Advanced Stats, Robert Thomas, St Louis Blues, Zach Sanford

St. Louis Blues 2019-20 Breakout Candidates

The Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues are largely bringing back the same roster, with just Ivan Barbashev and Joel Edmundson left as restricted free-agents to sign. This continuity allows the Blues to remain contenders, led by their veteran players. With that in mind, there were still some young faces on the roster last season and some potential breakout candidates. I took a look at some of the Blues’ youngsters from an analytics perspective to predict who I think might be able to take on a bigger role in the 2019-20 season.

St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
St. Louis Blues pose for a photo with the Stanley Cup on the ice after the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

First of all, the young player on the Blues with by far the best underlying metrics is Vince Dunn. I have written extensively about Dunn in an article where I compared him to Duncan Keith and an article about his play alongside Colton Parayko. For that reason, I have not included him in the below list of players.

Robert Thomas

Robert Thomas is the obvious breakout candidate on the Blues. The youngest player on the roster last season showed glimpses of his talent throughout the season and was arguably the Blues’ best player in the second round of the playoffs against Dallas. His play in Game 7 led to Patrick Maroon’s overtime series-winning goal. However, I believe there are still some insights to be taken from the data.

Thomas had very good possession numbers last season with an even-strength Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 50.96% and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 55.37%. When it comes to possession, anything above 50% means that the Blues had possession of the puck more than their opponents did, and for xGF%, created more offensive chances. Those metrics alone show that the ice was tilted towards the opposition when Thomas was on the ice. I wrote a piece late last season that xGF% is a decent predictor of future production, so based on this metric, we can expect Thomas to have higher production next season.

Robert Thomas St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues center Robert Thomas (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

He ranked 10th on the Blues in time on ice per game (TOI/GP), meaning that he essentially received fourth line minutes. At the same time, he was fifth in points per 60 minutes (P/60) at 2.16 P/60, which shows relative production per time on ice. If Thomas moves up to the second line this coming season and receives the average ice time for a Blues’ second liner based on last season’s data, with no progression in his P/60 he would be projected to score 50 points in 82 games. That projection is without accounting for improvement with age and better linemates. At the end of the playoffs, the second line was centered by Ryan O’Reilly, which would be a significant upgrade in linemates for Thomas.

It is also key to note here that based on zone entry data, Thomas does an excellent job of transitioning the puck into the offensive zone. Transitioning the puck with possession can lead to greater offensive chances. Below is a chart showing the Blues forwards ranked by the zone entry data. Thomas ranks third in carry-in percentage.

Data from Corey Sznajder (@shutdownline)

Through his passing ability, Thomas is great at helping his teammates create shots and chances on the opposing goal. He does a much worse job of producing his own shots. We can see that by the fact that he ranked 10th amongst Blues forwards in shots taken. However, Thomas actually had the sixth-best shooting percentage, so it is not actually a problem with his shot that results in his low goal totals, but the fact that he does not shoot the puck enough. I believe that as he gains more confidence at the NHL level, he will shoot the puck more frequently, and we will see him have much higher goal totals.

Zach Sanford

Zach Sanford is a bit of an enigma because he has shown flashes of being a very good player, but has not been able to sustain that high level of play. He played a huge role in the Stanley Cup Final, producing four points in five games played. Sanford is not nearly as young as Thomas, nor does he have the high prospect pedigree. He has dealt with significant injuries in his short career to this point, which is probably the reason for his unsolidified role in the Blues’ lineup.

Zach Sanford Charlie McAvoy
St. Louis Blues left wing Zach Sanford skates with the puck as Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy defends (Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports)

On pretty much every underlying metric, Sanford performs well, but to a slightly lower degree than Thomas. He has an even-strength CF% of 50.71%. He has an extremely high xGF% of 55.35%. His xGF% at even strength is probably the biggest reason I think he could breakout for the Blues. Amongst Blues’ regulars, he ranked fourth in this metric. He has a decent, but not unsustainable shooting percentage.

I believe that Sanford could flourish in a third-line role. He found great success with O’Reilly and David Perron during stretches of the season, but I am not sure I would start him on that second line. If he is able to avoid injuries, I could see him progressing well this coming season.

Other Potential Breakout Candidates

The Blues have many players in their early twenties that are not extremely young. To varying degrees, quite a few of them performed well in underlying metrics. This is the team that won the Stanley Cup Championship after all. I am very excited to see Jordan Kyrou potentially get a larger role on this team. His speed adds a completely different element to the Blues’ attack. However, I do not have enough data from his time in the NHL to call him a breakout candidate.

Oskar Sundqvist had very good possession metrics, and P/60, but I am not sure how much he will breakout at age 25. Ivan Barbashev had a very high P/60, but his shooting percentage was astronomical, which is probably unsustainable, and his possession metrics were not particularly strong. Samuel Blais showed signs of making an impact during the playoffs, but his regular-season statistics were not particularly strong.

Oskar Sundqvist Ivan Barbashev St. Louis Blues
Oskar Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one thing that really stuck out for me when looking into potential breakout candidates for the Blues is just how much depth they had this season and going forward. The lineup was littered with players having great underlying metrics. With the exception of Ryan O’Reilly, and maybe David Perron, there was not a specific player who I would say had an above-average season. There are quite a few young players who could take on greater roles and flourish. As long as Jordan Binnington continues to play at a relatively high level, I could see the Blues making another deep playoff run.

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