the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will face off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and at Hockey Wilderness, we’ll get a sneak peek at all about these Central Division rivals. Go see the room on the ahead here.
The Blues are a team generally known for their prowess on the defensive side of the ice. Since Craig Berube took over as head coach after Mike Yeo was fired and the Stanley Cup race in 2019, he’s implemented a system that relies on defense and physical hockey to win games, but it’s a system that doesn’t stifle offensive production much, which is a lot more important than many realize.
Here’s where the core of the defense currently stands in terms of lines according to Daily Faceoff:
Torey Krug—Colton Parayko
Nick Leddy—Justin Faulk
Niko Mikkola/Calle Rosen—Robert Bortuzzo
There are a lot of different styles at work in this six-man unit, but one thing is for sure: they can all play body. Everyone remembers the hit (some might consider a charge) of a helmetless Torey Krug against those same Blues in the Stanley Cup Final. Colton Parayko drags around the ice at an incredible 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds. Justin Faulk is smaller than that, but he’s second on the team with 149 hits. Mikkola and Bortuzzo are also in the top five.
The Blues’ defensive depth is there, and at their best they can play a stifling defensive game that wears down opponents. At times this year, especially in front of a struggling Jordan Binnington, they needed it.
If the Wild want to win this series, they’ll have to match the physicality of the Blues, as they’ll be emphasizing the bodies of players like Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala every time they hit the ice. The Wild have a defensive core that can also play very physical hockey as well as a solid two-way game. Captain Jared Spurgeon has been one of the league’s most underrated defenders for quite some time, and despite his relatively short stature, he gets into plenty of altercations and wall battles. At first glance, these two defense cores may look different in many ways, but there are also many similarities.
Who has the advantage?
One of the many things that can make the difference in a deep playoff run is backend scoring. A lot of very good teams in recent memory lost a chance in the next round because their defensive score wasn’t as good as it should have been. The Blues and the Wild look pretty close in scoring on the defensive side and even in total offense created. If we look at Equal Strength Offensive Goals Above Substitution (EVO) and Equal Strength Offensive Expected Goals Above Substitution (xEVO), Minnesota sits 4th and 7th respectively, while St. Louis is 7th and 12th respectively.
Minnesota captain Spurgeon, whom I spoke about earlier, led Wild defensemen in scoring with 40 points in 65 games, while Faulk led the Blues with 47 points in 76 games. Expecting both of these teams to have a point-scoring defender like Roman Josi or Cale Makar is a tall order. Of course, nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s unlikely given the styles of hockey they play. Krug trails Faulk with 43 points in 64 games, including just 9 goals.
The one defenseman that intrigues me and 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, half the points he had in 55 games in Detroit. He could be very impactful as the playoffs progress. Leddy had a tough year at Motown, and his expected percentage (xGF%) goals are nearly identical between the two teams, but his percentage (GF%) goals are drastically different. In Detroit, he got 37.95% in ice goal share, while in St. Louis, he got 53.17%.
Leddy’s ability to move the puck in the zone to some of the Blues’ offensive powerhouses will be extremely vital for the team in the first round of the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how the Wild approach their defensive strategies to keep Leddy and D other strong Blues defensemen who move the puck like Faulk, Krug and Parayko to step on it.
In terms of who wins this battle, it seems very even. Although the analyzes favor the Wild very lightlythe Blues defense has absolutely nothing to sleep on in the attacking aspect of the game.
St. Louis has almost always been considered a strong defensive team, but in recent years Minnesota has become one of the best defensive teams in the entire NHL, especially by analytics, and its defensive core in those stats the is also. In 2021-22, according to Evolving-Hockey’s Equal Strength Defense Above Replacement (EVD) and Projected Equal Strength Defense Above Replacement (xEVD) targets, the Wild are 4th and 2nd, which is incredibly impressive. For the Blues, they sit in the top 20s in those stats, which is pretty disappointing.
Unlike the Blues, the Wild have one of the best defensive defensemen in the entire NHL. Brodin was highly regarded in NHL circles in this area of the game, and that’s well-deserved praise. Without him, the Wild would be missing a massive piece, and he will be critical to the team’s success.
Parayko is the Blues’ best defensive back, both literally and figuratively given his stature. His size and his ability to use his stick to block passing lanes are invaluable for the kind of defender he is. He’ll be the Blues’ defenseman to watch on this side of the rink.
As for the rest of the Blues, the defense is average in numbers. So I should give the edge to the Wild in this area.
The depth of a defensive core is a huge factor in winning the Stanley Cup, and if we look at both teams, it looks like the Wild have the advantage in defensive depth. The acquisition of Jake Middleton has been huge for the Wild’s success, and he’s been an impressive piece who seems to be enjoying his time in the hockey state. While the top four defenders on both teams feel roughly even, it’s the third pair that separates the two to some extent.
One of Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski with Dmitry Kulikov ranks higher here than Mikkola or Rosen with Bortuzzo, which aren’t bad at all, but just aren’t as strong.
No matter which way this series goes at the end of the day, defense will be a huge factor at both ends of the rink. the Wild seem to have the edge in this part of the roster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Blues are exponentially worse. Defense is always said to win championships, and it definitely could win this series.