The Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will be facing each other in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and we at Hockey Wilderness will be previewing everything about these Central Division rivals. Go check out the piece on the forwards here.
The Blues have been a team that has usually been known for its prowess on the defensive side of the ice. Since Craig Berube became the head coach after the firing of Mike Yeo and the Stanley Cup run in 2019, he has implemented a system that has relied on defense and physical hockey to win games, but it’s one that doesn’t stifle much offensive production, which is far more important than many may realize.
Here is where the defense core currently sits in terms of lines according to Daily Faceoff:
Torey Krug—Colton Parayko
Nick Leddy—Justin Faulk
Niko Mikkola/Calle Rosen—Robert Bortuzzo
There are plenty of different styles at work in this six-man unit, but one thing is for sure: they can all play the body. Everyone remembers the big hit (some might consider a charge) by a helmetless Torey Krug against these same Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. Colton Parayko lumbers around the ice at an astounding 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds. Justin Faulk is smaller than that, but he does sit second on the team in hits with 149. Mikkola and Bortuzzo both sit in the top-five as well.
The defensive depth for the Blues is there, and at their best, they can play a stifling defensive game that wears down the opponents. At times this year, especially in front of a struggling Jordan Binnington, they have needed to.
If the Wild are going to win this series, they will need to match the physicality of the Blues, because they will make it a point of emphasis to lay the body on players like Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala every time they touch the ice. The Wild have a defense core that can also play some very physical hockey along with a strong two-way game too. Captain Jared Spurgeon has been one of the most underrated two-way defensemen in the league for quite some time, and despite his relatively short stature, he throws himself into plenty of altercations and battles along the wall. At first glance, these two defense cores may seem different in plenty of ways, but there are lots of similarities as well.
Who Has the Advantage?
One of the many things that can make a difference in a deep playoff run is the scoring from the backend. Lots of very good teams in recent memories have lost out on a chance at the next round because their defensive scoring wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been. The Blues and Wild appear pretty close in terms of scoring on the defensive end and even in total offense created. If we look at even strength offense goals above replacement (EVO) and expected even-strength offense goals above replacement (xEVO), Minnesota sits 4th and 7th respectively, while St. Louis is in 7th and 12th respectively.
Minnesota’s captain Spurgeon, who I touched on earlier, led Wild defensemen in points with 40 points in 65 games, while Faulk led the Blues with 47 points in 76 games. Expecting these two teams to have a defenseman score points like Roman Josi or Cale Makar is a high ask. Of course, nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it is unlikely considering the styles of hockey that they play. Krug follows up Faulk with 43 points in 64 games, with only 9 of them being goals.
The one defenseman that I am intrigued by, and one that Wild fans should watch out for, is Nick Leddy. Acquired by the Blues at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings, he has eight points in 20 games since joining the team, which is half of the points he had in 55 games in Detroit. He could be very impactful as the playoffs move along. Leddy had a tough year in Motown, and his expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is almost identical between the two teams, but his goals for percentage (GF%) is drastically different. In Detroit, he had 37.95 percent of the on-ice goals share, while in St. Louis he has earned 53.17 percent.
Leddy’s ability to move the puck around the zone to some of the Blues’ offensive powerhouses will be extremely vital to the team in the first round of the postseason, and it will be interesting to see how the Wild approach their defensive strategies to prevent Leddy and other strong puck-moving Blues defensemen like Faulk, Krug, and Parayko from walking all over them.
In terms of who wins this battle, it feels very even. Although the analytics lean in the favor of the Wild very slightly, the Blues defense is absolutely nothing to sleep on in the offensive aspect of the game.
St. Louis has almost always been considered a strong defensive team, but in recent years, Minnesota has come out as one of the best defensive teams in the entire NHL, especially by analytics, and their defensive core in these statistics has as well. In 2021-22, according to Evolving-Hockey’s even-strength defense goals above replacement (EVD) and expected even-strength defense goals above replacement (xEVD), the Wild are 4th and 2nd respectively, which is incredibly impressive. For the Blues, they sit in the 20’s in those stats, which is rather underwhelming.
Unlike the Blues, the Wild have one of the best defensive defensemen in the entire NHL. Brodin has been highly regarded in NHL circles in this area of the game, and it’s well-deserved praise. Without him, the Wild would be missing a massive piece on the backend, and he will be vital to the team’s success.
Parayko is the strongest defensive defenseman on the Blues, both literally and figuratively given his stature. His frame and ability to use his stick to block passing lanes are invaluable to the kind of defenseman he is. He is going to be the defenseman to watch from the Blues on this side of the ice.
As for the rest of the Blues, the defense is around average by the numbers. So, I’d have to give the edge to the Wild in this area.
The depth in a defensive core is a huge factor into winning the Stanley Cup, and if we look at both teams, it appears as if the Wild have the edge in defensive depth. The acquisition of Jake Middleton has been huge for the Wild’s success, and he has been an awesome piece that appears to be enjoying his time in the state of hockey. While the top-four defensemen for both teams feels about even, it’s the third pair that separates the two in some capacity.
One of Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski with Dmitry Kulikov ranks higher here than Mikkola or Rosen along with Bortuzzo, who aren’t bad by any stretch, but just aren’t as strong.
No matter which way this series goes at the end of the day, the defense will be a huge factor in both ends of the ice. The Wild appear to have the advantage in this part of the lineup, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Blues are exponentially worse. It’s always said that defense wins championships, and it could definitely win this series.