Blues’ biggest question: Are they good enough down the middle?

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Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Jeff Carter. Patrice Bergeron. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg.

Teams that win the Stanley Cup almost always have an elite center. As you can see, some of them even have two.

Do the St. Louis Blues?

The answer to that will depend on your definition of elite. If it’s a generous one, then maybe Paul Stastny gets the nod. Otherwise, it’s hard to answer yes.

Next season, the Blues’ top two lines could look something like this:

Alex Steen – Paul Stastny — David Backes
Jaden Schwartz — Jori Lehtera — Vladimir Tarasenko

If one of Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie or Robby Fabbri can step into a top-six role, coach Ken Hitchcock has said that Backes could be moved to the third line.

Regardless of how the lines shake out, it’s no surprise that the Blues were left wanting more from Stastny, their big free-agency signing from last summer.

“Paul Stastny needs to be a bigger part of our group,” GM Doug Armstrong said. “We need him to be a bigger and better part of our team.”

Stastny had 46 points in 74 games last season. He then managed just one goal, with no assists, in the Blues’ six-game playoff loss to the Wild.

Not enough from a player who was supposed to be a difference-maker in the tough Western Conference.

“I think in every sport if you’re strong up the middle you’re usually a strong team,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, per Yahoo Sports. “The center icemen seem to be the catalyst, usually offensively. They’re the guys who have the puck the most and make maybe the most decisions on the ice based on the number of touches they have in a game.”

Which is why there’s so much excitement in Washington about young Evgeny Kuznetsov.

But we digress.

The Blues are obviously a strong team. Their regular-season record is proof of that. But they haven’t been able to win that elusive Cup, so it’s only natural to pore over their roster in search of why.

Their lack of a truly elite center — and this goes for good teams like the Wild, Predators, Canadiens, Rangers, and Jets — may be as good an answer as any.

Related: Doug Armstrong is under pressure

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

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During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and other provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” But there are people out there who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away

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As the NHL moves towards resuming play this summer, the league must first narrow down the list of hub cities.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s Return to Play plan last week, he noted 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada are under consideration. Two will be chosen with the strong likelihood one will also host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

First, here are the 10 cities in the running:

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Appearing on the Ray & Dregs podcast, Bettman gave an update on the process.

“I’m going to probably have to make a decision collectively on this probably in three weeks,” he said on the May 28th episode. “I think in two weeks we’ll start narrowing down further. Somewhere around three weeks we’re going to have to pull the trigger and finalize the arrangements and make the deposits.”

Standing out

In order to play host, a hub city will need secure hotels, facilities for games and practices, and good transportation. Most importantly, there will need to be low COVID-19 case rates, cooperation from local government, and the availability for mass testing.

The three Canadian cities face the biggest challenges. The government has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said discussions are “on-going” between public health officials and the NHL.

How badly does Edmonton want in? Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent a request to Trudeau asking that NHL personnel be exempt from travel and quarantine restrictions to improve their chances.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has emerged as a favorite. Nevada is about to enter Phase Two this week, with businesses and casinos set to reopen. That’s a huge boost for the city’s chances given the amount of available hotels. The lack of ice sheets compared to other cities could be helped by the installation of additional surfaces, reported The Athletic last week. The total package is a reason why the conference finals and Cup Final could also take place there.

Host cities with a team involved, however, may not get to root them on. The league may put them in the other hub city or, if they do stay home, the players would have to follow the NHL’s guidelines. “[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said.

The NHL is expected to move into Phase 2 this week with players in small groups doing voluntary non-contact skating and off-ice training. The next step would be training camps opening up no earlier than July 10 and a possible resumption of the season by early August.

MORE RETURN TO PLAY:
Breaking down the Eastern Conference series

A look at the Western Conference matchups
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Qualifying Round storylines

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Our Line Starts podcast: Previewing key NHL Return to Play matchups

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In the latest edition of Our Line Starts, Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones break down the NHL Return to Play plan and take a look at a few potential hub cities. Plus, they preview some of the more exciting playoff matchups, including Penguins vs. Canadiens, Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Oilers vs. Blackhawks and Predators vs. Coyotes.

3:55-5:40 Is the Return to Play format fair?
6:45-8:05 Hub city discussion
8:05-10:50 Can Montreal upset Pittsburgh?
10:50-13:40 Intriguing Hurricanes-Rangers matchup
13:40- 15:50 Bracket vs Re-seed debate
16:30-18:45 What to make of Oilers vs Blackhawks
18:45-21:05 Coin flip between Coyotes and Predators

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Higher scoring in RTP; Lundqvist on future

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Could a four-and-a-half month layoff mean higher scoring when the NHL drops the puck again? [Sportsnet]

• It’s sounding more and more like Las Vegas will be one of the two hub cities. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• “The NHL Players Association plans to take action on behalf of several free agents looking to start their NHL contacts as soon as possible” [Lighthouse Hockey]

• Capitals assistant Reid Cashman has been named the new head coach of the Dartmouth’s men’s hockey team. Cashman will remain with the team through the end of the 2020 playoffs. [Dartmouth]

• The Ducks have sign Swedish Hockey League MVP Kodie Curran to a two-year deal. He posted 12 goals and 49 points with Rogle BK this season and also took home defenseman of the year. [TSN]

Henrik Lundqvist on his future: “Now we are ready to run this summer and this season. I also know that in November and December last year, when I was at my best, I played as well as I did several years before. It was incredibly fun. If I can I find a situation where I play and deliver like that – why not continue?” [Forever Blueshirts]

• Get to know Tim Stutzle, the next German hockey star. [The Hockey News]

• Should the Jets try and pry Jack Eichel out of Buffalo? [Jets Nation]

• Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom are likely call-ups for the Panthers when the NHL resumes play ahead of their series vs. the Islanders. [Panthers]

• The case for renaming the Art Ross Trophy to the Wayne Gretzky Trophy. [Ottawa Sun]

Rasmus Dahlin reflects on a disappointing Sabres season: “That’s what it is – and you can’t do much about it. But now that all my Swedish hockey friends go over, I sit at home like a loser. It hurts and it makes me very frustrated. It’s not fun.” [Die by the Blade]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.