St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie and Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.
The ironically named St. Louis Blues enter the 2013 Christmas break with a lot to be happy about, just six points behind the first-place Anaheim Ducks with three games in hand (24-7-5). As a result, a case can be made that the Blues are actually the best team in the league, and not just based on total points.
Taking offense, defense, coaching and other intangibles into account, here is how the Blues stack up against the NHL’s elite teams this 2013-2014 season.
The Boston Bruins celebrate a victory.
Coming off an extremely successful season during which they reached the Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins are right back at it with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (25-10-2).
Leading the Atlantic Division by a relatively healthy three points over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Bruins are one of the league’s most well-rounded teams. Currently one point separates them from the Blues. However, as the Bruins are the lowest ranked of these top five elite teams, there’s arguably the largest amount of disparity between them and the Blues.
Blues’ Advantage: Having scored a very respectable 2.84 goals per game, the Bruins boast the 10th-best offense in the league. The Blues are that much more dangerous with the second-ranked one, which has scored 3.47.
Elaborating further on St. Louis’ advantage up front, just four Bruins have scored 20 ore more points compared to nine Blues. The advantage extends beyond just the forward group, as those nine Blues include three defensemen (compared to zero Bruins).
Bruins’ Advantage: One can make a definite case that the Bruins’ D is doing just fine in spite of that last fact, having allowed just 2.03 goals per game (2.31 for the Blues).
However, considering the Bruins have allowed 28.8 shots per game and the Blues have allowed just 25.8, good for second best in the league, the true advantage probably lies somewhere else, namely in net.
Even if one were to point to Jaroslav Halak’s spectacular 2010 postseason—when he carried an outmatched Montreal Canadiens team to the third round—as reason why the Blues should not be worried, Tuukka Rask did just reach the fourth round six months ago.
Halak, undeniably, is proof of what a hot netminder can give a team come the playoffs. Conversely, Rask is proof of what consistently great goaltending gives a team all season long (including the playoffs).
The Los Angeles Kings celebrate a goal on St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Just two years removed from their Stanley Cup victory, the Kings (25-9-4), like the Bruins, represent very tough opponents that have a history of outlasting other teams via a physical yet well-rounded style of play. That’s not the only thing the two teams have in common, though.
Blues’ Advantage: Whereas the Bruins have scored 2.84 goals per game, the Kings have scored just 2.63, the lowest rate of all the teams featured in this piece. As a result, said lack of offense can only be considered their main weakness relative to the Blues, who, again, boast the league’s second-best offense.
Kings’ Advantage: When a Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie in Jonathan Quick has become arguably your team’s third-best option in net, it speaks volumes regarding your goaltending depth. And yet, unbelievably, backups Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones have earned save percentages of .941 and .953, respectively (compared to Quick’s .905).
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby against the Calgary Flames.
Blues’ Advantage: Even with currently injured players like Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Evgeni Malkin healthy, the Blues are just deeper. When a former 50-point man like Patrik Berglund actually ranks behind Brenden Morrow on your team scoring list, it probably prompts two overriding thoughts:
1) Man, Berglund must be struggling.
2) Oh, yeah…the Blues have got Morrow, too.
For the record, they also have Alexander Steen (38 points), who up until recently was matching Crosby’s output blow for blow.
Penguins’ Advantage: Nothing is probably more indicative of the Penguins’ advantage than that last sentence and how Crosby has simply pulled away from the competition seemingly at will. The Penguins have arguably the best player in the world, bringing new meaning to the term “star power.”
All Crosby has done in the face of all the injuries to his team is take it up a notch with 29 points in his last 19 games. It really says a lot about his value to the Penguins—or perhaps the Penguins’ resiliency in general—that Pittsburgh hasn’t slowed down and even picked up the point-getting pace despite the team's injuries.
While on paper the Penguins shouldn’t be where they are, Crosby is a wild card that prevents others teams from being able to take them for granted.
Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Nick Leddy (left) and Brent Seabrook.
The reigning Stanley Cup champions may not be dominating the league like they did last year when they started the season 21-0-3 and went 36-7-5 overall. However, the Chicago Blackhawks are nonetheless a commanding-of-respect 26-7-7 in 2013-14 and actually lead the Central Division.
Blues’ Advantage: Three games in hand may not be the greatest advantage to have, but it is something, especially with St. Louis being in the same division as Chicago and just two wins and five points backs.
While the Blues still have to capture those three wins to pull ahead, they have the potential to be the better team, that is if they aren’t already. In two head-to-head games this season, the Blues have pulled out two victories against the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks’ Advantage: Chicago is the only team in the NHL that can lay claim to possessing a more powerful offense than St. Louis with a league-leading 145 goals scored in 39 games, but the Blackhawks' greatest advantage arguably lies in their lack of luck, relatively speaking.
The Blues currently have the highest PDO in the league (1.027), with PDO being the sum of a given team’s save and shooting percentages. Totals above 1.000 are argued to regress back to the mean over time, while totals below 1.000 should theoretically increase.
Of all the teams listed here, the Blackhawks have the lowest PDO (1.011), including a shooting percentage of 10.9 percent, which is lower than the Blues’ 11.6 percent, the highest in the league. As a result, one can argue they have the potential to be as dominant as they were last year.
St. Louis Blues defensman Barret Jackman and Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne.
By all accounts, the Anaheim Ducks shouldn’t be nearly as good as they are. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be considered elite, though, as their league-leading 27-7-5 record makes a convincing argument to that effect.
However, compared to the fifth-best Blues, they’ve scored less goals and given up more. They gave up a four-time 30-goal scorer in Bobby Ryan in the offseason. And their No. 1 goalie has been outplayed by their backup to a greater degree than Halak has been by Brian Elliott.
The Ducks have made it work, though, making them one of the league’s best feel-good stories of the season and arguable dark-horse favorites despite leading the league in points.
Blues’ Advantage(s): While the Ducks are arguably the only team among the five listed to have a disadvantage in net (Halak actually has more playoff experience than Jonas Hiller), the Blues come out on top to a greater degree in regard to special teams.
The Ducks’ have been simply decent on the penalty kill with an 80.8 percent success rate (84.5 percent for the Blues) and downright mediocre with the man advantage (15 percent compared to 22 percent). All in all, it’s no exaggeration to say the Ducks’ special teams are a relative mess.
Beyond that, while special teams are usually handled by assistants, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Bruce Boudreau is the only head coach here without a Stanley Cup. That’s despite him having been behind the bench of some especially great Washington Capitals teams.
In fact, in his one Stanley Cup-winning season in 1999 with the Dallas Stars, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock won more rounds (four and 14 total) than Boudreau has in six seasons in the NHL (two).
Admittedly, that advantage can become irrelevant real quick were the Ducks to win it all this season. Boudreau, to his credit, has the Ducks on the right track toward that ultimate goal.
Ducks’ Advantage: While one does not want to overstate Teemu Selanne’s worth to the Ducks this season—he does only have four goals—or his impending retirement as a motivating factor, his experience is truly invaluable. In fact, the Ducks as a whole have much more experience than the Blues.
While Boudreau may not have one yet, the Ducks actually have five players with Stanley Cups rings (Francois Beauchemin, Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Penner, Corey Perry and Selanne), all earned during Anaheim’s 2006-07 championship season.
The Blues? They have none. And that goes for the franchise as well. However, that, as argued earlier, can change in a real hurry by the end of this season.