How Blues have kept winning without Tarasenko

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When we last checked in with the St. Louis Blues a few weeks ago the defending champs were off to a sluggishly inconsistent start and then got the one piece of news they absolutely did not need — Vladimir Tarasenko, their most impactful player and biggest star, was going to be sidelined for the next five months. It was a disappointing start to their title defense, and it seemed like it could have at least had the potential to put them in another early hole in the Western Conference they would have to dig out of.

Instead, the opposite has happened. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes riding a seven-game winning streak and have climbed back to the top of the West standings, owning what is by far the best points percentage (.750) in the conference.

Considering the injury situation it is an impressive run and quick turnaround. How have they managed to stay so hot, and can they keep it rolling? It is a nice run of success, but there are definitely some red flags that come along with it.

The power play and overtime domination has carried the offense

Two things stand out about the Blues’ current winning streak. The first is that five of those wins have come in overtime, with two of those overtime goals being scored on power play opportunities.

Somewhat related to that is the fact the power play itself is clicking at a 29.6% rate over the past eight games, the second best success rate in the NHL during that stretch. All of that is making up for the fact that the Blues have scored just 12 goals during 5-on-5 play and have one of the worst scoring rates in the league at even-strength (more on this below).

This should be a concern because you can only rely on your power play to carry you for so long, and you’re not always going to get that sort of opportunity in overtime. Overtime itself can be a huge coin flip due to the unpredictable nature of the 3-on-3 situation. Sometimes you will get the bear, and sometimes the bear will get you (this five-game OT winning streak came after losing three OT/SO games in a row earlier in the year).

Jordan Binnington has gone on a roll

This is probably the biggest part of the Blues’ recent run. Binnington has won each of his past five starts and has a .930 save percentage in the six games since Tarasenko went out of the lineup. He was one of the players off to a slow start at the beginning of the year and his recent turnaround has resulted in him putting the team on his back and carrying it.

(We should also acknowledge that Jake Allen has also contributed, winning two games during the winning streak with a very respectable .914 save percentage).

Binnington’s play has been so important because the Blues are not controlling shot attempts and scoring chances like they did a year ago. Even during this recent winning streak (since Oct. 25) the Blues are among the worst teams in total shot attempt differential (28th), scoring chance differential (28th), high-danger scoring chance differential (30th), and expected goal differential (30th). It is a small sampling, yes, but it is also a dramatic fall from where they were a year ago after the coaching change when they were one of the best teams in all of those categories. (All via Natural Stat Trick)

Something to keep in mind: Even though their defensive play isn’t quite as good as it was in the second half and in the playoffs, a lot of their struggles in these differentials have to do with what they are not creating offensively as opposed to what they are giving up. Across the board they have been the worst 5-on-5 team in the league when it comes to generating shots, chances, high-danger chances, and yes, even goals. This is an example of where they are really missing an impact player like Tarasenko, and it really puts a ton of pressure on the goalies to have no margin for error because one or two goals could be too much to overcome.

The results are good, the process is concerning

This is really what it comes down to.

The Blues are winning games right now, yes, but the process behind those wins is concerning when it comes to their long-term outlook. These points they have collected over the past two weeks are important, and they have definitely built themselves a nice cushion in the playoff race, but if they keep playing this way the wins may not be as frequent as they currently are.

At times last year the Blues looked like a team that was doing everything right with the way it played and just needed to fix its goaltending  to get on the right track. They do not have that same feel right now.

If they want to keep getting the same results this year something is going to have to change in their process to generate more offense at even-strength, and that might require a trade to help replace what they are missing with Tarasenko.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.