PHT Time Machine: When the Blues made three straight Stanley Cup Finals

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the St. Louis Blues’ fascinating and mostly disappointing history with the Stanley Cup Final.

The St. Louis’ Blues history with the Stanley Cup Final might be the most bizarre of any team in the NHL.

Unless you are old enough to have been watching hockey in the late 1960s, you have no memory or recollection of them ever playing this deep in the season. The idea of the Blues lifting the Stanley Cup, or even playing in the Final, is almost certainly a foreign one to you and had probably been nothing more than a punchline until about three days ago, simply because it was something you just hadn’t ever witnessed.

When they defeated the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, they clinched their spot in the Final for the first time since 1970, the year they lost to their 2019 opponent — the Boston Bruins — on Bobby Orr’s now legendary overtime goal in Game 4 of the series.

It has been a 49-year drought since then that has seen the Blues put a consistently competitive — and sometimes even great — team on the ice only to always have a soul-crushing way of falling just short.

But they have been there!

This is the story of when the Blues, the best of the NHL’s “Great Expansion,” mostly served as a sacrificial lamb in the Stanley Cup Final for the already established Original Six teams.

This is the PHT Time Machine.


The Birth Of The Blues

The 1967-68 season was one of the most significant ones in NHL history as it ushered in the era of expansion. “The Great Expansion,” as it would come to be known by former league president Clarence Campbell.

After being a six-team league between 1942 and 1966, it was obvious that the NHL had woefully fallen behind its major sports counterparts in North America, in terms of both size and national relevance.

The NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball all not only had significantly more teams, they also had teams on the west coast and all had major television deals. And they were all continuing to grow while the NHL remained a stagnant, regional league that was mostly located in the Northeast.

But in February of 1966, the NHL doubled in size in the largest expansion in league history when the league’s owners voted to admit the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were the last of the teams to be admitted entry into the league and did so even though the city did not make an official bid for a team because there was no suitable ownership situation for a team at the time.

From the Feb. 10, 1966 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (reporting on the entry of the Penguins):

 

The “adequate NHL building” really wasn’t adequate at all and was mostly a decrepit eyesore that was owned by James D. Norris and Arthur Wirtz … the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was at the insistence of Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks that the NHL admit St. Louis (over a potential Baltimore franchise) as they saw it as a means of unloading a piece of real estate they no longer wanted. Considering the clout that Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks had in the league, the Blues were in under the initial ownership of Sid Salomon Jr., who purchased the St. Louis Arena from Norris and Wirtz.

He spent years pouring money into the building, increasing its capacity, and renovating it into something functional.

The Beginning of the Blues and Their Initial Success

When the NHL expanded it separated its two groups of teams (the established Original Six team and the expansion six) into two separate divisions, with the existing teams taking up residence in the Eastern Division and the expansion teams playing in the Western Division.

Under this alignment the top-four teams in each division would play each other in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, and the winner of each division would then meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

This guaranteed that an expansion team would be playing for the Stanley Cup in its first year of existence.

Now, this was the late 1960s, and the NHL was still a mostly wild west in terms of management and roster construction.

Teams didn’t know how to properly evaluate players, and with the NHL draft still in its infancy nobody other than Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock seemed to have a clue as to how to evaluate and value draft picks. This meant there was going to be a lot of inept management taking place, especially as the newly formed expansion teams tried to put competitive teams on the ice knowing that one of them would have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup immediately.

The result of this was a lot of dumb expansion teams unintentionally building a powerhouse in Montreal (we touched on this in a previous PHT Time Machine).

The Blues were clearly the most competent of the expansion teams in the very beginning, simply because they didn’t give away their future to Pollock and the Canadiens.

When they began play during the 1967-68 season, Lynn Patrick had assumed the role of general manager and head coach before surrendering the latter duty after just 16 games with a 4-10-2 record.

His replacement was a 32-year-old assistant who was given his first head coaching job in the NHL.

That assistant? Scotty Bowman.

The Blues would lose six of their first seven games under Bowman before finally starting to show improvement in the second half, finishing with a 23-21-14 record under his watch, doing just enough to snag one of the four playoff spots in the Western Division.

They would go on to win two Game 7s (against Philadelphia and Minnesota) to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

It was there that they would run into the Canadiens’ dynasty that was in the middle of five consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances (winning four of them) and would ultimately win 10 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1979.

It was an obvious mismatch on paper and the Blues would end up losing in a clean sweep.

Despite the four consecutive losses, the Blues kept every game close, losing all four by just a single goal, including two of them in overtime.

Two More Returns to the Stanley Cup Final With the Same Result

The Blues’ next two seasons would take on a remarkably similar look to the first one.

They would dominate the other expansion teams in their division, struggle against the Original Six teams, and then get swept in four games in the Stanley Cup Final.

They lost again to the Canadiens in 1968-69 and then then now-famous Bruins series in 1970.

During those first three years in the league the Blues, thanks to a strong defense and the goaltending of future Hall of Famers Glen Hall and Jacques Plante, were a battering ram against their fellow expansion teams and compiled a 75-32-23 record against them in the regular season, then never losing a playoff series to them.

By comparison, they were only 26-51-19 against the Original Six teams in the regular season and 0-12 against them in the playoffs, managing just 17 goals in the latter 12 games.

Because of this the Blues have some rather unique Stanley Cup Final history.

They are one of just six teams in the expansion era to have ever played in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, joining a list that includes two different versions of the Montreal Canadiens (all three years between 1968 and 1970 and again in the late 1970s), the Philadelphia Flyers (1974-1976) and the 1980s dynasties that belonged to the New York Islanders (1980-83) and Edmonton Oilers (1983-85).

That is the good history.

The bad history is that their collective 0-for in those games leaves them as one of just a handful of teams that have never won a Stanley Cup Final game (joining Winnipeg, Arizona, Florida, Columbus, and Minnesota — Florida is the only team in that group that has also played in at least one Stanley Cup Final).

Of the 23 teams that have played in at least 10 Stanley Cup Final games (including the original Ottawa Senators in the 1920s and the Montreal Maroons) all of them have won at least four games, while all but two (the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres) have won at least one Stanley Cup.

The aftermath of this was the NHL finally doing a little bit of a realignment for the 1970-71 season. It was at that point that the NHL expanded again, this time adding the Canucks and Sabres. Those two teams would join the Eastern Division with the established teams, while the Blackhawks would shift over to the Western Division with the expansion teams. The NHL also changed its playoff format.

In the previous three years, the format was set up so the first-and third-place teams in each division would meet in the first-round, while the second-and fourth place teams would also play. The winners of each series would play each other in the semifinals.

The change in 1970 was that the winner of the 1 vs. 3 matchup in the East would play the winner of the 2 vs. 4 matchup in the West. This opened the door for two Original Six teams to meet in the Stanley Cup Final and, in the eyes of the NHL, hopefully create a more competitive series. That is exactly what happened as Original Six teams met in the next four Stanley Cup Finals. It was not until the Philadelphia Flyers made it in 1974, starting their run of three consecutive trips to the Finals, that one of the expansion teams would get back.

It would take the Blues another 49 years.

It finally happened, and now they have a chance to complete what would be one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds ever if they can not only get their first ever Stanley Cup Final win, but add three more on top of that.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
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PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Hard cap hurt; Iginla talked Lucic into Flames move?

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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.

• The hard salary cap is hurting the NHL’s brand. (Broad Street Hockey)

• With his name removed from the list, he’s the top 10 untradeable contracts after the Milan Lucic trade. (The Hockey News)

• Flames’ trade for Milan Lucic is inexplicable. (Yahoo Sports)

• The seven best free-agent deals signed in the NHL this summer. (Daily Hive)

• Ranking every NHL team by weight… a hefty ask. (Vancouver Courier)

• The Flames can blame (partly?) a franchise legend for helping sell Calgary to no-movement-clause Milan Lucic. (Sportsnet)

• Is there too much offense from the defense in today’s NHL? (TSN.ca)

• Stanley Cup-winning teams with the most Hall of Famers. (Featurd)

• The King always gets his way. (NHL.com)

• Part 1 of a look at the false sense of parity in the NHL. (Last Word on Hockey)

John Tavares is both healthy again and still upset his Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Round 1. (NHL.com)

• The best and worst moves from each Eastern Conference general manager. (The Score)

• What would an NHL team made up only of players from New York/New Jersey look like? (The Athletic)

• A look back on the Martin St. Louis trade and its impact. (Raw Charge)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.