The current sexy underdog team that can’t stop winning games in the league has been the Philadelphia Flyers and their baby goalie Carter Hart, but there is another team who has been just as impressively dug themselves out of the basement in the NHL. They are the St. Louis Blues.
On the other side, the sexy terrible team in the news has been the Anaheim Ducks for a while, and they rightfully deserve to be there, but so does another team who has just been as bad: the Colorado Avalanche.
Don’t look now, but the Blues have pulled themselves out of the basement in the NHL and into the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, ahead of both the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche. They’ve also played fewer games than everyone below them in the West. But how did they get up there? What changed?
The reason for most trends in the NHL is goaltending, and the turnaround for the Blues has been no different. Specifically, the savior for the Blues has been a goaltender by the name of Jordan Binnington.
The 25-year-old call-up from the AHL who has never made more than $660,000 in a season was brought up to the NHL following the blues trading Chad Johnson to the Anaheim Ducks (who we will get to) for Jared Coreau. The swap meant that the team needed a goalie, so they called up Binnington. From January 7th onward, Binnington has started in nine of the 12 games for St. Louis, posting a 7-1-1 record with a .931 save percentage. Crazy!
From January 7th, the Blues instantly saw their goaltending turn a 180. They went from a .893 team to a .926 overnight. In the same time-frame, the Ducks — who wanted Johnson —saw their goaltending crash from a top-three sv% in the league (.916) to the third-worst (.876). Right away, this looks like a miracle, and it is, but there’s more to this story than just goaltending.
Ryan O’Reilly has stepped up as the first-line center for the Blues and helped turn his new team into an analytics darling. They are out-shooting their opponents heavily on a regular basis over the past 15 games, they’ve kept the shot quality down very well, and they’re playing in the offensive zone way more than they used to. O’Reilly has become the role model for that type of play out of this team, his personal high-danger shots against numbers are nearly non-existent. O’Reilly also has taken by-far the most defensive zone draws among his team, but is still a 55% zone-start player.
xG rates— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) February 6, 2019
VAN is a bad team also but a little shooting boost and league-average goaltending is masking some of their poor processes. pic.twitter.com/sh7tSn00Qc
On the scoresheet, O’Reilly has not only been putting up the points himself, but he’s been helping his linemate Vladimir Tarasenko a lot. The two are the leading scorers for the team, O’Reilly with 18 points in 15 games, and Tarasenko with 15 points (seven goals) in 14 games. Tarasenko has averaged more than five shot attempts per game, which is the going rate for a top-half caliber first-liner.
Ever since the calendar turned, the Blues have risen from tied for last in the league with the Ottawa Senators with only a 75-point pace, to 18th in the league, and on pace for an 87-point season. They made up 12 projected points within the span of 15 games, and it doesn’t look like they’re done.
The Bad (and also Ugly)
During the All-Star break, I said that the Avs needed to come out of the gate in February with fire and win their first few games in order to solidify their hold on a playoff spot. The team proceeded to drop their first three games back, throwing them two points — and two teams — behind the cutoff line. They are tied with Edmonton and Chicago, for Hejduk’s sake!
Combining these three games with the seven before the break, the Avs have as bad of a record as the Anaheim Ducks. The problem for the Ducks, which we’ll get to, has been that their goaltending has stuck since around the middle-point of the season. It has been no different for the Avs.
Since the start of the five-game losing streak back at the end of December, the Avs have a 3-12-3 record. The Ducks have gone 2-12-4 in that same span of time. The goaltending has completely fallen off a cliff over these past 18 games. Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer (along with Pavel Francouz, but he actually played pretty well in his two games) have combined to stop only 457 of 520 shots for a .884 sv%. That’s the worst in the league, yes even below Anaheim, in that time frame. Things are that bad in Denver.
And it’s such a shame this is happening to the team right now, because the Avs have been able to out-shoot, out-chance, and out-possess their opponents to a degree that is among the best in the league throughout this whole stretch. But while this is happening, the goalies have let down their team. The skaters have put this team in the top-three in every shot metric the league tracks publicly, including shot quality, but not received a single damn save behind them.
Fans should be furious at a player like Grubauer, who has a .890 sv% on the year, they have every right to do so, especially since he’s in the first year of a three-year $10 million total contract. He’s simply not been good enough. Same goes for Varlamov. The 30-year-old is in the final year of his deal, and has been putting up a .905 sv% on the season for his team. It’s a .884 since New Years. Neither of these guys have been good enough and Joe Sakic needs to be looking at replacements either now, or at the very least in the summer. Sergei Bobrovsky, anyone?
We might as well sell this spot full-time to the Ducks (with rental opportunities for the Edmonton Oilers), they’ve been here more times this season than not.
The Ducks have quit on their team. There’s no other explanation for their play so far this season. John Gibson was valiantly playing the role of Captain America, trying with all his might to hold open the fist of Thanos, but at the end of the day it wasn’t enough. And unlike Cap, this team isn’t avengable, not with this coaching staff and management group in place. One is not capable of doing their job, and the other is too loyal to understand that.
@Steve_Dangle @AdamWylde Worst honeymoon ever!! 4 losses, outscored 23-5, Gibson pulled twice and injured in the last game, and it ends getting shutout against the worst team in the NHL. Maybe their wedding gift will be a coach canning. Bad start to a marriage. Thanks Randy! pic.twitter.com/ounlVGb8Fg— Claudio D (@Jacquecoobo) February 8, 2019
The Maple Leafs played the Ducks early this week, and the franchise handed their former coach a 6-1 ass-kicking, their second in as many games. Throughout that night, all I could read on Twitter is the hoards of Leafs fans staring blankly at Randy Carlyle and feeling like they were in the mirror dimension. What is happening to the Ducks right now is exactly what happened to the Leafs six years ago. Every beat is the same. What ended up happening in Toronto was a scorched earth plan; most — if not all — of the old players, scouting staff, coaching staff, and management staff were let go.
The Anaheim Ducks have two wins in the last 52 days.— Gord Miller (@GMillerTSN) February 8, 2019
I see no solution other than scorched earth in Anaheim’s future. At least in Colorado, they only have a goaltending problem. The Avs have Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Jack Hughes, and Kappo Kakko to look forward to for the foreseeable future. What do the Ducks have?