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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.