(AP Photo/Kyle Ericson) – Perron, (Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images) – O’Reilly, (Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images) – Bozak
Here we go, it’s officially August and the new season is officially on. Most of us Blues fans were expecting the big blockbuster moves to be made this year at the draft, but we sat through a relatively quiet draft night. Then one week later, we got our blockbuster move the opening day of free agency. The team we went to bed with on June 30th and the team we woke up with on July 2nd are night and day. First, they re-signed free agent Winger and former Blue, David Perron, then they added free agent Center Tyler Bozak from Toronto. Then, just as we were all wondering if they were done, Doug pulled off a late evening blockbuster, trading for Center Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo while offloading most of our dead weight, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and giving up prospect Tage Thompson, in the process. As the sun came up on July 2nd, the Blues had an almost totally remade roster, which promises new looks at the top 2 lines and opened up a couple of spaces for the wave of young talent that is fighting its way through the pipeline. Finally, the Blues finished a whirlwind free agency by adding St. Louis native Patrick Maroon, to what was already a stacked lineup. The Blues also added a couple of fourth line depth guys and a new backup goalie, but this article is about the top lines and they simply won’t play a part in those lines.
The point of this article is to take a look at those four new players and how they fit into the Blues system. A few months back I wrote an article called “The Perfect Line” where I examined what the perfect hockey line is using the incredibly successful example of the Schwartz/Schenn/Tarasenko line. If you haven’t read that article, please take a few minutes and read it. It’s a pretty good read, although I’m probably a little biased on that. In that article, I identified six traits that every good line needs, in order to be successful, and they are: Faceoff Winner, Skater, Sniper, Puck Hound, Playmaker and Grit. For each of the new guys, I’m going to take a look at which of those roles they fill and how they would fit in with our current guys, as well as suggesting a couple of line combinations that the Blues might look at using, either at the start of the season or as the year goes on.
Starting with the biggest name on that list, we have Ryan O’Reilly. Now Ryan first and foremost fits the role of Faceoff Winner. He has a career 55.1% faceoff percentage, registered a 58.3% over his last three seasons in Buffalo, and is coming off of a career-high 60% last year, a year in which he took over 2,000 faceoffs. Considering that our current number 1 center, Brayden Schenn, is sitting at a career 46.1% and only managed a 48% last year, that is a huge step up in Faceoff ability. Having O’Reilly on the dot is likely to get us the puck a lot more. I would also put O’Reilly under the category of Puck Hound. He likes to have the puck and he seems to be pretty good at getting it and moving it, considering he’s put up 35 or more assists the last 5 years. He also isn’t afraid to shoot the puck, although he only manages about 20-25 goals per year, which isn’t nearly enough to qualify him as an out and out Sniper. He is a Puck Hound, although not in the same vein as Schwartz. O’Reilly prefers to get the puck and pass it on, rather than skate around with it like Schwartz does. O’Reilly is also fairly gritty, but he’s not overly aggressive. He’s played 70 or more games eight of the nine years he’s been in the NHL and in those years, he’s never taken more than 18 PIMs and took only 20 total PIMs in his 3 years in Buffalo, over 224 games. O’Reilly isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas or do the dirty work, but he does it without getting overly aggressive and taking penalties himself, which was a huge problem for this team last year. He has also managed a Corsi For % Relative (CF% Rel) of 3.1 for his career, Jaden Schwartz, our current puck hound, has a career 2.9 CF% Rel, which means O’Reilly’s team tends to have the puck more when he’s on the ice than when he’s off. That, is a signature of a Puck Hound. Combine all of that with the fact that O’Reilly seemingly has newfound life, after all, this is the first time in his career that he’s really been on a team with a legitimate shot at contending. He has been rescued from the train wreck that is Buffalo, and he should be motivated to show his new team just what it means to him to be here.
Next up is David Perron. Now we have gotten more than our fair share of David, considering he started his career here in St. Louis, then we traded him, then re-signed him, then lost him in the expansion draft, then re-signed him again. If there is one thing we’ve seen from David Perron, it’s that he is a hell of a Skater. I can sincerely remember watching him essentially circle the entire offensive zone twice while holding the puck, keeping defenders at bay, and keeping his head up looking for a pass or a shooting lane. Perron can skate with the best of them and he can puck handle with them as well. However, his biggest flaw for most of his career has been that he doesn’t know what to do with the puck once it’s on his stick. Being a good skater is nice, but there are only 3 people on a forward line and there are 5 major traits; usually, the Grit trait is split between all three in today’s game, which means that at least 2 of the guys have to be multi-dimensional, and the Skater is one of the best ones for it. Skaters usually make great Puck Hounds, but if they have the ability to pick out passes or shots, they also make good Snipers and Playmakers. Most of his career, Perron has struggled to find that second aspect to his game. He doesn’t really shoot enough for my taste, although when he does, he is fairly accurate; but, he has also never managed to tally a whole lot of goals. He has proven to be a fair Playmaker, but was never really lights out… until last year that is. Last year, he suddenly exploded in the assists column, putting up 50 assists in 70 games for Vegas. Those are top-level Playmaker numbers, and if Perron can build on that and put up around 30 assists, which is on par with his best seasons prior to last year, he can make a case to be a 2nd line Playmaker as well as a great Skater. As for Grit, well, Perron has plenty of seasons with over 100 hits, and he seems to be fairly healthy with not much more than minor injuries since his concussion back in 2011-12. He’s not afraid to go get the puck, but with a career CF% Rel of 1.0, I hesitate to call him a Puck Hound, although he has that potential too. Basically, with Perron, you are getting a Skater, with Grit, that has the ability to be a Playmaker, a Puck Hound or both, if he commits to the role. Given the high caliber of personnel he’s playing with here, he should be capable of becoming at least one.
Then, we have Tyler Bozak. I’ll admit, Bozak is a bit of a mystery to me. He stands out as a Faceoff winner, posting a career 53.6% and hitting a high of 56.7% in 2016-17. Bozak doesn’t necessarily fit the bill as an elite scorer, having only managed to break the 20 goal mark once in his career, but he has managed a fairly solid shooting percentage, which is Goals/Shots, which has been solidly in the teens until last year and sits at 13.8% for his career. Much like Perron, he doesn’t bang in goals, but when he does shoot, he takes good shots. I think Bozak’s biggest possibility is in being a Playmaker. He has topped 30 assists multiple times in his career and he also has experience playing on a line with a very good scorer in Phil Kessel at points in his career. Much like Perron, I think Bozak has potential to rise up and become a truly good Playmaker, but for right now, the biggest skill set of his that we need is his faceoff ability. The Blues lacked good centermen last year and the addition of both Bozak and O’Reilly gives us that in spades.
Finally, we have Patrick Maroon. Maroon is a local boy, born and raised in St. Louis, and a tough as nails winger. He adds size, grit, and a solid defensive and checking forward that has been around the block and back. He’s a great asset to have when there are younger guys on the team. He also adds a much needed net-front presence to this team, which is something that has been severely lacking since the departure of David Backes. His statistics tend to pair favorably to both Perron and Bozak, but he lacks the skating or puck handling ability of Perron, and the Faceoff presence of Bozak. Maroon brings a great physical presence and a fair amount of experience, and overall, I think he was a great addition to the team and brings some much-needed attributes to this team. But, I simply don’t see him breaking the top 6 except in the case of injury, or for the occasional shift to add a few more hits to the upper lines, especially if someone like Tarasenko is being targeted. While he might end up on one of the top 2 lines, I doubt it will be planned, or that it will last for very long. I do think he may see some time on the Power Play though, to provide the net front presence that was sorely lacking last year. Maroon brings the kind of depth a team needs to compete as he can step up and fill pretty much any role when needed. He is more than just another guy on the roster, but he’s also not the kind of player you set a team up around.
So now that we’ve seen who we got, let’s take a look at how they might line up using the Perfect Line formula as a guide for successful lines. Here’s a quick rundown of everyone that will be in the mix, and their traits:
Tarasenko – Sniper, Grit
Schenn – Playmaker, Grit, Possible Faceoff
Schwartz – Skater, Puck Hound, Grit
O’Reilly – Faceoff, Playmaker, Puck Hound, Grit
Perron – Skater, Grit, Possible Playmaker, Possible Sniper
Bozak – Faceoff, Playmaker, Grit
Guys that we have that might factor into this:
Steen – Playmaker
Fabbri – Wild Card
Maroon – Grit, Toughness
Now you may look at the top list there and say, “That’s six guys, why do you need more?” That is a valid question, and it comes with two answers. First, there are three centers on that list: Schenn, O’Reilly and Bozak, and of them, only Schenn really has experience as a winger. After the last year he had, I think it would be wrong to put him there, thus only 5 of those 6 guys will play on the top 2 lines. Second, this is hockey, and people get hurt playing hockey. It’s a fact of life. When they get hurt, you want good guys behind them to step up and play in their spot. Also, Steen is getting a little old and runs the risk of backsliding, while Fabbri is coming off of a nearly 2-year stint on IR, and you don’t fully know what you’re going to get out of him. So with all of that in mind, let’s get down to it and look at some lines.
Taking everything into account, I believe the Blues will break camp with the following lines:
Schwartz – Schenn – Tarasenko
Steen – O’Reilly – Perron
Maroon – Bozak – Fabbri
(I know the fourth line isn’t on here, but that line isn’t particularly important to the article, nor is the order of the third, really, only the players are.)
I believe they will break camp like that for one reason. That top line was one of the best lines in the NHL last year, it was bordering on lethal, and had Schwartz and Tarasenko not been injured at various points, I think that line alone could have carried us to the playoffs. Also, considering how much of an improvement on his career numbers Schenn had, it would be almost insulting to not leave him as a center and not at least give him the shot to center the top line. The reasoning behind putting those three together has already been explained. However, it’s the second line that is more interesting. Now that line has plenty of grit with O’Reilly and Perron, and Steen’s defensive ability is a little gritty, although he has had injury problems in the past. You’ve got a great, almost elite, Faceoff Taker in O’Reilly, who also serves as your Puck Hound, a very good Skater and puck handler in Perron, and a solid Playmaker in Steen, who also serves as a defensive presence. The only factor that this line is missing is a sniper, and unfortunately, you’re simply not going to get that in one guy. The Blues just don’t have it. The reason I like this combination is that it is the most likely to spread that duty out. When Steen is healthy, he has a few 20 goal seasons in his pocket. O’Reilly has more or less averaged that during his career, and Perron has the ability to score a few goals himself. The line lacks the ever-present threat of a Tarasenko, but it has the ability to threaten from multiple positions all over the ice, and with the amount of playmaking talent available there, it means that there is simply always going to be the chance for another pass to be made. That in and of itself can give you the opportunity to shoot, if the players can simply learn to fire the puck rather than passing all the time.
Those lines will not make the season though; no line combinations survive the crucible that is an 82 game NHL season, and when they are changed, there are a myriad of reasons that could lead to it. Everything from underperformance, new friendships with better chemistry, unfortunate injuries, and others. Regardless of how the lines change, they will change, and here are a few more that might come into play.
Perron – O’Reilly – Tarasenko
This may seem slightly counter-intuitive, as Perron projects as a Right Winger being a right hand shot, but he has played both wings and is listed on some sites as a Left Winger. Perron is a right-handed shot and this combination gives an interesting set up as you will have a Righty on the left wing and a Lefty on the right wing. It almost looks like a pseudo Power Play line, and there’s every possibility that this could be our top PP for the season as well. O’Reilly would give Tarasenko a far better Faceoff taker than Schenn, and it would be a totally new dimension, essentially leaving both Perron and O’Reilly to feed the puck to Tarasenko for shots. O’Reilly can recover, pass to Perron, Perron draws the defenders, and then passes to Tarasenko, who shoots. It’s a perfect system that follows the Perfect Line Formula, well, perfectly.
Schwartz – Schenn – Fabbri/Steen/Perron
We all know what Schwartz and Schenn bring to the table and we all know not only what they are capable of, but the kind of chemistry they have together. If Schenn and Schwartz are taken off the top line I would expect them to stay together and as such, this is what I would expect to see. The third winger is a bit of a mystery here, as Steen would be the natural choice and he has played right wing in the past, although in a limited amount. However, I think Fabbri might fight his way up onto this line if he shows that he’s still got his pre-injury talent level, and especially if he starts scoring. Like I said, the Blues currently lack a true second line Sniper and if Fabbri can start firing pucks into the net, he could step up and take that role. Paired with the top level Playmaking and Puck Hounding abilities of Schenn and Schwartz, that would make a very interesting line. If not, it could still be a fairly competent line with Steen on the wing if he, Schenn and Schwartz can manage to spread the sniper duties out between them, as I suggest Steen, Perron, and O’Reilly could do on another line. There is also the possibility that Perron ends up on this line. Perron wouldn’t fit as well here, as his style of play would likely clash somewhat with Schwartz and he doesn’t take as many shots or score as many goals as Steen currently does, or as Fabbri might, but there is something to be said about simply possessing the puck in the opponents zone. Schwartz – Schenn – Perron would certainly do that. Again, this doesn’t fit the formula perfectly, but without a second true sniper, you’re never going too.
Schwartz – Bozak – Schenn
This is a line that will likely only happen if Schenn proves simply incapable of winning faceoffs this year, although I could see this as a Power Play trio as well. Schenn is a center, he plays well as a center, and his only real weakness at the position is his lower than normal Faceoff numbers. I fully expect those numbers to climb if he is given more time on the dot, but if they start to slide, I could see him shifted out to the wing. He would be left on the line with Schwartz to try and maintain their great chemistry, and then Bozak, who is a great Faceoff Taker, would move up. Much like the other lines, without Tarasenko, this line lacks goal scoring ability. However, Schwartz and Schenn have both had multiple 20 goal seasons, so the success of this particular line may depend on Bozak’s ability to evolve as a goal scorer, or to find a way to place himself in front of the net. As is, I think Bozak will start the season centering the third line and centering the second PP unit as well as the second Penalty Kill unit. If Schenn starts to backslide on his faceoff ability, or if injuries force it, I could easily see him being bumped up to full-time Center on the second line.
Schwartz – Bozak – Tarasenko
This is kind of my weird unit that makes sense but I don’t see how it would happen. Bozak is a great Faceoff Taker and a decent enough Playmaker, especially if he has a good Sniper on his wing. Schwartz is an elite Puck Hound and a great Skater. Tarasenko is a solid Sniper. For this line to happen, somebody, probably two somebodies, would have to get hurt, but I could also see this group somehow developing chemistry. Bozak has the ability to put in first line minutes. His career Average Time on Ice (ATOI) is 18:23, which is essentially first line minutes for a forward. This line has all the boxes checked, but Bozak being our third best center makes it a bit of a difficult one to see happening. However, we also know that Tarasenko is one of those players that plays better when he likes his linemates, and if he and Bozak get along, I could see this line being formed and playing incredibly well with each other. I could also see this line as a Power Play option at some point in the season, especially if the Power Play is underperforming again.
In the end, these new players make the Blues’ top 2 lines look totally different and far more dynamic than in years past. They have depth that they haven’t had for years, especially up the middle, and the multi-dimensional nature of the players they acquired, especially O’Reilly and Perron, gives the Blues a flexibility in their line combinations that I don’t think any other team really has. I haven’t seen anything like it with the Blues in years, if ever. Add in the fact that we still don’t really know what Fabbri brings to the table, or what Robert Thomas and/or Jordan Kyrou might bring, and this gets even more interesting. If Fabbri snaps back to his post-injury form, I fully expect him to supplant Steen in the top 6. If he works out there, then Steen may even be gone from this equation by the end of the year. If Thomas cracks the roster and plays well, he may take advantage of injuries and fight his way to the second line before planting his flag there permanently. There are simply too many possibilities to count and that, I think, is the truly great part of this current roster. The Blues now have the personnel to give opponents a multitude of different looks, not just from game to game but from shift to shift, as well as the depth to weather a small injury storm. We now have the weapons to fight this war. They just need to be deployed in the right way, and we could be well on our way to a great season.