‘Winning’ the AFL’s trade period has always been a nebulous concept.
How can an exchange of players be reliably judged before those players have had a chance to contribute to their new clubs?
Yes, there are rating systems and other such measures, but most media analysis rarely ventures much beyond gut feel.
Of course, there’s never any shortage of hot takes — and one of the hottest last year was that St Kilda had enjoyed “one of the great trade periods of the decade”.
As it happens, it was one of the rare occasions where the analytics and opinion were in perfect harmony.
Selling hope to St Kilda fans is a lucrative business.
The Moorabbin mob are sick of missing finals. Sick of drafting early. Sick of reminiscing about ’66, and sick of ruminating about 2010 and ’11.
At the end of last year, the Saints sacked their coach Alan Richardson, replaced him with ex-Carlton coach Brett Ratten and brought in Alastair Clarkson’s long-time lieutenant David Rath to lead its football program. And that was only the start.
The playing list was overhauled. In came Brad Hill, Zak Jones, Paddy Ryder, Dan Butler, Dougal Howard and Ryan Abbott.
Out went several fringe players, nearly their entire stockpile of 2019 draft picks and a fair chunk of this year’s picks as well.
The switch was flipped to “win now”. And that’s exactly what they’ve done so far in 2020.
Strong at the back
The Saints have nearly completely changed their defensive line-up in the past two years.
The sole holdover is ex-Bomber and former All-Australian Jake Carlisle. Draftees, cheap acquisitions and repurposed players have filled out the gaps around him.
The renovation has resulted in one of the league’s most versatile backlines — equally capable of stopping the opposition from scoring as launching its own attacks.
Carlisle remains the anchor. In the past he’s been prone to overcommitting in the air and getting beaten on the ground, but the arrival of Dougal Howard has allowed him to become more prudent.
Due to a tactical change at Alberton, Howard was thrown up forward at times in his last year at Port. Since moving to the Saints he’s cemented his standing as one of the AFL’s leading spoilers.
The help defence for St Kilda has been very effective so far. It’s rare for one of their players to be left exposed in a one-on-one contest.
But even when they are isolated, it’s no cause for alarm.
Their key defenders have lost just five of 32 contested one-on-ones this season — or 15 per cent compared to the league average of 28 per cent.
When transitioning from the backline, the Saints like having the ball in the hands of one of their two top-10 draftees from 2017: Nick Coffield and Hunter Clark.
Both were initially selected as long-term midfielders, but their counter-attacking instincts and ability to read the play have seen them become valuable assets to the Saints’ defence.
At 191 centimetres, Coffield fits the mould of the modern intercept defender.
He has the intuition to judge the ball in flight and the courage to position himself in the landing zone.
Coffield finds the right spot at contests even when he doesn’t have prime position.
Some sides, like Melbourne, have defensive communication issues, with too many players flying for one ball. But St Kilda back-men have so far shown impressive cohesion.
Another 2017 draftee, Ben Paton, has also become a pillar of the Saints’ back six, alongside converted forward Ben Long and 2018 mature-age draftee Callum Wilkie.
It’s a similar defensive setup to that used by Richmond, without the big names. The key to its success is its versatility, with players who can switch roles and assignments.
The Saints’ emerging depth has pushed the experienced Dylan Roberton out of the side, while captain Jarryn Geary has been deployed up forward after years as a defensive stalwart.
Since Paddy Ryder was dropped after round three, Geary has been the only player in the team older than 30.
The Saints are among the AFL’s top teams for scores generated from turnovers and scores originating from their defensive 50, which is a testament to the quality of their ball use.
At the same time, they’ve been able to stop other teams from scoring from centre bounces.
Of slight concern is a lack of scoring from their own centre clearances, but given that most scores come from intercepts, it’s good to have that area as a strength.
New targets at the other end
The departure of Josh Bruce and medical-related de-listing of Paddy McCartin at the end of last year left plenty of questions hanging over the Saints’ attack.
They went into this season with few proven options beyond mainstay Tim Membrey. But they’ve managed to defy expectations so far, swiftly and successfully crafting a potent forward-line through a combination of cheap small forwards, defensive swingmen and one highly rated recent draft pick.
Like in defence, the Saints prefer to avoid one-on-one contested situations.
This makes sense with their smaller-than-average forward-line.
Instead, a large proportion of the Saints’ successful inside 50s go to shorter targets with lower kicks, making best use of the tools at their disposal.
The days of the high kick to the “hotspot” are slowly coming to an end. It’s an inefficient strategy.
Instead, teams are increasingly kicking to shorter leads, recirculating the ball around the arc or taking longer shots at goal.
The Saints are also dangerous at ground level, particularly their recent recruits Dan Butler and Dean Kent.
Butler and Kent have shown they’re much more than just “defensive” forwards.
Max King, who was considered one of the most talented players in the 2018 draft, has shaken off knee problems to establish himself as the new cornerstone of the attack.
The final push
The Saints have been impressive in big wins over potential finalists Richmond and the Western Bulldogs, but were given a reality check against crisis-riddled Collingwood in round three.
The challenge for any younger side is to maintain the rage for an entire season. It could be to the Saints’ significant advantage that this coronavirus-affected season will be shorter than usual.
They’re now settling into their new training base in Noosa. Some teams with older list profiles have baulked at the move north, but for the young Saints it could be a solidifying experience.
If they show they can handle hub life over the next few weeks, why can’t the Saints make a run?