Why Pavel Buchnevich and the St. Louis Blues Are a Perfect Match
When the St. Louis Blues swapped Sammy Blais and a second-rounder for restricted free agent Pavel Buchnevich in the offseason, it was clear from the outset that they landed the better player. The New York Rangers were caught in a cap squeeze and thus resorted to losing this trade in order to keep higher-priority pieces.
But general manager Doug Armstrong didn’t just win in pure value. He acquired precisely the type of player his roster needed. Since claiming the Stanley Cup in 2018-19, St. Louis’ 5-on-5 play has fallen off a cliff. The Blues’ expected goal rate has plummeted from 53.4% (6th) to 50.0% (17th) to 46.1% (25th) over the past three seasons. The effort has been there, but the control hasn’t. St. Louis required a forward who could bridge the gap between defense and offense and allow the team to attack with greater consistency.
Enter Buchnevich on a four-year, $23.2 million deal ($5.8M AAV).
Though the 26-year-old isn’t the fastest, biggest or most electrifying winger around, he’s a possession maestro who excels at playing within the team concept. The puck isn’t on his stick for an eternity before he makes a decision. It moves swiftly, and he understands how to use his teammates and the space around him to put the Blues in advantageous situations:
Notice how he’s perpetually ready for the next move. He isn’t just reacting to the action but driving it. His knack for either getting or keeping the ball rolling forces St. Louis off its heels and into a more offensive posture.
It’s not some happy coincidence that Buchnevich leads the club’s forward corps in scoring chance (53.0%) and expected goal rate (52.5%). Equally unsurprising is the fact that every forward he’s played significant minutes with this season (Ivan Barbashev, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly) sees their underlying numbers improve when they take the ice with him. During his shifts, he involves every member of his five-man unit and the team travels downhill as a well-oiled machine.
Of course, controlling the play isn’t worth all that much if you aren’t finding the back of the net with any regularity. Buchnevich has helped in this regard too with 34 points in 33 games. That amounts to the highest production rate of his career. The Russian possesses outstanding vision and skill, and he’s been setting up Blues players in prime real estate throughout the first half of the 2021-22 campaign:
Since he processes the game so effortlessly, he can hurt you at different speeds. He’s as likely to hold on, draw defenders toward him and feather a saucer pass to an open teammate as he is to one-touch a dart into a rapidly closing window to the slot. As odd as this sounds, he isn’t a selfish playmaker either. He’s happy to make a good pass that leads to an even better one down the line. Thanks to his poise and versatility, he ranks 23rd among forwards in all-situations assist rate.
While Buchnevich is indeed a pass-first winger, he still offers a well-rounded offensive arsenal. If you give him time and space, he’ll flash the patience and finish to fluster opponents:
St. Louis added a legitimate top-six talent while surrendering a gritty role player in Blais. As such, the Blues can now spread the wealth across three lines with a combination of Buchnevich, O’Reilly, Tarasenko, Kyrou, Thomas, Schenn, Barbashev, David Perron and Brandon Saad. There may not be a ton of star power there, but there’s a stellar mix of playmaking and marksmanship. The proof of this balance is in the pudding: Even though Perron and Schenn have missed time this season, the Blues rank sixth offensively (3.44 GPG). They’re averaging almost half a goal more per contest than they did a year ago.
Finally, Buchnevich’s style aligns with the team’s emphasis on defense as well. Though he isn’t necessarily known as a three-zone player, he’s a positionally sound winger with great anticipation, reach and hand-eye coordination. He can break up the opposition’s designs before they ever materialize:
Overall, there’s a reason Berube is granting Buchnevich the third-highest time on ice among Blues forwards. He’s clever, rangy and dependable in any setting. His possession game has introduced a measure of control to St. Louis’ performances, his raw skill has supercharged the club’s offense and he can hold his own defensively. That has translated to the highest actual goal rate on the team. His 70.3 GF% ranks fifth out of the 157 forwards who have logged at least 400 minutes at a 5-on-5.
Will his on-ice save percentage drop from a currently scintillating 95.0? Probably. But even if it regresses to the club’s average, he’ll remain comfortably in the green because he’s dictating the flow of the game when he’s out there. He’s redefining the team’s approach up front.
In less than half a season, he’s gone from expendable in New York to indispensable in St. Louis.