New Year’s Day doesn’t feel that long ago, but for the St. Louis Blues, Jan. 1 is in the distant past. When the calendar turned to January, the Blues were at the bottom of the standings in the entire NHL. Now, just over 40 days later, they have clawed back to the first wild-card spot, and are just two points behind the Dallas Stars for third in the Central Division.
That is a dramatic turnaround to occur in a month and a half, and a number of different factors have brought it about. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest factors in the Blues’ 2018-19 resurgence:
Jordan Binnington Buoys the Blues
The single most obvious factor in the Blues’ turnaround is goaltender Jordan Binnington. He began the season as a backup netminder in the AHL, low in the organization’s esteem despite fairly strong numbers throughout his career. In just over a month, since making his first NHL start on Jan. 7, he has cemented himself as a starting goaltender at the NHL level.
Binnington roared onto the scene with a shutout in his debut against the Philadelphia Flyers. On the whole, he is 9-1-1, with a .931 save percentage and a 1.72 goals against average. He took home the first star of the week honors in the league this week, after having been named the second star a few weeks ago. That’s a pair of impressive accomplishments in just a month-long career.
Binnington’s play in net has been stellar. He’s allowed two goals or fewer in all but one of his starts. It is not by chance that his debut in December coincided with the Blues’ reawakening, as he has arguably been the single-biggest factor in that. But he hasn’t been the only factor.
Vladimir Tarasenko’s Turnaround
We recently published an article declaring that Vladimir Tarasenko is back. There, we went into great detail about the turnaround in the superstar’s season: from being enmeshed in trade rumors in November to scoring his first hat trick in over two years against the Nashville Predators on Sunday. The starkest contrast was Tarasenko’s horrible December compared with his incredible January and February.
Visualizing the recent surge of the Blues is actually crazy pic.twitter.com/PHG3FF3crP
— Josh Hyman (@joshhymanNHL) February 11, 2019
What’s shocking is how vividly Tarasenko’s turnaround coincides with the Blues’ resurgence. In the above graph, the team’s expected goal (xGoals) differential switches from negative, where it had been mired the entire season, to positive on Dec. 31, the last game of Tarasenko’s awful month. As the star winger improved, so did the team.
Doubtlessly, the Russian isn’t the only player whose performance improved around that time, but the relationship is hard to dispute. Tarsaenko is the team’s superstar, so it is no surprise that he’s integral to the Blues’ success, but to see the correlation charted so vividly is still significant. The chart reveals another critical piece of the Blues’ turnaround as well.
Jaden Schwartz Stirs the Drink
There is another significant relationship between the chart and a particular player. The turnaround on the chart beings in early December. On Dec. 11, Jaden Schwartz returned to the lineup after missing most of the last month with an injury. From that point on the graph, the Blues’ season makes a complete turn and begins to go in a positive direction.
Fans who have followed the Blues carefully may object to this conclusion, as Schwartz is on a legendary cold streak as a goal scorer (his last goal was scored on Dec. 18, shortly after his return). But his goal numbers don’t tell the entire story. Schwartz’s advanced stats and analytics suggest that he is doing as well (or better) in almost every category but shooting percentage.
Schwartz has often been described as the motor that drives the Blues forward, the straw that stirs the drink. He is an extremely underrated player who creates for his teammates and gives full effort on every shift. Though his contributions may not always appear on the statsheet, it’s hard to deny the connection between his return to the lineup and the Blues’ improved play.
A Whole New Blues
There are countless other factors that may play a role in the turnaround, some we cannot know. Jay Bouwmeester’s play has been a change from night to day since the early months of the season. Colton Parayko has seemingly matured into the complete defender he was expected to be. Rookie forward Robert Thomas has returned from a brief injury as strong as ever, and is continuing to mature as a player. And, of course, Ryan O’Reilly’s play has been stellar, but that’s been true all season.
We would be remiss to not recognize the role interim head coach Craig Berube must have played in this transformation. It took a while (judging by the above chart, Mike Yeo’s firing on Nov. 19 fell at roughly the lowest point on the chart), but the team is headed in an entirely different direction now. It’s uncertain whether they can continue this trend the entire season or not, but for the time being, the Blues are a serious threat in the Western Conference.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.