Carolina.
Johnson’s Point Shares rating projects him as the 58th ranked goaltender this season out of 62 but he escapes the very bottom only due to projecting to see more games than the few below him. On a per game basis, Johnson ranks dead last in the NHL.
If Allen’s struggles carry over into this season, there is no Carter Hutton bailout option and that has to worry Blues fans. The expectation of an Allen bounce back is extremely low, as well, considering he does not have much to bounce back too.
Allen is a career .913 save percentage goaltender with just one very good season in 2015-16 when he finished with a .920 mark in 47 games. Outside of that season (which could possibly be considered an outlier at this point), Allen has a career average of .910 over 172 games, a very average number for a backup but an extremely poor number for a starter. Allen has also finished with a negative GSAA in three of his five NHL seasons, including a -10.34 number last season.
Anyone who has read my work since last year should be aware of my love for teams with depth down the middle. Center depth is a huge key for successful teams and while the Blues may lack a top tier superstar like a Crosby or MacKinnon, they made a huge splash this summer and will have three very capable middlemen and a fourth in Robert Thomas with a ton of upside. Due to not having that superstar at the top with the high projected value, St. Louis only ranks 12th overall down the middle but one through four, they may have the best depth in the Western Conference.
Offensively overall, the Blues project to have the sixth-best forward group in the NHL but in the Western conference they are second to only the Winnipeg Jets. This team is going to score some goals this year and that is a very good thing since they are likely going to need them.
Goaltending is the biggest crux for the Blues entering the season and what holds them back from being in the same category as Nashville and Winnipeg. While Jake Allen may be able to produce better numbers this year, his track record just does not suggest there is a whole lot of hope there. Signing a backup who was one of the very worst in the league last year and does not have any better of a track record is also concerning. The Blues do have Ville Husso in the pipeline who is expected to challenge Allen for the full-time starter’s role as early as next year. He likely only gets called up in the event of an injury, but he should see his first NHL action sometime this season and could prove ready to steal some time in the backup role.
My point projection of 98.6 is just a smidge above the 96.5 to 97.5 number currently offered at offshore sportsbooks. I think this is a fair number and would lean to the over if anything as the potential to be a lot better is greater than the potential of a flat out flop, in my opinion. The goaltending could be better than expected and if it is, the Blues will challenge for the division crown, it is just the probability of that likelihood is not very high.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list St. Louis on average 12th or 13th with a high of 10th found at Bovada for +2000. That falls right in line with my projection of 13th overall so there does not seem to be any surprises with this team. The +3000 number currently offered over on Bookmaker is a decent number and for a team expected to finish in the top three of a division, is worth grabbing for a small piece (although an argument can be made that finishing in a wild card spot and crossing over to the Pacific Division bracket would hold even more value).
The key with Futures is grabbing good numbers with perceived value which will give you the best options once the playoffs start, rather than just searching for who you think is the best team. A half unit on the +3000 number is good value, in my opinion.
Regarding prop bets for awards, Vladimir Tarasenko is a very intriguing choice for a couple of categories. His longest odds are for the Art Ross at +5000 which is fair and not so interesting, but +3300 for both the Hart (BetOnline) and Rocket Richard Trophy (Bovada) may both hold some value. Outside of last year’s down 33-goal production, Tarasenko has scored 37 (T-5th), 40 (4th) and 39 (5th) goals over the three previous seasons, a top-five finish each year. Paul Stastny and Brayden Schenn are very good centers in their own right, but Ryan O’Reilly may be the best centerman Tarasenko has ever played with. O’Reilly has recorded a consistent 35-39 assists in each of the past five seasons and that means plenty of goal scoring chances for Tarasenko this season who could reach north of 40 goals.
My only concern is the reconstructed shoulder he is coming back from and whether that will take a little off his shot. There has not been any indication of that early in the preseason, but it is a concern. Still, Tarasenko is an elite goal scorer who gets overlooked sometimes and this just might be his year. Of the longshots on the board, I think he is maybe the best choice to take a shot on and would recommend a half unit on both the Hart at +3300 (over on BetOnline) and the Rocket Richard at +3300 (over on Bovada).
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com