The 2014-2015 Outlook for the St. Louis Blues
He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of a vast blue demonstration.
- Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage
The St. Louis Blues finished the 2013-2014 season with the 3rd most standings points in the NHL. Not surprisingly, the Blues ranked highly in goals-for (7th best in the NHL), goals allowed (3rd best in the NHL), and puck possession (6th best Corsi-for % in the NHL). The Blues were rewarded for this success with a first-round playoff matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the few teams capable of stopping the Blues in their tracks.
A disappointing first-round playoff exit has Blues' fans hungry for the start of the 2014-2015 season. The addition of Paul Stastny as free agent pickup and the maturation of Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz lead many to believe that the Blues will once again be a dominant Western conference team. But a more thorough look at how the Blues ended up 7th in goals-for and 3rd in goals allowed might break the spirit of even the most optimistic fans.
Same Roster != Same Goals
If you take a look at the projected roster for the 2014-2015 St. Louis Blues, you won't find many changes from last season. And for a team that's earned the most wins in the Western Conference over the past three seasons, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For a team that scored 249 goals last season, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Right?
Let's take a closer look at how St. Louis arrived at this goal total. Below, you'll find scoring data for the Blues' scoring core from last season:
As a Blues' fan, or an owner of these players in fantasy hockey leagues, these numbers should make you a little nervous. Of the top-eight goal scorers for St. Louis in 2013-2014, five of them produced at shooting percentage (SH%) rates higher than their career averages (in some cases, significantly higher). You need only look at our weekly series Unsustainable to realize that higher-than-normal SH% values cannot be sustained over large amounts of time. This group of players above was responsible for 56% of the team's goal scoring last season (or 140 goals). And four of these players are likely to see their shooting rates decline in the coming season (Morrow would be the fifth, but he's no longer on the team).
An interesting experiment is to compute how many goals this same group would have scored had they played at levels that correspond to their natural talent levels (their career SH% values). It turns out, this group of skaters would have produced 111 goals instead of the 140 total you see above. That's a drop of nearly 30 goals in production.
But We Signed Paul Stastny!
The Blues made one of the biggest splashes in the off-season by signing coveted free agent Paul Stastny. Stastny gives St. Louis extra depth down the middle and brings with him a 25-goal season on the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-2014. And Blues' fans might point to the fact that Stastny potted those 25 goals in only 71 appearances last season as evidence that he can make up the missing 30 goals of production. But there is one huge problem with that idea: Stastny outpaced his career SH% by a wide margin last season. He scored 25 goals riding the back of a 16.7% shooting percentage, while his career number sits at 12.8%. Those 25 goals turn into 19 when adjusted to his career talent level.
You might believe that Stastny is the scoring hero to push the Blues through an extra playoff round or two, but don't let that cloud your overall judgment about this team. The smart money says the Blues are in for a drop in scoring production for the 2014-2015 season.
Brian Elliott and PKSV%
Only twice in Brian Elliott's career has he posted a save percentage (SV%) higher than .909 (league average is .9138). That one of these seasons happened to be 2013-2014 might give Blues' fans hope for his ability to lead this team after the loss (removal?) of Jaroslav Halak followed by Ryan Miller. But Elliott's .922 SV% from last season is a mirage, much like the .940 SV% he posted in 2011-2012. In Elliott's two seasons of above-average goaltending, he posted penalty kill save percentage (PKSV%) values of .921 (2013-2014) and .912 (2011-2012). The problem with these numbers is that PKSV% is a luck-driven number with a league average closer to .875. Having a high PKSV% in a particular season inflates a goalie's overall SV%, making him appear to be better than he really is. It has been shown that goalies with high PKSV% in one season are the most likely candidates for a significant drop the following season. That Brian Elliott has never posted a SV% above the league average without the help of PKSV% luck is a telling statement.
So how much impact does a lucky PKSV% have on a team's ability to suppress goals? In Brian Elliott's case for 2013-2014, his overall SV% would have been .916 (instead of .922) if his PKSV% were at the league average. So, with Elliott in net last season, the Blues earned an extra .006 SV% boost on pure luck alone. Elliott faced only 681 shots last season, so this amounted to about four less goals the team gave up due to PKSV% luck (just from Elliott's 25 starts). With Elliott set to take over as the starting goalie in St. Louis this season, combined with his expected regression, the Blues' rank as 3rd in the NHL for goals allowed is likely to be challenged.
The combined impact of SH% and PKSV% regression effects won't keep the St. Louis Blues out of the playoffs in 2014-2015, but it's likely that a spot in the top half of the Western Conference playoff standings is out of reach.