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Photo Credit: © Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Blues Clues II: Previewing the St. Louis Blues’ defence and goaltending

It’s August 12, 2020, and we are right on the cusp of witnessing the Vancouver Canucks take on the defending champion St. Louis Blues in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, live from Rogers Place in Edmonton.

Just count the improbabilities in that single sentence alone.

In a year defined by unpredictability, it’s important to keep ourselves grounded with those touchstones that can still be prognosticated — like, for instance — what the Canucks are in for when they come up against the Blues’ and their Cup-winning backend.

As mentioned in the previous edition of Blues Clues, which looked at St. Louis’ offence and special teams, the Western Conference champions haven’t been quite what they used to be since the NHL’s return-to-play, but that doesn’t mean they are not still a formidable opponent. And as it did in 2019, that formidability begins with their blueline.

While St. Louis’ forward corps has remained more-or-less intact since the 2019 Finals, their defensive ranks have undergone some change; brought on by the preseason trade of Joel Edmundson and change for Justin Faulk, what looks to be a career-ending health malady for Jay Bouwmeester, and the subsequent acquisition of Marco Scandella.

Their goaltending tandem of Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen remains in place.

Defence v Defence at a glance

2019/20

Regular Season

Goals Against Per Game Goal Differential Shots Against Per Game PK% Corsi % Shots Blocked Per 60 Scoring Chances % High-Danger Scoring For
St. Louis 2.68 (5th) +32 (5th) 29.6 (4th) 79.3% (18th) 50.79% (13th) 11.72 (29th) 51.15% (12th) 48.63% (21st)
Vancouver 3.10 (t-19th) +11 (t-12th) 33.3 (28th) 80.5% (16th) 48.43% (23rd) 15.58 (2nd) 48.33% (28th) 49.70% (19th)
Advantage STL STL STL VAN STL VAN STL VAN

It should come as no surprise, given their moniker, that the pride of the St. Louis team is their blueline. En route to the top of the Western Conference in the regular season, the Blues’ defence put up some sparkling overall numbers in 2019/20 — not bad for a squad that was supposed to be experiencing a Stanley Cup hangover.

Though their PK has taken a hit in the absence of Edmundson and Bouwmeester, it is still roughly on par with Vancouver’s, and the Blues have the Canucks beat elsewhere pretty much everywhere across the defensive board.

As was true of the offensive matchup, however, it’s important to mention that the regular season was five full months ago, and that recent evidence suggests that the Blues’ defence corps aren’t currently playing at their best.

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2019/20

Return-to

-Play

Goals Against Per Game Goal Differential Shots Against Per Game PK% Corsi % Shots Blocked Per 60 Scoring Chances % High-Danger Scoring For
St. Louis 3.00 (t-14th)  -3 (t-16th) 38.0 (23rd) 81.3% (15th) 39.68% (24th) 18.49 (2nd) 45.76% (17th) 40.91% (20th)
Vancouver 2.50 (t-10th) +2 (t-8th) 30.5 (t-12th) 86.5% (8th) 50.16% (12th) 14.99 (11th) 45.74% (18th) 49.15% (15th)
Advantage VAN VAN VAN VAN VAN STL EVEN VAN

Whereas the Canucks have upped their defensive game in the return-to-play, the Blues have done the opposite. Bleeding shots against, struggling to maintain possession and getting scored against like never before.

Of course, as was mentioned last time, it’s important to keep in mind that three games is a really small sample size, and that none of the Blues’ games were played with anywhere near the intensity or competitiveness as the Canucks’ four games against Minnesota.

Still, there’s reason to hope, at the very least, that some cracks are appearing in the armour of this defensive juggernaut.

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The Top Pairing

LD: Carl Gunnarsson

If there’s a “weak link” to be found in the Blues’ defence corps, it’s probably Gunnarsson, who managed just seven points through 36 games in an injury-plagued campaign this year. Realistically speaking, he’s probably the least talented of the bunch — and only considered a top-pairing option on the merit of his partner, Alex Pietrangelo — but don’t go thinking that Gunnarsson is a bad defenseman.

Ultimately, Gunnarsson might fall just short of being described as steady these days, but he’s steady enough, given who he’s lined up next to.

RD: Alex Pietrangelo

Pietrangelo is, without a doubt, a truly elite defender. It says something that, after having defeated the vaunted top-four of the Minnesota Wild, Pietrangelo is still going to be the best defenseman that the Canucks have played this postseason.

There’s not really a facet of the defensive game that Pietrangelo does not excel at. With 52 points in 70 games, he wasn’t all that far off the Blues’ scoring lead in the regular season, and he continued to post stellar numbers in his own end despite a rotation of questionable partners.

Expect Pietrangelo to play close to half the game each night of the series, and to be on the ice every time Elias Pettersson and his linemates are.

The Second Pairing

The Blues’ second pairing lost Bouwmeester during the season, but somehow ended up being even more effective.

LD: Marco Scandella

After skating for three different franchises this season, Scandella has found a home again in Buffalo. The defensive specialist proved to be such an apt replacement for Bouwmeester that the Blues signed him to a four-year contract extension in April despite him only having played 11 games — and recorded one assist — for St. Louis thus far.

Scandella may not have the offensive bent of Pietrangelo or Colton Parayko, but he shares the same size and own-zone acumen that has come to define the team’s defensive unit.

RD: Colton Parayko

If not for the presence of Pietrangelo, Parayko would probably be considered a top pairing defender already at 27-years-old — but either way, he’s playing the best hockey of his life in 2019/20.

The 6’6”, 230 pound, and yet ultra-mobile, Parayko lost the steadying presence of Bouwmeester, his most frequent partner, but he quickly adapted to the incoming Scandella and was on pace for the best offensive totals of his career. In his own end, Parayko is far from a liability, but he’s not exactly a stalwart and tends to give up as many chances as he gets. That, of course, is why he’s always paired with a stay-at-home partner.

The Third Pairing

Normally, we’d only cover the top-four in this section, but the Blues’ crew is so strong, we had to include the whole set.

LD: Vince Dunn

There are some who will contend that Dunn is secretly just as good as his more famous teammates, and there are certainly some numbers to support it. He took a step back in his third NHL season in terms of raw scoring, but he also posted the best possession numbers on the St. Louis blueline and held a major advantage in terms of scoring chances.

Blessed with the skating skills and transitional aptitude of a prototypical modern NHL defenseman, Dunn continues to develop his all-around effectiveness, and he should not be considered a true “bottom-pairing” defender when it comes to the impact he can have on a series.

RD: Justin Faulk

Faulk is an interesting case. Following years of top-pairing quality play, Faulk’s defensive game began to crack last season in Carolina — and, following a September trade to St. Louis — his offensive game has followed in 2019/20.

Despite being tried all over the lineup, including plenty of time on his off-side paired with Pietrangelo, Faulk managed just 16 points through 69 games and saw his ice-time steadily diminish.

Still, this is essentially a brand new season — and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the 28-year-old Faulk rebound. Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who signed Faulk to a seven-year, $45.5 million extension shortly after acquiring him, certainly hopes so.

Versus the Canucks

This one is really no contest.

The Canucks’ blueline relies increasingly heavily on Quinn Hughes, but the 20-year-old will be up against one of the few defensemen to score as much as he did in 2019/20 — and whose all-around game is miles ahead of where Hughes’ is at the current moment.

Further down the depth chart, the imbalance only becomes more apparent; especially on the right side, where Chris Tanev, Tyler “Minors,” and Troy Stecher don’t come close to stacking up with Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Faulk.

Consider Dunn on the left side, easily comparable with any Canuck defender short of Hughes, and the steadying presence of Scandella, and we’ll say it again — this one is no contest.

The Canucks may — ­may — have the offensive edge in this series, but they’re going to have to battle through some excellent defence to exploit it.

Jordan Binnington versus Jacob Markstrom

2019/20

Regular Season

Record Save % GAA Quality Start % (With above league avg GAA) Goals Saved Above Average
Binnington 30-13-7 .912 2.56 .560 3.31
Markstrom 23-16-4 .918 2.75 .581 11.40
Advantage Binnington Markstrom Binnington Markstrom Markstrom

At first blush, the reigning Cup champ and Calder Trophy runner-up Jordan Binnington looks to have a huge advantage over Jacob Markstrom — he of only four career playoff games, all recorded in 2020.

However, the 27-year-old Binnington’s numbers took a big dive from that sizzling 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage in his out-of-nowhere rookie campaign, though he still led the Blues to the top of the Western Conference.

In all measures that aren’t directly tied to the strength of Binnington’s team — and, in particular, his blueline, as evidenced above — Markstrom outpaced him in 2019/20. And that’s quite impressive, given the somewhat porous nature of the defenders usually skating in front of Markstrom.

Of particular note is the Goals Saved Above Average column on the stat-sheet, where Markstrom ranks among the very best in the league. Clear-cut proof that his reputation as a game-saver — and his award as Canucks’ MVP — were both well-deserved.

While Markstrom was winning accolades for keeping his squad in games they didn’t deserve to be in, Binnington struggled with consistency throughout the season and faced questions about his mental fortitude, with some — much to Binnington’s chagrin — suggesting that he looked “nervous” at times.

If Binnington can get on the same sort of roll he did in the 2019 playoffs, it will be the Canucks’ turn to be nervous. If not, this is a winnable goaltending battle for Markstrom, and that means it’s a winnable series for the Canucks.