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Series Preview: Blues Defensemen

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These are some large fellows.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Blues have a large, physical group of defensemen that the Predators will have to deal with in this upcoming series. And when I say large, I mean LARGE.

Look at how their blue-line compares with the Preds, in terms of size:

Average height: 6’ 4”

Average weight: 211

The Preds’ largest defender, Mattias Ekholm, would barely make it into the top 5 largest Blues defenders. It’s no wonder the Blues waived Brad Hunt earlier in the year. they probably thought he was a winger.

The Top Pairing

Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are the clear top pairing for the Blues. They’ve both averaged over 22 minutes ice-time per game, which is what you want from your top defensemen. Since the Blues acquired Bouwmeester in 2013, these two have developed rock-solid chemistry over the past few seasons. They provide a very solid defensive front while also chipping in on offense. As far as top pairs goes, they are one of the best.

Between the two, Pietrangelo is the better overall player and also had a more productive season. He scored 14 goals, which is a career high, to go with 34 assists. His 48 points ranked 12th most among NHL defensemen. He skated just over 25 minutes a game, good for 8th most among defensemen. Think of Pietrangelo as the Blues’ Roman Josi. Reliable, skilled, smart, great offensively and defensively, and a leader on the team. He’s also the assumed point man on the power play, now that Shattenkirk is gone.

As a partner, Bouwmeester works well with Pietrangelo. More of a “stay-at-home” defenseman, Bouwmeester does most of his work in the defensive end, limiting opposing shooters. He’s not world-class at it or anything, but he’s good. He also won’t do much offensively. Instead, he uses his 6’4”, 220 pound frame to push forwards around and then shoot passes over to his defense partner for a zone exit.

The only weakness with this top pairing is speed. Pietrangelo isn’t slow, but he’s not Subban or Josi. Bouwmeester is slow. If the Preds can catch these two up in the offensive zone, they will have some chances to counter with speed.

The Next Two

Colton Parayko is one of the best young defensemen in the game despite his disappointing sophomore season. He managed to surpass his rookie season in points with 35, but only putting up four goals had to be frustrating for Parayko. He boasts a wicked hard slap shot, but needs to get his aim back—he shot only 2.1% this year, a significant drop from his 5.5% mark his rookie year.

Being 6’6” and 225 pounds is an advantage for sure, but he also moves well and can handle the puck with surprising grace. In fact, Parayko had the best puck possession numbers among regular Blues defensemen not named Kevin Shattenkirk (more on him later). His 50.8% Corsi-For percentage at even strength was better than Edmundson, Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Gunnarson.

I’ll get into Parayko’s partner Joel Edmundson a bit later on, but since the Shattenkirk deal, these two have slotted into the second defense pairing and played very well.

Power Play Help

As I mentioned in Saturday’s look ahead, the Blues finished the regular season with the 9th ranked power play in the league, but they have recently struggled. They finished the regular season going 4-for-32 in their last few games and, of course, they traded their top power play blueliner to the Capitals. They did manage to go 3-for-18 on the man advantage against the Wild, with two of those goals coming in Game 5 on Saturday.

The Blues power play is very different than we are used to. Gone is T.J. Oshie, gone is David Backes, gone is Troy Brouwer, gone is Kevin Shattenkirk. Instead, the Blues tend to rely on a gang of defenders and Vladimir Tarasenko to put the puck in the net.

Whereas the Blues used to have Shattenkirk on the point and guys like Backes in the crease, now they rely on a number of different shooters coming at different angles. For example, here’s where the majority of their blue-line shots come from on the power play (courtesy of HockeyViz):

All over the place! Pietrangelo is the main trigger man, but Parayko loves to crank home slap-shots from that left side. Also, notice how much closer to the net they are. These guys really like to creep up into the zone on the power play, giving goalies less time to react to shots and deflections.

It’s odd, but I almost think the Blues power play has improved since the Shattenkirk trade. Its much less predictable, they have more options, and they don’t try to funnel everything through one or two players. They still have folks in front of the net, like David Perron, Paul Stastny, and Patrik Berglund, but they don’t just rely on that as a way to score. They have a nice mix of shooting, passing, and net presence that makes a power play dangerous. And it starts with the blue-line.

Selling Shattenkirk

It’s not usual for a team to trade one of its best blue-liners in the middle of the season and then improve at the defense position. But that’s exactly what happened in St. Louis. The Blues traded pending unrestricted free agent Kevin Shattenkirk on February 27th to the Capitals amid rampant speculation that he would be dealt by the trade deadline. Contract talks with Shattenkirk were going nowhere, the Blues were barely in contention for a playoff spot, and the Capitals were in “win now” mode. And a deal was struck. The Blues buying Zach Sanford, looking to the future, and the Capitals getting a puck-moving defenseman that can shore up their defense.

But not so fast, my friend.

After they traded Shattenkirk, the Blues took off like a rocket. Fueled by a red-hot Jake Allen and some healthier forwards, the Blues went 15-4-2 in 21 games after the trade. While a lot of that was due to factors other than the blue-line, you can’t ignore the fact that the Blues defense corps seemed to gel once Shattenkirk left. That and the play of Joel Edmundson improved.

Stepping in for Shattenkirk, Edmundson saw his ice-time and role increase significantly.

He tends to play higher up in the zone, which can get him burned from time to time, and he allows a team high 56.9 shot attempts per sixty minutes (among regular starters), but he does a good job pinning opponents into their own zone and cycling the puck around to other guys who can score.

The Shattenkirk trade was an inevitable end to a long contract dispute, but it looks like the Blues managed to make the best of a bad situation.

The Matchup: Speed vs. Size

The Blues have the size, the Preds have the speed. It is sometimes hard to predict which of these two skill-sets will win out in the long run, but we know that in the short run, speed can beat size.

We’ve seen it up close.

That’s fan favorite Viktor Arvidsson dancing around Bouwmeester like a Fiat circling a traffic cone.

The great news is that Arvy is not the only forward that can bring the speed. Pontus Aberg, Kevin Fiala, Harry Zolnierczyk and Craig Smith (if he plays) all have speed to burn. Colin Wilson, James Neal, and Filip Forsberg aren’t slow either. Combine that speed with well-placed passes from Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi, and P.K. Subban, and there should be some room to work in the offensive end.