Los Angeles Kings winger Ilya Kovalchuk was caught a bit off guard by the question of how Marc Savard could help the Blues’ power play.
“He’s here?” Kovalchuk asked.
Yes, Kovalchuk’s teammate with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2002 to 2006 is now an assistant coach with the Blues and in charge of the special-teams unit. He was added to Craig Berube’s staff in July, ending an eight-year stretch away from the NHL.
Savard played more than 800 games in the league with Boston, Calgary, Atlanta and the New York Rangers. His last was with Boston on Jan. 22, 2011, when a hit by Colorado’s Matt Hunwick into the glass left him woozy.
On the heels of a concussion Savard suffered just a year earlier on a blindsided blow by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, his career was essentially over because of lingering symptoms. He was 33 years old at the time, and with a contract running through the 2016-17 season, he announced his retirement in 2018, almost seven years to the day after the Hunwick hit.
Since his exit, Savard has spent time as a skills coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes. He also worked as an analyst on “Hockey Night in Canada” and on the radio in Toronto. But now 42, and almost a decade removed from the game that made him a Stanley Cup champion with the Bruins, he wanted back in.
As a former teammate of Berube in Calgary, Savard had spoken with the Blues’ then-interim coach last season about the team’s ailing power play. They later touched on the possibility of Savard’s joining the staff, and then after the club captured the Stanley Cup last summer, beating Savard’s beloved Bruins, the call finally came.
“I remember it was a Sunday night, and ‘Chief’ asked me, and I didn’t know what to say I was so excited,” Savard said in July. “I didn’t think it would work out, especially coming to the Stanley Cup champions … to step right in and help out and be able to show my passion for the game. I’ve been the first guy at the rink, the last guy to leave and (general manager Doug Armstrong) informed me that that’s going to have to be the case again.
“At the end of the day, it came to me that I’m more of a hands-on guy, I’m a hockey guy, I want to be around the players, I want to be around the team and help out the best way I can. I really appreciate this opportunity Doug has given me, and hopefully I can prove him right.”
It was a tall order for a first-time NHL assistant coach, re-establishing a power play that ranked 10th in the league in the regular season (21.1 percent) but couldn’t get out of its way in the Stanley Cup final. The Blues managed just one goal on 18 opportunities (5.5 percent), nearly costing themselves the seven-game series against Boston, which went 7 for 24 (29.2 percent).
In the end, not a soul remembered that stat because the Blues were hoisting the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. However, it had to matter to the man who now had the assignment of turning it around. Savard was watching the final on TV, and he acknowledged after being hired that the results were difficult to rationalize considering all of the Blues’ skilled personnel.
“Yeah, I was a little surprised,” Savard said in July. “It gets frustrating, I know. It doesn’t always go well, and you start gripping the stick a bit. There’s a lot of great options, it’s just about bringing them all together and making them all work together. I’ve picked up a lot of stuff on (good power plays around the NHL), what works, and what doesn’t. I think I’ll be able to bring a lot of adjustments and help the Blues have a fresh look … and I think we should be right up there in the league in the power play next season.”
That was three months ago, and it was the last time anybody had spoken to Savard about the Blues’ power play, as Armstrong keeps the team’s assistant coaches off-limits to the media. So in an effort to find out more about the philosophies that have the Blues unit ranked fourth in the NHL (26.1 percent) after Friday’s 4-3 overtime win over Columbus, The Athletic quizzed a couple of Savard’s former teammates, Kovalchuk and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, and an ex-Blue, Barret Jackman, who played against him. We also checked in with a few current Blues to get their thoughts and understand his impact on the unit.
In 807 regular-season games, Savard finished with 706 points, and 292 of those (80 goals, 212 assists) came on the power play.
A fourth-round pick of New York in 1995 who was traded to Calgary in 1999 and Atlanta in 2002, Savard became one of the league’s preeminent power-play specialists. In 2005-06, the Thrashers finished No. 19 in the standings and missed the playoffs, but they were No. 7 (18.9 percent) on the man-advantage. Savard had 36 power-play assists that season, the fifth-most in the league, and 18 of those set up goals by Kovalchuk, who led the league with 27.
“He was one of the better passers who I played with,” Kovalchuk said recently. “He was always in the right position, and he knows what he’s doing with the puck. We always were good (in Atlanta). We got Slava Kozlov back then, (Frantisek) Kaberle and (Marian) Hossa, so it was a pretty good unit. (Savard) was our quarterback, moving the puck from the half-wall. He was good with the sauces, and he could make those plays through the sticks.”
Savard signed with Boston in 2006. In his first season there, he netted 10 goals and 39 assists for 49 points on the power play, ranking third in the league behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and San Jose’s Joe Thornton. Bergeron had 14 power-play goals for the Bruins that season, and Savard had a helper on eight of them.
“He was deadly on the power play,” Bergeron said last week. “To me, it was always his no-look passes, which you’d think are kind of blind, high-risk plays. But he would probably hit the target close to eight out of 10 times. He was so good at that, so gifted. His passing ability was through the roof. He loved to play the seams and have fast-paced, fast-moving passes. He hated guys that would hang onto it too long. He wants guys to create. There’s that rule that you want to keep it simple and bring it to the net. But ‘Savvy’ was very good at finding openings and cracks in the other team’s PK. It was so impressive.”
Let’s take a look:
In April 2009, Savard had two power-play goals in a 5-1 win over Montreal in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Wearing No. 91 in the video below, he finishes off the scoring sequence after sending a cross-ice, seam pass to teammate Michael Ryder, then dropping below the faceoff dot to take the return feed from Ryder.
Jackman, whose career started in 2002 and spanned through Savard’s final game, played a lot of minutes on the Blues’ penalty-killing unit and recalled during Episode 10 of The Athletic podcast “We went Blues” last week just how lethal he was.
“His hands really stuck out to me — real quick hands,” Jackman said. “He moved the puck so well. He knew where the puck was going to go before he even got it. Whether he played in Atlanta or Boston, you just remember that you had no time. The puck went to him and you took one step towards him and, all of a sudden, the puck was behind you. He was just so smart and so quick with his hands that you didn’t get a chance to feel comfortable. You just ended up running around.”
Not only was Savard so skilled, but he was also constantly communicating.
“To me, it was the little comments he had,” Bergeron said. “He liked to talk with his linemates and find ways to make different plays happen. He always wanted results. He wasn’t satisfied with just being good. He wanted results, and that’s why he was so offensively productive and had such a great career.
“I’m sure if he shares that knowledge (with the Blues), he’ll do well. There’s a big difference between being a player and having guys execute what you have in your head. He’s not the one with the puck, so that may frustrate him at times. But they have great players to execute.”
Bergeron spoke with first-hand familiarity of the Blues’ power play, having helped shut it down in the Stanley Cup final as a member of Bruins’ penalty-killing unit. Colton Parayko scored on the power play in Game 3, but the Blues came up empty on their last nine opportunities in Game Nos. 4-7.
In a review of that series, the first observation to be made is the unit’s lack of structure. The clip below is from Game 6, with Boston leading 1-0 in the second period. Jaden Schwartz gains the zone, but after that, the play turns into a chaotic scramble. The Bruins are able to put pressure on the puck all over the ice and eventually clear.
When the Blues do get established in the zone, as we see in another clip from Game 6, they float on the outside, passing the puck around the perimeter: David Perron to Ryan O’Reilly, back to Perron, back to O’Reilly, over to Schwartz, over to Parayko, back to Schwartz, back to Parayko, over to Vladimir Tarasenko, and finally a shot. But while it is Tarasenko taking the attempt from just inside the faceoff circle, with no threat in the middle of the ice, the Bruins’ John Moore easily blocks it.
Perron pointed out that it’s more difficult to have success on the power play in the playoffs because, with a limited number of opportunities, it’s not as easy for the unit to get into a groove as in the regular season.
“It’s tough,” Perron said. “It’s tight-checking, there’s less power plays, one or two a game. So it’s really hard.”
So the Blues won the Stanley Cup in spite of their struggling special-teams group, and the club knew it had to bring in some help in the offseason. Enter Savard, whose career the current players were certainly familiar with, though his playing days overlapped with only a few of them.
O’Reilly recalled his patented no-look pass.
“I do,” he said. “I remember when he got the puck, he was a creator, great hands. He had a great awareness, where everyone was.”
The Blues didn’t have a coach on their staff who had logged lots of ice time on the power play such as Savard. Assistant Mike Van Ryn manned the unit during his career, but as a defenseman, it was a different type of role.
“I think we were all ready for someone to come in,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We were still top 10 in the regular season last year. Playoffs, it didn’t go the way we wanted, but any time you bring in a guy like that, who had success at this level, you’re going to listen.”
The Blues’ ears were open, but while Savard could convey his thoughts clearly to teammates on the ice, Perron remembers him as a bit shy when he began addressing his new team in training camp in mid-September.
“I’d be nervous to come to talk to a group, too, but I don’t know if he was nervous or what,” Perron said.
“It’s a little weird when he comes in because we don’t really know him, and he doesn’t really know us,” O’Reilly noted. “It takes a little while to find that connection and grow the relationship.”
As the regular season approached in early October, Savard started showing more signs of being comfortable.
“He adapted,” Blues defenseman Vince Dunn said. “He did a great job of coming in and building relationships with the players.”
The results of the power play were mixed early on. The unit got a goal on opening night against Washington, but after four games, it had converted two of its first 11 chances and given up two shorthanded goals to Dallas and Ottawa.
Savard, though, kept preaching quick puck movement.
“He wants it fast-moving, and a lot of one-touching, not as much stationary,” O’Reilly said. “When we do it, it’s dangerous.”
“That’s how the seams will open up,” Perron said. “One-touches, and not only one-touches, but they’ve got to be on the tape. When they’re not on the tape, normally you don’t score, and that’s the small difference. At times we have looks, but if it’s not executed, then you’re not going to score. If you just move it around, every (NHL penalty-kill unit) has got good structure, and you’re not going to create much other than rebound goals.”
The Blues fell 6-3 in Montreal on Oct. 12, but look at the puck movement that created the seam pass that leads to a goal by Dunn. On the half-wall, Brayden Schenn finds the wide-open defenseman to put the Blues ahead 3-2 in the second period.
Two nights later, in a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders, the Blues scored for the third consecutive game on the man-advantage. Here, they work the puck around the outside, but this time Tarasenko puts some pressure on the Isles’ PK, driving the dot for a shot and a 2-0 lead in the third period.
At that point, the Blues were 4-for-15 on the man-advantage.
“We feel like we’re a threat to score,” Pietrangelo said. “I think it’s just moving the puck quicker — that’s literally all it is. When you’re moving the puck quick and you’re not rushing to make a play … I think for a long time we’ve always been, ‘Let’s see how quickly we can get a chance,’ whereas now it’s, ‘Let’s wait for the right opportunity instead of rushing things and turning it over.’ (Savard) kind of played like that, he had a lot of patience with the puck, so he’s just trying to instill that in us.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s allowing us to make plays. I guess it’s a sense of confidence when the coach trusts that you can make the plays that he’s showing us. Even when we’re not scoring, I think we’re moving the puck better than we ever have. And it seems like we’re getting a little more zone time because of it.”
There is no measurement for zone time, but The Athletic’s Sean Tierney came up with some interesting numbers comparing the Blues’ power play this season and a year ago.
In terms of quantity (Corsi For/60 minutes, which includes shots that miss the net or are blocked), Tierney says the Blues are taking fewer shots with the man-advantage. They’ve fallen from a pace of approximately 101 shots per 60 of power-play time to about 89 shots per 60.
But while their expected goals for (xGF/60), a measure that weights the shots taken by their “value” or likelihood of scoring, has slid from 7.0 to approximately 5.6, the team has seen a spike in actual goals from 7.5 goals to 9.5 goals per 60. This two-goal jump, according to Tierney, is likely influenced by a spike in shooting percentage, and without increasing the rate of quality chances they create, he says, the goals-for rate would be expected to drop.
The totals would also be expected to drop without Tarasenko, who’s out for the next five months after shoulder surgery, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
The puck movement without Tarasenko has been just as crisp. In their second game without their leading scorer, a 5-4 overtime win over Detroit on Oct. 27, the Blues opened the scoring with a power-play goal, as O’Reilly put a pass through traffic onto the stick of Schenn.
The Blues went 2-for-4 on Friday against Columbus, and since Tarasenko left the lineup, the unit is 4-for-15 (26.7 percent).
That’s a pace though that will be difficult to maintain without the player who had 12 power-play goals last season, five more than the next-best player for the Blues (Perron).
“Well, it’s tough because (Tarasenko) is such a threat when he’s on the ice,” O’Reilly said. “He’s the guy we want shooting the puck, but I think we’ve got enough skill to where we can still be effective. It definitely changes things a lot, but we do have good depth here, and we’re going to find a way to keep going.”
And after a distinguished career doing it himself on the power play, Savard will continue looking for ways.
“We have to talk to him as much as we can,” Perron said. “I think he’s really sharp with the details of execution, passing the puck the right way, finding plays. Because he’s played, he brings a really good outlook. From Day 1 until now, it’s already improved, and it’s going to keep getting better.”
Berube believes Savard is just what the Blues needed.
“He was a good power-play guy when he played, got a lot of points, and he sees the game that way,” Berube said. “He’s done a good job of getting guys into position, moving the puck quick, attacking. The mindset is there to attack and a lot of good movement overall. They love it. Guys want to score goals. He was a good offensive player, and he reads the game and thinks the game like those guys.”
Savard is here, in St. Louis, Kovalchuk was told.
“I think he will help the Blues with the power play,” Kovalchuk said. “If you work as a writer for so many years, you’re better than me, right? So same thing. They say it’s not always the really good players that become really good coaches. But when you’ve got that experience, that’s going to help. And now with all the technology and media and everything, I think he will be really productive for sure.”
Scott Wheeler of The Athletic contributed to this story.
(Top photo of Marc Savard: Mark Buckner / NHLI via Getty Images)Ya