Players are almost always going to be overly optimistic about their teams’ chances of digging out of a hole and earning a playoff spot, but when everyone gets together for All-Star game weekend, you’re likely to see even more glass-half-full talk.
So, yes, you can take Ryan O'Reilly‘s positive St. Louis Blues vibes with a grain of salt.
“We haven’t been perfect, but we are starting to get back into this fight and I am confident that we are going to play in the playoffs because of the way we work,” O’Reilly said on Thursday, via NHL.com’s Shawn P. Roarke.
Take a look at the crowded Western Conference bubble races and you can see some reasons for optimism, but also the considerable hurdles the Blues must clear.
That’s quite the motley group of contestants, right?
So, do the Blues really have a chance? Let’s consider some of the factors involved.
- The projection models give them mixed results.
Interestingly, the Blues have better than 50-percent odds at Money Puck (52.93-percent) and Corsica (57.5), but are at just 24 percent according to projections from Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic (sub required). One would guess that some of the models are especially kind to the Blues for being a top-10 possession team in many of the major measures like Corsi For and Fenwick For, as you can see at Natural Stat Trick.
- In a league (and wild-card races) with this much parity, the Blues split of remaining home/away games provides some concern.
The Blues have played in 27 home games already, the most of any NHL team, which leaves them with 14 remaining. Meanwhile, they’ve played on the road 22 times, so they’ll play 19 of their final 33 games on the road. So far in 2018-19, they’ve actually been more effective on the road (10-9-3) than at home (12-13-2), so maybe that won’t be such a bad thing?
(I’d still generally want five more home games than five on the road, though.)
Being at 49 games played means that they either have a game or two in hand on their rivals, or the same number of contests remaining, so that diffuses some of that home/road pessimism.
- How will their goaltending shake out for the rest of this season?
Jordan Binnington has been fantastic so far, posting a .924 save percentage in nine games, but his track record is sparse. He had only played in one NHL game before this season. If it all goes back to Jake Allen, will he be able to break recent trends and come through for the Blues?
One area of comfort is that, while Binnington’s doesn’t have much of an NHL resume, he’s performed nicely in the AHL over the past few years. Obviously, you’ll face a different caliber of shooters at the highest level, but success in the AHL and ECHL sure beat getting lit up or just being average in those leagues.
- There are some reasons to believe that the Blues will continue to play better than they were performing when Mike Yeo got fired.
The acquisition of ROR was exciting because it felt like it could bring the Blues to another level because they already had some nice talent. Unfortunately, that talent hasn’t always come through for St. Louis – because of injuries, inconsistent play, or both – leaving ROR to be one of the few bright spots during the darkest moments.
But, again, there’s some intriguing talent that at least allows the Blues to theoretically have more than just a strong first line.
Vladimir Tarasenko‘s getting back on track, and it seems like Jaden Schwartz might be healthy, rounding out the top line (or at least the high-end portion) of the team with ROR. David Perron and Brayden Schenn give some supporting cast pop, while things may also get better for Patrick Maroon and Alex Steen. Combine some nice assets at forward with some decent defensemen (particularly Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo), and this team becomes increasingly formidable on paper.
- Sell or stand pat?
In recent seasons, Blues GM Doug Armstrong has elected to punt during fork-in-the-road trade deadline moments. He gained assets for Kevin Shattenkirk, and did the same with Paul Stastny.
Armstrong will need to make similar, tough calls this time around. Pietrangelo’s been a frequent trade rumor magnet, and you’d think that contenders would give up considerable assets to land such a strong right-handed defenseman, particularly since he’s cost-controlled through 2019-20 at a $6.5 million cap hit. Schenn’s deal also extends through next season ($5.125M) so a would-be buyer would be getting a “rental” for two potential playoff runs.
Of course, the flip side is that Armstrong could survey his roster and determine that the smarter move is to go for it in both 2018-19, and maybe especially next season.
The West’s bubble races are sort of an Island of Misfit Toys. The Oilers are in crisis, the Coyotes are unpredictable, the Ducks are struggling, the Avs are fading, and the Stars are getting buried by their own management. For all we know, the Blues may simply end up standing simply by making fewer mistakes. They could also plummet to the depths of the West cellar. It’s tough to tell, and it’s not surprising that their projections are all over the place.
But, yeah, at least O’Reilly isn’t totally out of sync with reality when he says that the Blues have a shot at making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.