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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Blues Clues: Previewing the St. Louis Blues’ offence and special teams

Most years, the only blues that the Vancouver Canucks and their fans have to face in August are of the hockey withdrawal variety. But this is 2020, the year that never stops surprising, and the Canucks are — as we speak — preparing to take on the St. Louis Blues in a real-life, actual Stanley Cup Playoffs series.

And speaking of ol’ Stanley, there’s a reason that the Canucks — and us here at CanucksArmy via this Blues Clues miniseries — are doing a little extra homework when it comes to the upcoming matchup.

The Blues are, after all, the defending champs.

But a 2019 Stanley Cup champion does mean they have what it takes to be the 2020 Stanley Cup champions. The Blues, who finished the regular season at the top of the Western Conference, went winless in one exhibition and three round-robin games — and at the current moment anyway — they look to be a far cry from the team that took out blubbering Brad Marchand and the Boston Bruins in the Finals last year.

This, despite impressively little roster turnover in the interim.

The more immediate question, however, is not whether the Blues are good enough to win the Stanley Cup in 2020 — it’s whether or not they’re good enough to beat the Canucks in round one.

So, without further ado, let’s look at how the two teams’ offence and special teams stack up.

Offence v Offence at a glance

2019/20

Regular Season

Goals Per Game Goal Differential Shots Per Game PP% Corsi % Scoring Chances % High-Danger Scoring For Team Shooting %
St. Louis 3.14 (t-14th) +32 (5th) 30.17(21st) 24.3% (3rd) 50.79% (13th) 51.15% (12th) 48.63% (21st) 8.58% (10th)
Vancouver 3.25 (8th) +11 (t-12th) 31.2 (18th) 24.2% (4th) 48.43% (23rd) 48.33% (28th) 49.70% (19th) 8.60% (9th)
Advantage VAN STL VAN STL SLT STL VAN EVEN

Most pundits are selling this series as a battle of the Canucks’ offence against St. Louis’ defence, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the Blues are scoring lightweights.

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Though the Canucks produced at a slightly higher rate in the regular season, the Blues had the Canucks beat pretty much across the board otherwise, and they even edged out Vancouver’s vaunted powerplay by a hair.

The Blues might not qualify as an offensive powerhouse, but they do have an offence that is at least on par, if not better, than that of the Canucks. So, dreams of Elias Pettersson and the gang simply overwhelming their opponents in round one can probably be put to rest — especially once St. Louis’ superior defence, as evidenced by that elite goal differential, is taken into consideration.

However, all hope is not lost, because the regular season was five full months ago, and the Blues’ recent trends are significantly less impressive.

2019/20

Return-to-play

Goals Per Game Goal Differential Shots Per Game PP% Corsi % Scoring Chances % High-Danger Scoring For Team Shooting %
St. Louis 2.00(15th)  -3 (t-16th) 23.7 (24th) 8.3% (19th) 39.68% (24th) 45.76% (17th) 40.91% (20th) 12.50% (4th)
Vancouver 3.00 (t-9th) +2 (t-8th) 29.0 (18th) 21.1% (10th) 50.16% (12th) 45.74% (18th) 49.15% (15th) 9.76% (7th)
Advantage VAN VAN VAN VAN VAN EVEN VAN STL

Through three round-robin games, St. Louis proved to be one of the least potent teams in the entire return-to-play bubble, while the Canucks stayed in the middle of the road.

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Don’t pop the champagne too early, however — three games is an incredibly small sample size, and none of the Blues’ games were played with anywhere near the intensity of the qualifying round.

At this point, offence v offence has to be considered a toss-up.

The Top Line

The Blues arguably possess two top lines, but one of the two units has a little more of an offensive bent than the other, despite being separated for most of the year.

LW: Jaden Schwartz

After a down season in 2018/19, Schwartz bounced back in a big way, falling just six points short of a career-high with 57 in 71 games. Healthy for an entire season for the first time in a while, Schwartz was stuck pretty closely to Brayden Schenn’s hip all year.

Schwartz is a strong and shifty skater with the ability to make plays at high speed, a skill that is going to give the Vancouver defence fits.

C: Brayden Schenn

Schenn may not be the prototypical top-line center, but that’s less of a problem when you’ve got Ryan O’Reilly backing you up at 2C. The duo did win a Cup last year, so labels are a little irrelevant at this point.

Schenn, who has stayed remarkably healthy throughout his career, was on pace for one of his best offensive seasons ever when the NHL went on hiatus with 58 points in 71 games. Fiery, feisty, and all-around talented, Schenn may not be an elite talent, but he is a handful.

RW: Vladimir Tarasenko

Tarasenko suffered what was thought to be a season-ending shoulder injury just ten games — and ten points — into 2019/20.

But then the season took a multi-month break, and Tarasenko recovered from surgery in time to rejoin his teammates on the ice. No doubt, there will continue to be some rust for Tarasenko to shake off as he skipped one of the round-robin games, and went pointless in the other two.

But when Tarasenko is at top speed, he’s the Blues’ best forward and truly an elite sniper that can score almost at will.

Versus the Canucks

Top line to top line, the Canucks probably have the Blues beat. The Lotto Line outscored the Blues’ top unit on a per-game basis this year, and JT Miller would have been their leading scorer by 11 points.

In fact, the Lotto Line proved particularly adept at feasting on the Blues this season — but Chris Faber is already all over that beat.

And that’s all good news for the Canucks, because…

The Second Line

Simply put, the Blues’ second line outclasses the Canucks’ by a wide margin. Not only did this unit outproduce the Blues’ own first line, but they were also fortunate enough to play together all year and build vital chemistry.

LW: Zach Sanford

A relatively new guy to the top-six scene at just 25-years-old and in his fourth NHL season, Sanford obliterated his previous career bests in 2019/20 with 16 goals and 30 points in just 58 games.

At 6’3” and 207 pounds, Sanford is a pseudo-power forward that has the ability to hang onto the puck and protect it with his big body. He’s almost certainly the least talented member of the Blues’ top-six — but that doesn’t mean he’s not effective.

C: Ryan O’Reilly

O’Reilly may technically be the second-line center, but he’s also got a legitimate claim as their best player overall, and he did lead them in scoring in 2019/20 with 61 points in 71 games. The perennial Selke contender is one of the greatest two-way players in the game, and projects to have as much of an impact on the upcoming series as anyone else on either roster.

O’Reilly is a rare double threat, in that the Canucks can expect him to be all over Elias Pettersson in every game, AND still find time to put up points of his own.

RW: David Perron

Perron is the elder statesman of the Blues’ top-six at 32-years-old, but that doesn’t mean that his best days are behind him.

In fact, 2019/20 saw the right-handed Perron play on his natural side for a change, and he responded with the best offensive season of his career — outside his one year in Vegas — notching a tidy 60 points in 71 games.

Perron has gone to two Stanley Cup Finals in a row, and he’ll be on the lookout to make it three.

Versus the Canucks

Bo Horvat has been a monster thus far in the postseason, but he’s no Ryan O’Reilly, who might just be the best second line center in the entire conference.

In terms of the wing, Vancouver might actually have a slight advantage if Tyler Toffoli is healthy enough to return. If not, the duo of Tanner Pearson and Loui Eriksson just aren’t up to snuff with the championship pedigree of Sanford and Perron.

Scoring depth against scoring depth

The Canucks have some productive pieces in their bottom-six — like Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, if healthy — but they don’t have scoring depth in the same way that the St. Louis Blues do.

That starts with third line center and sophomore Robert Thomas, who broke out in a big way with 42 points in 66 games. He’s joined by a collection of plucky youngers, like Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist, and some veterans on the downside of their career, like Tyler Bozak and Alexander Steen, who could still be dangerous in short stints.

The Canucks do, on the other hand, have the higher scoring blueline, but more on that tomorrow!

Special notes on special teams

If the entire series were going to consist of successive powerplays — which is what it felt like against Minnesota at times — the matchup between the Canucks and Blues would be considered a dead heat.

The two teams are, more or less, identical when it comes to special teams.

The Blues eked out a win over the Canucks when it came to the regular season powerplay, but only by the thinnest of margins, 24.3% over 24.2%, third and fourth in the NHL, respectively. It’s worth noting that the league-leading Edmonton Oilers and their 29.5% rate are eliminated, meaning that the St. Louis and Vancouver powerplays are now the best in the West.

Both clubs were more middling when it came to killing off penalties, on the other hand. This time, it was the Canucks who held a slight advantage to the tune of 80.5% to 79.3%, good enough for 16th and 18th in the league.

As for who’s going to actually get on the powerplay more often, it’s a tossup again, as the Canucks drew the fourth-most penalties per game this year, while the Blues took the ninth fewest.