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How the Blues overcame a rash of injuries

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Every season, all NHL teams have to overcome adversity. Some lose players to injury, some go through coaching changes, others might hit a long losing streak along the way. Certain organizations crumble when they face difficult times, but there are others that find a way to weather the storm that comes their way.

In 2017-18, the St. Louis Blues have shown the hockey world that they haven’t just overcome adversity, they’ve thrived in it.

The Blues suffered a number of key injuries early on. They lost Robby Fabbri (torn ACL) for the season, Patrik Berglund missed all of October and most of November because of  shoulder issue, Alex Steen missed the first six games of the season because of a hand injury he suffered in the preseason, and Jay Bouwmeester missed a lot of time because of an ankle injury he picked up in training camp.

“I think we did it last year too,” head coach Mike Yeo said of overcoming injuries. “That’s something that’s a quality with this group. They don’t accept excuses. Obviously, losing players like we did heading into training camp- we lost four players that we figured would probably fit into our top nine. And then losing Jay Bouwmeester on the back end too. We weren’t going to allow excuses to dictate how things were going to go for us. So I think we stepped up to that challenge. With that, we also knew that we were going to have to dig in. We started with a lot of games on the road against tough teams, so it really forced us to get to our team game very quickly. And then, when you do that, you build some confidence in it and then we just built from there.”

That’s a lot of important losses to overcome. Not only have they done that, the Blues have been more than competitive in the difficult Central Division. Heading into tonight’s action, the Blues are tied for second in the division with 38 points and 16 regulation/overtime wins (the Jets have the same amount). They trail Nashville by just a single point.

[More: The Blues are starting to get healthy]

So, how have the Blues managed to stay on track?

Star Power:

There’s no denying that certain players have carried them this season. Brayden Schenn has proven to be an incredible draft-day trade acquisition. The fact that they were able to land him from the Flyers at a very reasonable cost proved to be a game-changer for St. Louis. Through 28 games, Schenn has picked up 13 goals and 33 points.

On top of having Schenn, the Blues have also benefited from having young veterans like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Taranko. Although Schenn, Schwartz (34 points) and Tarasenko (29 points) aren’t playing on the same line anymore, all three players have come up huge for their team.

“I’ve played pretty much since day one of the season with (Schwartz) and I just feel like he’s an easy guy to play with,” Schenn told PHT before Tuesday’s game against Montreal. “He works hard, he’s good at both ends of the ice, he sees the ice (well), he uses his linemates and teammates, and he’s a great guy in the locker room. He’s a lot fun to play with. And then, whoever is on the other side, whether it’s (Tarasenko) or (Steen), we’ve had a few guys, it’s been fun.”

The star power doesn’t end up front with St. Louis. Alex Pietrangelo has been a monster on the back end for them, as he contributes offensively while playing hard minutes on a nightly basis. The 28-year-old has been mentioned in the Norris Trophy conversation because he already has 21 points in 28 games. He also averages almost 26 minutes of ice time per game.

Depth on D:

Sure, Pietrangelo is the best defenseman on the roster, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other quality blue liners on the team. St. Louis is loaded at the back, as they also have Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, Vince Dunn, Carl Gunnarsson, Roberto Bortuzzo and Jay Bouwmeester.

Unlike the Buffalo Sabres, the Blues have received plenty of contribution from their defense. Of the 92 goals they’ve scored this season (tied for sixth), 21 have come from their blue line.

The NHL is a league that’s become about skating, making quick decisions and moving the puck efficiently, and the group of defensemen the Blues have is certainly capable of accomplishing all of that.

Style of Play:

Yeo has the Blues playing the perfect style for the roster they’ve built. They’re constructed like a typical Western Conference power. They’re big, they can move and are a team that can make life difficult for the opposition with the way they forecheck and limit time and space.

Building a team like that isn’t easy. That’s why general manager Doug Armstrong is close to landing a contract extension. Unfortunately for the Blues, the fact that they waited this long to extend Armstrong might cost them.

They aren’t the perfect team (they don’t exist in a cap world). They could still probably use another forward or two that can contribute offensively, but it looks like they can take a punch and they can dish out a few too. That should help come the spring.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Fantasy adds & drops: Dustin Brown is slowing down

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Every week, PHT will provide its readers with some fantasy hockey advice. This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through your league’s waiver wire by recommending players that are owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

We’ll also look at players owned in most leagues that can safely be dropped.

Adds:

• Here’s your weekly reminder that Mathew Barzal (41 percent) and Mikko Rantanen (42 percent) need to be added off the waiver wire. After last week’s article, Brock Boeser‘s fantasy ownership jumped to 68 percent. It’s now time for these two players to be picked up.

• Blues forward Alex Steen (46 percent) has missed time due to injury, but he’s been relatively productive of late. He has six points in his last six games, and he’s eligible to play all three forward positions in Yahoo! leagues. Steen is a solid add in deeper leagues.

• It’s not often that you’ll find an Arizona Coyote on this list, but here we are. Even though he hasn’t scored in five games, Derek Stepan (28 percent) is riding a six-game point streak. He’s a decent short-term add in most leagues. Don’t expect him to produce at a high clip all season though.

[More Fantasy: Check out RotoWorld’s PP Report]

• With Marc-Andre Fleury still sidelined by a concussion, the Golden Knights will clearly be rolling with Malcolm Subban (34 percent) now that he’s healthy. Solid fantasy goaltenders aren’t easy to come by, and if Vegas keeps winning that’s exactly what Subban will be.

• Don’t look now, but Artemi Anisimov (28 percent) is on pace to score close to 40 goals this season (I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen though). Still, the fact that he’s playing with Patrick Kane should help boost his fantasy value.

• After missing most of last season because of a hip issue, Tyler Myers (19 percent) has bounced back nicely for the Winnipeg. He had just one point in his first nine games, but he’s now on pace to score over 10 goals and 40 points.

[Fantasy Podcast: RotoWorld hands out quarter mark awards]

Drops:

• Kings forward Dustin Brown was one of the pleasant surprises early on. It would’ve been nice to see him continue producing as much as he did early on, but it just wasn’t realistic. It might still be a little too early to drop him, but just start thinking about it. He has one goal in his last seven games and two points in his last six.

• Scoring defensemen are hard to come by, but you can definitely find someone more productive than Brent Seabrook (65 percent), who has two assists in his last 13 games. It’s time to drop Seabrook for Myers.

• Another weekly reminder: If you’re still carrying Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic in non-penalty leagues, you’re doing it all wrong (yes, I know Lucic has four points in five games).

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

How many goals will Nikita Kucherov score this season?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning continued to roll on Thursday night with a dominating 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Leading the way was Nikita Kucherov with another three-point effort including his league-leading 16th goal of the season. He enters play on Friday with a three-goal lead over Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the NHL and is of to one of the best starts to a season (at least as far as goal-scoring is concerned) in recent league history.

After scoring a career-high 40 goals a year ago (in only 74 games) he looks like he is destined to shatter that number this season, barring injury.

So what is his ceiling or goals this season? 45? 50? Maybe even 60?

Keep in mind this is an era where the 50-goal scorer is nearly extinct. Over the past 10 seasons only nine different players have scored at least 50 goals in a season. Only three have hit that mark since the start of the 2011-12 season. But we also haven’t really seen a player storm out of the gates quite like this. Not even Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of this generation and one of the best to ever play in the NHL, has started a season with this many goals this far in.

According to the Hockey-Reference database, Kucherov is just the 20th player since the start of the 1987-88 season to score at least 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games of a season.

He is just the fourth player to do it since 1996. Two of the other three were Daniel Alfredsson and Simon Gagne during the 2005-06 season, the one year in the past two decades when goal-scoring across the league saw a significant spike, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Alex Steen.

The rest of the players all did it during the run-and-gun late 1980s and early 1990s.

When looking at the list of previous players to score 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games all but one went on to score at least 30 goals. The one player that didn’t was Chris Kontos, finishing the 1992-93 season with 27.

Steen was the only other player on the list to not score at least 40, having scored 33 goals in 68 games.

That would have been a 39-goal pace over 82 games.

Twelve of them went on to score at least 50 goals, including some video game type numbers from the likes of Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nicholls in the late 80s and early 90s.

What stands out the most about Kucherov’s start, aside from the fact he is doing it in 2017-18 when players simply do not score goals like this, is the fact that he has one of the lowest shooting percentages (23.8) out of that group during the opening 17-game stretch. That number is a bit of a spike from his career average (15 percent) but it is still 17th in the league right now. So it’s not like it is all a luck driven run of success.

Along with a spike in shooting percentage Kucherov is also generating shots on goal at what would be a career-high rate, averaging 3.94 per game.

If he maintains a 23 percent shooting percentage the rest of the way he would score an additional 58 goals on top of what he has already scored. That is … probably not realistic, but is it entirely impossible? Over the past 10 years there have been four players (Brad Boyes, Loui Eriksson, Jason Spezza, Mark Scheifele) that have recorded at least 150 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage higher than 23 percent.

At some point though that shooting percentage is going to drop down because, well, almost nobody is superhuman enough in today’s NHL to score that many goals with that sort of shot volume.

If he maintains a similar shot volume right over the remaining 65 games and simply shot at his normal career average (15 percent) that would still give him another 40 goals on top of what he has already scored this season. That would give him 57 goals, which would be the highest total in the NHL since Steven Stamkos scored 60 during the 2011-12 season.

If he only shot at 10 percent over the next 65 games (keep in mind the only time Kucherov shot lower than 14 percent in a season was his rookie season when he only appeared in 52 games) that would still be an additional 25 goals and give him 42 on the season. That total would have placed him second in the NHL a season ago, only two behind Sidney Crosby.

In other words, what we are looking at here with Kucherov this season is the potential for what could be one of the best goal-scoring seasons in recent NHL history.

Whether or not he can remain that sort of absurd pace over the next few months remains to be seen, but even if we see a slight regression he should still be in the driver’s seat to win his first goal-scoring crown, assuming he is able to stay healthy.

The Lightning look like the best team in the NHL right now and with Kucherov and Stamkos racking up points the way they are they have the two best offensive players in the league at the moment as well.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues defy big odds to rank among NHL’s best

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After an absolutely maddening run of injuries before the season even began, there was some concern that the St. Louis Blues would miss the playoffs. Instead, they’re in a position to run away with the Central Division with November about to begin.

You can forgive the Blues for setting their sights higher than that, too, even after all those false alarms about “this being the year,” to some extent stretching back to the days of Al MacInnis’ booming shot and Steve Yzerman-administered heartbreak.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning with matching 10-2-1 records as the top teams in the NHL (and, thus, the top seeds in their conferences). They ended October with quite the win, too, topping the Pacific-leading, also-resurgent Los Angeles Kings.

Really, the Blues’ successes might be more impressive than that of the Lightning and Kings. While everything seems to be going right for the Lightning after an injury-ravaged 2016-17 campaign, St. Louis’ black-and-blue status makes its run of victories seem that much more impressive.

Alex Steen missed a big chunk of October. Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains murky, and Patrik Berglund hasn’t returned yet. Robby Fabbri‘s season-ending knee issues deprived the Blues of a fascinating young forward. Zach Sanford lost a chance to move up the ranks and prove himself.

With all of that, the Blues are 10-2-1, but are especially hot lately: four wins in a row and a 6-0-1 points streak.

That’s pretty fantastic, and might only be an under-the-radar story because of how well-built this franchise is thanks to GM Doug Armstrong. He doesn’t get many mentions among the game’s brightest minds, yet Armstrong looks pretty shrewd as of this moment.

Let’s ponder what is going right for the Blues, and maybe also consider a few elements that make this run even more impressive.

  • The season began with a hot power play, but they’ve learned to adjust as it cooled off.

To start 2017-18, the Blues scored a single power-play goal in five straight games. That man-advantage dominance hasn’t sustained, however, as St. Louis has only generated PPGs in one of their last eight contests (2-for-3 against Calgary on Oct. 25).

  • Critics can’t just dismiss the Blues as having a cushy schedule. So far, they’ve played eight of 13 games on the road. They’ve also faced three back-to-back sets, so if anything their success should have tapered off.
  • As disruptive as those injuries must have been, this is Mike Yeo’s first real season running the Blues.

After all, Yeo was an assistant-turned-interim head coach last season. This time around, Yeo had the opportunity to implement his systems and really cement his philosophies in training camp. Perhaps that makes some difference in how the Blues are approaching each game?

  • Jaden Schwartz has been healthy, and Jaden Schwartz has been a force. With 17 points in his first 13 games, Schwartz leads St. Louis in scoring, enjoying a hotter start than star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (14 points). Now, with a 25 percent shooting rate, Schwartz is bound to slow down a bit. The Blues would settle for him regressing if he can flirt with a healthy season.

  • Alex Pietrangelo is quietly amassing a pretty compelling Norris Trophy argument. He’s already a sneaky-fantastic, all-purpose defenseman.
  • Some hit-or-miss supporting cast members are belting our homers like Yasiel Puig. Paul Stastny is nailing his contract year so far, including 11 points in 13 contests. Brayden Schenn‘s been a great fit after the trade.
  • The biggest factor is probably the goaltending, which seems to be carrying over the momentum from last season’s turnaround once Yeo took over. Jake Allen continues to look like a legitimate number one guy, while Carter Hutton managed a .950 save percentage in his three appearances.
  • That said, there are the red flags you’d expect from a team wildly exceeding expectations. The Allen-Hutton tandem combined for the best save percentage in the NHL, and that .9475 mark at even strength will slip even if they’re outstanding all season. Other stats over at Natural Stat Trick look fishy, with their third-best PDO signaling that the party might stop or at least slow down.

Of course, the Blues can sidestep some of the plummeting one might expect from the rigors of the season by getting back some key players.

They’ll likely face challenges in their schedule, in the standings, and on the scoreboard to pair with injury headaches, as just about every NHL team hits cold streaks. They still deserve credit for a strong October, all things considered, and their reward is more than just pride: St. Louis currently leads the Central Division by seven points.

Not bad for a team that seemed like an ailing afterthought heading into the season.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Steen’s 4-point night powers Blues; Bob shines vs. Sabres

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Player of the Night: Alex Steen, St. Louis Blues

While taking care of the Calgary Flames, Steen had a hand in four of the five Blues goals in their 5-2 victory. He evened the score with his first of the season late in the opening period, assisted on power play goals from Jaden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo and then set up Paul Stastny’s tally.

Highlight of the Night:

— More like a lowlight. Jake Allen is going to want a second crack at this one.

MISC:

— Pietrangelo’s goal was a snipe:

— St. Louis has received 12 goals from their defense through 10 games.

— Thirteen Columbus Blue Jackets players recorded a point in their 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

— The Blue Jackets tallied three goals in a period for the fourth time this season.

Seth Griffith ruined Bobrovsky’s shutout bid late in the third with his first goal since Dec. 29, 2014.

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:

St. Louis 5, Calgary 2
Columbus 5, Buffalo 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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