February 2 – Day 106 – Can Yeo save the Blues?

It’s a busy day in the NHL, so let’s jump right into tonight’s schedule. Montréal at Philadelphia (RDS) gets the action started at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by two more contests (the New York Rangers at Buffalo [NBCSN/TVAS] and Ottawa at Tampa Bay [RDS2]). 8 p.m. marks the start of Edmonton at Nashville, with Winnipeg at Dallas waiting 30 minutes before dropping the puck. Two games (Chicago at Arizona and Toronto at St. Louis) drop the puck at 9 p.m., followed an hour later by tonight’s nightcap: San Jose at Vancouver.

Tonight’s game in St. Louis is the first for Mike Yeo in charge of the Blues. Let’s see if he can get the severely under-performing club back in shape.

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After taking the 2010-’11 season off, Ken Hitchcock took command of the Notes on November 6, 2011. Since then, St. Louis has done nothing but succeed, finishing no worse than second place in the division over the past five years and qualifying for the Western Semifinals twice.

Unfortunately for Hitch, the Blues aren’t on the right track towards making that a six-season streak. Even with one of the best scorers in the game, they haven’t found anywhere near the success they did a season ago. Nothing makes that point clearer than looking back at February 2 a year ago when they were featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series.

And that’s not even bringing up the goaltending situation. In fact, that’s almost certainly what cost Hitchcock his job yesterday, as Jim Corsi was also relieved of his duties.

While it’s not the way Doug Armstrong envisioned it happening, Hitchcock was never going to coach the Blues beyond this season. That’s what is making this transition so easy. Yeo was hired last summer as a coach-in-waiting, effectively securing him from the other 29 30 other teams (don’t forget, somebody has to lead Vegas!) that might have been interested in his talents.

Even the goaltending coaching change was easy. Corsi is being replaced by Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin, two former NHL netminders that were already employed by the club, with 787 wins, 1481 games and three Stanley Cups between them. Conklin was already working with the netminders as a goalie development coach, and is now joined by Assistant GM Brodeur, one of the greatest netminders of all-time.

It’s Yeo’s second stint as a head coach. He was last seen leading the Wild, and he certainly found his share of success. After his first season when Minnesota finished fourth in the five-team Northwest Division, he qualified the Wild for the Stanley Cup playoffs three-straight times. Unfortunately for him, his club managed to run into Chicago each of those postseasons.

In case you haven’t heard, Chicago is pretty darn good. The Blackhawks refused to allow the Wild to advance any further in those three campaigns – winning the Stanley Cup twice in that span – which makes assessing Yeo’s playoff coaching abilities harder than it seems on the surface.

Yeo takes command of a 24-21-5 Blues team that currently sits in fourth place in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference. As stated earlier, the blame rests almost entirely on the Blues‘ goaltending, which has allowed 156 goals  and ties for fourth-most in the NHL.

17-13-3 Jake Allen has been the man between the pipes more often than not for St. Louis. His record doesn’t show that he’s been struggling, but his .895 save percentage and 2.87 GAA, which rank 43rd and 35th-worst, respectively, against the other 45 netminders with at least 18 appearances, tells the entire story.

Those who like stats a lot know that a horrendous save percentage with a slightly better GAA can usually be attributed to the defense. That remains the case in St. Louis, where the blueline allows only 27.6 shots-per-game to reach Allen’s net – tying for the fifth-best effort in the league. Alex Pietrangelo deserves a lot of the credit, as his 96 shot blocks are not only tops on the team, but also 19th-best in the entire league.

Interestingly, it’s been Allen that elevates his game on the penalty kill, as his .887 save percentage is 15th-best in the league. That’s led the Blues to a 82.8% kill rate, which ties for 10th-best in the NHL. Defensively, Pietrangelo remains the leader with his 23 shorthanded shot blocks.

Another aspect of the game where the Blues are right on schedule is their power play. Successful on 22.1% of attempts, it ranks eighth-best in the NHL, thanks in large part to both Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladimir Tarasenko, who both have a team-leading 18 power play points. Surprisingly, it’s actually been Shattenkirk that has buried the most goals with the man-advantage, as his seven are one more than Tarasenko’s.

With eighth-place Calgary dormant for the night, St. Louis can get their comeback started and potentially finished all in one game. A victory tonight would pull them into a tie with the Flames at 55 points-apiece, but the Blues will have only 51 games played, two fewer than Calgary.

The Maple Leafs make their lone visit to St. Louis of the year with a 23-16-9 record, good enough for fourth place in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference. Although they’re a solid team, the reason the Leafs haven’t cemented themselves into a playoff position is their defense, the weaker of the two facets of their game. Toronto has allowed 133 goals, which ties for 20th-most in the league.

21-10-8 Frederik Andersen has started all but eight games for the Leafs, and for good reason. His .919 save percentage and 2.61 GAA are (t)13th and 22nd-best in the NHL, respectively, among the 42 goalies with 20 or more appearances to their credit.

If he had a better defense playing in front of him, Andersen would probably be a lot better. Toronto‘s bluelines allow 32.1 shots against-per-game, the sixth-highest (read: worst) rate in the league. Nikita Zaitsev has tried his hardest to build a solid defensive corps with his team-leading 81 shot blocks to his credit, but only him, Roman Polak and the injured Morgan Rielly have more than 60 blocks on their season-resumes. If I’m Lou Lamoriello, I’m looking around for a solid top-four defenseman this month before the trade deadline for the playoff push.

Interestingly, Toronto‘s defensive deficiencies are nonexistent when they’re facing a power play. Led by Polak’s 24 shorthanded blocks, the Leafs have successfully nullified 84.9% of opposing man-advantages, the third-best rate in the NHL.

The Maple Leafs‘ own power play has also been daunting. It’s a two-headed beast, consisting of William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk who both lead the team with 15 power play points. Toronto is home to the second-best man-advantage in the league, successful on 23.6% of attempts. Although Nylander and van Riemsdyk have been impressive, the man scoring most of those extra-man goals has been Nazem Kadri, who has 10 power play goals to his credit.

Although they sit outside the playoff bubble right now, a single point in the standings paired with a Philadelphia regulation loss would earn the Leafs the second wildcard, if only for a night. Two points for Toronto and a Philly overtime or shootout loss would also do the trick.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include St. Louis‘ Tarasenko (49 points [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (three shutouts [tied for seventh-most in the league] among 21 wins [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]) and Auston Matthews (23 goals [tied for sixth-most in the league]).

The main issue with the Blues is their last line of defense; their goaltending. I don’t know a lot about being a goalie, but I get the vibe it’s a highly technical position that isn’t going to be resolved in 48 hours. Vegas has marked St. Louis a -120 favorite, but I don’t like those odds. If you’re a gambler, I recommend betting on the Leafs tonight.

Hockey Birthday

  • Kjell Dahlin (1963-) – Drafted in the fourth round of the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing played only three seasons with Montréal, the club that picked him. It was an incredible rookie season, as he notched 71 points en route to the 1986 Stanley Cup. Due to injuries, he was never able to replicate that success and was out of the league after the 1987-’88 season.
  • Arturs Irbe (1967-) – This goalie might have only been drafted in the 10th round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by the North Stars, but he was able to turn that selection into a 13-year career. The two-time All Star spent most of his career in Carolina.
  • Todd Bertuzzi (1975-) – The Islanders picked this right wing 23rd-overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, but he spent most of his career in Vancouver. By the time he retired, the two-time All Star notched 770 points to go with his 1478 penalty minutes.
  • Jordin Tootoo (1983-) – A fourth-round pick by Nashville in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing has appeared in almost every season since 2003. He’s currently a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Just like I predicted, Calgary was able to best the Wild 5-1 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The two tallies in the first period both belonged to the Flames, meaning they were in possession of their winner for quite a while. Alex Chiasson (Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg) takes credit for Calgary‘s first goal, a deflection 4:26 after the initial puck drop. 3:43 later, First Star of the Game Sean Monahan (Johnny Gaudreau and Troy Brouwer) provided the winner with a power play wrister.

Minnesota‘s lone goal of the game was struck in the second period, courtesy of Jason Zucker (Mikael Granlund) with 7:20 remaining in the frame.

Monahan (Dennis Wideman and T.J. Brodie), Third Star Deryk Engelland (Matt Stajan) and Michael Ferland (Engelland) take credit for the three insurance goals in the final period.

Second Star Brian Elliott earns the victory after saving 28-of-29 shots faced (96.6%), leaving the loss to Devan Dubnyk, who saved only 31-of-36 (86.1%).

Calgary‘s win is the third-straight for the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. It improves the hosts’ records to 57-35-16, nine points better than the roadies.

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