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Learning the Blues: Battle between elite and depth forwards

Let’s look at some forwards.

Minnesota Wild v St Louis Blues Photo by Joe Puetz/NHLI via Getty Images

Welcome to “Learning the Blues,” where we at Hockey Wilderness are going to go position-by-position to preview the upcoming first-round matchup between our Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.


The first thing that comes to mind when you talk about these two hockey clubs is their ability to score all the way down their forward lineup and still have some elite talent to top it all off that they had to sporadically depend on throughout the season. They are the luxury mansions built on top of a solid foundation.

Both teams have some of the best two-way forwards in the entire league, some very solid offensive contributors down in the bottom-six, some elite snipers that just happen to be Russian (or Swiss), and role players that are having career years. It is freaky just how similar these lineups will be — it’s just that the Blues have a little bit more name recognition and star power, compared to the Wild’s sudden presence of players like Ryan Hartman and Frederick Gaudreau coming out of nowhere and being top-six centers.

Let’s just take a look at the lines that St. Louis most likely will be rolling with in Game 1, if everyone returns from injuries, as Brayden Schenn and David Perron are currently out day-to-day.

Projected lines
Pavel Buchnevich—Robert Thomas—Vladimir Tarasenko
Brandon Saad—Ryan O’Reilly—David Perron
Ivan Barbashev—Brayden Schenn—Jordan Kyrou
Alexei Toropchenko—Tyler Bozak—Logan Brown/Nathan Walker

These lines could of course change before the first round begins, but looking at the combinations through the season and the current group head coach Craig Berube is running out there to finish the season, this is a sort-of-educated guess.

First, you have the Blues’ two young offensive threats in Thomas and Buchnevich, partnering with the immaculate sniping talent of Tarasenko. That line has seen the second-most time at 5-on-5, and with that time, scores 64 percent of the goals between them and the opposition and also have underlying metrics all above 50 percent. This is a dangerous line that just absolutely unloads numerous shots. They might not be great chances, but they will shoot from anywhere and with Tarasenko’s ability, they can live with getting into that zone just outside of the slot to get their chances from.

Next, the line manned by Ryan O’Reilly is essentially their own attempt at the GREEF Line. O’Reilly is obviously one of the best two-way centers in the game, but they are just not so reliant on being physical, which might prove to be their downfall in this first round. They can certainly score goals, but aren’t at the same level as their top line and have overall worse underlying metrics (still above 50 percent, but just barely). This line can slow the game down to their own pace, but it might be crucial for the Wild to match this one up against one of the high-tempo ones of their own. Honestly, you could see Big Dean-o just licking his lips to get Duhaime and his crew out there against these guys in the first try.

In the bottom-six, there is obviously a decrease in talent, but similarly to the Wild, they still have offensive threats sprinkled in with players that are just solid and can be reliable enough to put out there against anyone. It is eerie how similar these two lineups truly are.

But, having said that, all of this talent still led to the team giving up the majority of the possession and scoring chances to the opposition. They aren’t the Wild in the way that they can control the game, but they are in the sense that everyone is a scoring threat.

Let’s just get to it and see which forward group is better in some areas of the game.

Who Has the Advantage?

Scoring Goals

Man, these two teams sure know how to score goals. They are both among the best in getting that puck across the goal line and it will really just depend on who is hot or not. While the Wild have three of the top four individual goal scorers between the two clubs, the Blues have numbers five through eight in that ranking. It’s very much so a battle between being able to score goals from your depth forwards, or getting your stars enough opportunity to put the puck in the back of the net.

Obviously, Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala are two of the best finishers when comparing the two, but for some reason, having dudes like Ivan Barbashev scoring 26 goals this season, gives me a shiver down my spine.

On a strict comparison between the two teams when it comes to finishing, it is essentially the Pointing Spiderman meme.

via HockeyViz
via HockeyViz

Those are some big red blobs.

Both teams had similar amount of expected goals and both overperformed those expectations. Essentially forming a mirror of each other, the Blues like to get the puck to the left side of the ice, while the Wild go for the right — and it is no coincidence that those just so happen to be the primary positions of their two snipers. And even when Tarasenko is on the right side (compared to the left on the powerplay) you can see how farther away the shots come from the net, being safe in that mid-range that was mentioned earlier. The Wild don’t have any mid-range shooting; it is all right in front of the net, with a massive focus on getting chances in the middle of the zone or on that sneaky right zone where the shots come almost parallel to the mouth of the goal.

I honestly don’t know which side to take in this one. It all depends if the Wild’s top finishers can score, or if the Blues’ scoring depth takes charge. Can we call it a draw?

Playmaking

Similar to the goalscoring, the playmaking is fairly even with the unique attribute that the Wild have the two top assist-getters between the two teams — guess who, it is Kaprizov and Fiala again — but the Blues have some more players down the lineup that were able notch more than the other Minnesota skaters.

Playmaking in itself is a difficult characteristic to really just come out with a statement that one player is better at it than the other, since plays and scoring chances can be generating in hundreds of different ways with the same result. If we want to just go with the blanket statement of generating scoring chances is a good way to think about players making plays, then they are virtually even. At 5-on-5, Minnesota was able to register 27.95 scoring chances per hour, and St. Louis was directly behind them in the league standings in that category, with 27.88 scoring chances per hour.

The overall offense appears to be neck-and-neck. Both of these clubs have the capability of scoring goals through the lineup, with one being slightly more top-heavy than the other, and they’re able to get pucks on net in dangerous enough areas to register scoring chances at an average rate compared to the rest of the NHL. There is just no give between these two teams, and I hate to do this again but it is a draw. We have seen several highlights from players on both sides doing miraculous things with the puck, and maybe in the end the higher-end talent of someone like Kaprizov making plays out of nothing edges Minnesota over, but I want to be at least somewhat objective.

Defensive Forwards

While we can go all night and all day debating about the offense generated by these forward groups, there is at least one category where we can comfortably say that our favorite team has the advantage.

There is just no second-guessing when it comes to the defensive capabilities of the Wild’s forwards compared to those on the Blues. Yes, they have a Selke Trophy winner in O’Reilly, but Joel Eriksson Ek is from another freak planet and we all know that one only earns a Selke if they balance that out with a career year in points.

Even if we wanted to solely take into account the sheer defensive dominance of our favorite line to talk about — Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, and Jordan Greenway — those three players can out-work and defend just about any star to finishing their game with zero points. It is a unique combination of size, physicality, and being able to sustain pressure in the offensive zone that has kept the puck out of the Wild’s net while they are on the ice.

If you want some numbers, well here you go. When comparing forwards’ expected goals against rate — essentially remarking the likelihood of a goal against while they are on the ice — that have played at least 300 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, the Wild have 12 of the top 13 forwards. Those are some low expected goals rates. Essentially, they have a full lineup of forwards that have been proven to be better defensively this season. Only Nathan Walker is among the bunch and he might not even be in the lineup this series. It’s the Wild by a large margin.

Considering that these two forward groups are evenly matched in offense, but the Wild have the substantial upper hand in defense, I would take that all day.

This is going to be a stressful series, but at least we can depend on Minnesota playing their game right and getting the puck to bounce their way.