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Eye On Hockey Mailbag: How did the Blues get so good?

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

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Maybe you've noticed, but the St. Louis Blues are off to a pretty fantastic start to the 2013 season and are picking right up where they left off in 2011-12.

They're suffocating teams defensively and not allowing anybody to generate any sort of offense against them, allowing a total of 88 even-strength shots in five games. That total is so low that it's almost absurd. They haven't allowed a team to generate more than 22 ES shots in a single game, and twice had held teams to less than 10 (one of them was Detroit). Their ability to keep the puck away from their opponents and out of their own zone is stunning, and it's not a new thing as they were one of the best possession teams last season as well.

With that in mind, our first question this week comes via email from reader Chris in Webster, Mo.:

How are the Blues so good without having a true superstar player on their roster?

Well I guess it depends on your definition of a superstar player, because Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko could be on their way to getting there in the not-too-distant future.

But although the Blues may not have a Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos on their roster right now, they have a deep, balanced team of excellent all-around hockey players, and a coach (Ken Hitchcock) who has them playing a system that dominates puck possession.

That's a good combination.

But if you really want to look at how the Blues got to where they are, just take a look at the four drafts between 2005 and 2008 and the seven first-round picks they had those years (their own pick, plus additional ones through some shrewd trades involving veterans like Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk).

2005: T.J. Oshie
2006: Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund
2007: Lars Eller, Ian Cole, David Perron
2008: Alex Pietrangelo

Every one of those guys is either a regular on the Blues now (Oshie, Berglund, Cole, Perron, Pietrangelo) or was used in a trade to acquire key players (Eller, Johnson). Eller was packaged with Matt D'agostini in a trade with Montreal that landed the Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

Johnson, the No. 1 pick in 2006, was sent to Colorado in 2010 in the late-season blockbuster that sent Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to St. Louis.

Not only is it impressive to hit on that many first-round picks (especially late ones, only Johnson and Pietrangelo were top-10 selections) in such a short time, but to have such an incredible return on them. Those four years resulted in the Blues acquiring eight core players.

The Penguins under Dan Bylsma believe that the best way to play defense is to keep the puck away from their opponent and play in the offensive zone because, well, nobody is scoring from 200 feet away.

Critics might say they're a little too extreme with it and sometimes lose focus in the defensive zone, and perhaps make too many "pretty" plays that lead to turnovers and chances the other way, but I'm not entirely sure I buy that.

Even with their defensive struggles late in the season and playoffs a year ago, they were one of the best teams in the league when it came to not allowing shots, and with better goaltending would have finished as a better defensive team in goals-against category (and perhaps even had more success in the playoffs). When Bylsma took over the Penguins in the middle of the 2008-09 season they were one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, a trend they immediately reversed that season and it was a large part of the reason they won the Stanley Cup. They haven't had that sort of playoff success since, but I think they're playing the right way.

And finally, because it's been such a big topic this season, a leftover question from last week:

They were pretty identical across the board last season (total save percentage, even-strength save percentage, and penalty kill save percentage) and I see no reason to believe that will be any different this season.

If the Canucks were going to trade Luongo this year I have to imagine they would have done it by now, and in a short, 48-game season with a compressed schedule it can't hurt to have two No. 1 goalies on your roster like the Canucks currently do.

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