Blues got to Stanley Cup Final thanks to bold moves, patience

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Broadly speaking, the Bruins and Blues have been built in remarkably similar ways, so it makes sense that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy described the two as twins. Generally, the two show that you don’t need to bottom out for several years to find elite talent in the NHL … but you also need clever people to pull it off.

There are some differences, though, of course.

[Read all about how the Bruins were built]

For one thing, while the Bruins have seen some different executives come through, culminating with current GM Don Sweeney, the Blues’ current structure can be credited to GM Doug Armstrong, who’s been with the team since 2008 and served as GM since 2010. Now, sure, the Blues’ other staff members deserve plenty of credit, too, but the point is that Armstrong’s been a guiding force.

So, one one hand, the Blues are a testament to patience and savvy. Where other teams keep changing cooks and recipes, Armstrong’s been the one picking the ingredients for what feels like ages in the turbulent world of sports.

Yet, the Blues have gone from pushing a boulder uphill for years to make huge leaps thanks to some big changes. Let’s start with those, and then zoom out to the “Slow and steady” moves that provided a foundation for such jumps.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Bold moves

It’s well-documented, but impossible to ignore, that the Blues began 2019 in last place in the NHL, yet they find themselves in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues partially dug themselves out of that hole because they finally started to get the bounces that simply weren’t going their way, but they had to be good to be lucky, and that meant making some waves.

Most importantly, they fired head coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. The parallels between Berube and Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy are interesting, as they both found ways to successfully inject some offense into defensive-minded teams, and also because both are enjoying immense success during their second opportunities as NHL head coaches.

And the difference has been pretty huge when it comes to the Blues under Berube vs. under Yeo. Whether you look at the Blues going from being slightly out-shot to being a dominant shot share team, go a little fancier with your stats, or just look at overall play, it’s clear that Berube has been a revelation.

Of course, a coach’s adjustments can be undone (or enhanced) by the play of their goalie, and that’s where the other big in-season change comes in.

Jordan Binnington has taken the reins from an overmatched Jake Allen, and the Blues have skyrocketed basically ever since he wrestled the starting job away from Allen. Going from absorbing gut-punching goals to having a netminder that keeps you in games – and sometimes steals them – has been huge for the Blues. About the only bit of bad news is that Binnington’s an RFA after this season, so they’ll have to figure out what to pay him, and maybe how to move on from Allen.

That’s a better problem to have than not trusting your goalie, though.

Big trades

While splashy summer moves didn’t pay off right away for the Blues (at least when it came to their win-loss record), they’ve served as another big reason why St. Louis took steps forward in 2018-19.

Most crucially, the Blues took advantage of the Sabres’ tough situation to trade for Ryan O'Reilly, who’s been a two-way star for St. Louis. The old age that “the team who gets the best player wins the trade” rings true here, as St. Louis sent a lot of parts to Buffalo to land O’Reilly, but ROR has been worth far more than anything that went out in this deal.

The ROR trade came a year after the Blues landed another top-six forward in Brayden Schenn, a move that was also quite shrewd.

Overall, the Blues have been more trade-happy than the Bruins, especially when you consider some of the smart moves St. Louis made in trading people away.

Doug Armstrong made then-painful decisions to trade away the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk and Paul Stastny, while allowing then-captain David Backes to walk away to the Bruins. Where other NHL organizations might have made missteps in being too loyal to aging players, Armstrong showed discipline, and landed some draft assets in the cases of Shattenkirk and Stastny.

The Blues’ strong depth comes in part to trades, too. Getting Oskar Sundqvist from the Penguins for Ryan Reaves looks brilliant, and while Alexander Steen isn’t what he once was, that 2008 trade still makes some Maple Leafs fans cringe.

You can also credit Armstrong for trades he didn’t make. There were plenty of rumors swirling around Tarasenko and Pietrangelo being traded this season, but Armstrong kept his cool, and the Blues have been richly rewarded for sticking with them.

Free agent savvy

Again, if you ask me, the Blues’ success is as much about showing restraint as landing big free agent fish. Would they have the room to land O’Reilly’s $7.5M cap hit if they decided to pay Backes and/or Shattenkirk? Perhaps not.

But Armstrong’s had some success dipping into the pool.

David Perron seems to keep bouncing back and forth from St. Louis, yet he delivers, particularly for a dirt-cheap $4M per year. Patrick Maroon‘s been hit-or-miss, which really isn’t so bad for a buy-low free agent. Tyler Bozak‘s scored some big goals for the Blues during this run.

None of these players transformed the Blues like Zdeno Chara‘s signing did for the Bruins many moons ago, but Armstrong’s basically used the trade route to land free agent equivalents.

Naturally, big challenges lie ahead, with Binnington needing a new contract and Pietrangelo’s team-friendly deal expiring after next season.

Smart drafting

The Blues haven’t made mega-steals like landing Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron beyond the first round, but they’ve gotten some real gems, and aside from Alex Pietrangelo as the fourth pick in 2008, the Blues have found some great players beyond the more obvious portions of the first round.

The biggest year was probably 2010, when the Blues selected Jaden Schwartz with the 14th pick and Vladimir Tarasenko at number 16. (Coyotes, Stars, and Panthers fans will cringe especially hard at their teams’ picks before those two.)

St. Louis found some other hidden treasures, most notably snagging Colton Parayko with the 86th pick in 2012, along with finding Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn as quality second-rounders. Robert Thomas looks like a rising commodity as the 20th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Matchbox 20 jokes and all.

They’ve also found value in moving on from a pick, as they used Tage Thompson (26th overall in 2016) to help land Ryan O’Reilly.

Both the Bruins and Blues consistently find players (sometimes impact ones) even though they’ve rarely had premium first-round picks, and sometimes when they lacked first-round picks altogether. Few franchises can make that argument, particularly with the frequency that the Blues and Bruins have managed.

Really, you don’t see it all that often in sports, period, and it’s allowed the Blues and Bruins (and Sharks) to persist as quality teams for longer than expected.

***

For all the Blues’ sustained success, both recently and when they once rattled off 25 consecutive playoff appearances, the focus has often been on unhappy endings.

This sustained run shines a spotlight on something that’s been murmured about before: Doug Armstrong has done what’s often been a masterful job putting this team together, and finding ways to keep the success going.

Armstrong’s shown a remarkable knack for mixing patience and discipline with the sort of decisiveness you need to make blockbuster trades and season-saving coaching changes. Whether the Blues finally win that first Stanley Cup or come up short again, Armstrong’s work deserves praise — and it wouldn’t be shocking if he found a way to make sure that St. Louis contends for years to come.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”