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Why Yeo's Blues might be the best dark horse in the league

Ken Hitchcock was fired on Feb. 1 with the Blues out of a post-season position, but since that time St. Louis has become one of the most fearsome opponents in the league.

The goal of any coaching change is to ignite change and bring success to a struggling team. In Pittsburgh over the past decade, coaching changes have twice resulted in Stanley Cups. In Los Angeles, the impact of bringing in coach Darryl Sutter was the same, with the Kings winning the 2011-12 title months after Sutter’s hiring and winning a second Stanley Cup two seasons later.

And if there’s any team whose swap behind the bench could be setting them up for similar success this season, it’s hard to overlook the St. Louis Blues.

As the season enters its home stretch, the Western Conference is the source of much debate. It’s not without reason, either. While you have your upper-echelon team, the Chicago Blackhawks, many consider the conference to be wide open. The Minnesota Wild might be the next-best thing in the West, with the Anaheim Ducks right there alongside them and a handful of other squads competing for the right to be called the conference’s best.

But sitting alone in the final divisional spot in the Central Division, holding off the Nashville Predators by a single point for the time being, are the Blues. These are the same Blues who little more than two short months ago were mired in one of the worst slumps they had seen in recent memory, bogged down by unsightly goaltending performances and fighting for their playoff lives. These are the same Blues who fired a legendary coach in Ken Hitchcock, handing the reins to Mike Yeo and praying that he could right the ship. Most importantly, these are the same Blues who have been one of the league’s very best teams over the past two months.

Yes, as the post-season approaches, all eyes in the Western Conference might be on the Blackhawks, Ducks and Wild, but one could argue quite easily that no team is entering with quite the gusto that the Blues are. Though they’re not sitting atop their division, and though they’re flirting with a stumble into a wild-card spot, it’d be hard not to look at this St. Louis squad as one of the truest dark horse contenders for the Stanley Cup. 

On Feb. 1, the day Hitchcock was fired, St. Louis was one point up on the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets, sitting three points out of either wild-card spot in the West, but a look at the standings in the time since Yeo took over paints a clear picture of just how good the Blues have been. 

Over their past 30 games, Yeo’s Blues have gone 20-8-2, good for 42 points, and the only teams better have been the Blackhawks and Eastern Conference favorite Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. In the time since Yeo took over, the Blues have also boasted some of the best special teams in the entire West. In fact, of playoff-bound teams, the only clubs with a better power play than the Blues are the Predators, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. Not a single team has had a better penalty kill, though, and that’s not only counting Western Conference clubs. No teams — none — have killed a better rate than St. Louis’ 88 percent clip. Even in terms of goal differential, the Blues have been excellent. Their plus-32 mark is the best of any team in the league and St. Louis has allowed only 54 goals against, the fewest in the league. Remarkable considering before Hitchcock’s firing, there were only three teams who had allowed more.

It’d be easy to point to goaltending and goaltending alone as the biggest difference between the Blues night-and-day performance this season, and it certainly has been a factor. Under Hitchcock, St. Louis goaltending at 5-on-5 was abysmal. Jake Allen struggled so much, in fact, that he was left behind on one road trip with the thought being some rest could help correct his play. Overall, the Blues had a .906 SP at 5-on-5 in 51 games under Hitchcock, but that has risen in a big way, all the way up to a .951 SP under Yeo. That’s the best mark in the league.

So, absolutely, goaltending has been a major factor, but this is to say nothing of the way the Blues have generated more offense with a seemingly more wide-open game. Under Hitchcock, St. Louis could stifle teams, but the commitment to defense didn’t allow the offensive stars — the Vladimir Tarasenkos and Jaden Schwartzes of the Blues — to let loose. Yeo has unleashed the offense, though. The Blues are also taking more shots on the rush and getting to more rebounds, and, per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, St. Louis is generating nearly 8.3 scoring chances since Yeo took over, an increase of 2.2 chances when compared to the rate under Hitchcock.

The assumption might be that Yeo’s freewheeling offensive system would backfire some, allowing a great number more chances against. And while the assumption that the Blues now face more chances against would be correct, the difference is inconsequential — four-hundredths of a chance per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The result has been a Blues team that saw its scoring chance for percentage jump from 48.6 under Hitchcock to a whopping 56 percent under Yeo. Only the Wild have been better over the past two months. As a result, St. Louis’ expected goals for percentage has jumped to 52.9, up nearly three percent from Hitchcock’s tenure. It’s not as if the Blues are suddenly getting more luck at 5-on-5, either, as the team’s shooting percentage has dipped from 8.4 to 8.2 since Yeo took over.

If there is an area of concern, it’s in terms of possession. Under Yeo, the Blues haven’t exactly taken a nose dive in the possession game, but there has been a decrease of more than three percent. Prior to Yeo taking over, the Blues’ Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 was 51.7 percent, but it has since slipped to 48.5 percent. That mark is good enough for 23rd in the league over the past two months, but it does leave St. Louis as one of seven playoff-bound teams with a sub-50 percent possession rate over that span. When the rest of the game seems to be clicking at such an extraordinary rate, though, maybe the Blues can outrun poor possession with so other underlying numbers falling in great favor.

The bizarre thing in all of this is that the Blues unexpectedly find themselves in a position where most predicted the Blues would be come the start of the season — entering the post-season as one of the Western Conference’s most threatening teams. Are they the frontrunner as Game 82 approaches? Not one bit. But St. Louis has turned the corner under Yeo and the early season stumbles may allow the Blues to head into the post-season as the best dark horse in the league.

(All advanced statistics via Corsica)

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