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.

What is the Kings’ long-term outlook?

Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Los Angeles Kings.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Los Angeles Kings currently revolve around two cornerstone pieces, captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty.

They were central figures during two Stanley Cup seasons in 2012 and 2014 and remain vital to the organization. The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment ended when they placed the veteran winger on unconditional waivers for the purposes of terminating his contract in mid-December.

But now the focus has shifted, and general manager Rob Blake is tasked with finding new pieces to help usher in a different era of Kings hockey.
Blake and his staff aim to build through the draft and own 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the second round, two in the third round and two in the fourth round. The Kings currently sit in the bottom five of the NHL standings and will have a premium first-round pick depending on the results of the lottery at the conclusion of the NHL season.

The Kings also made two selections in the first round of the 2019 draft and have a top-five NHL farm system, according to The Athletic’s prospect rankings this past summer.

Los Angeles won’t return to glory overnight, but they have the ammunition to rebuild their foundation and become a contender in the Western Conference once again.

Long-Term Needs

The Kings need to hit on their upcoming draft picks, simply put. The decisions made by the front office in the upcoming offseason could define the success of the franchise. It will be the difference between a three-year rebuilding process or 10-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Los Angeles also has to manage the salary cap over the next few seasons. Its patience will be tested, but the organization needs to wait until Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter’s lucrative contracts expire after the 2021-22 season. Goaltender Jonathan Quick’s deal expires the year after.

With new talent on the horizon, the Kings are in a position to clear out bad contracts but should avoid long-term commitments until a new core is established at the NHL level.

Long-Term Strengths

The good news is Kopitar and Doughty are still performing at a high level. The captain led the team in scoring with 62 points, surpassing his total from last season in 11 fewer games. Doughty leads the team in ice time, averaging a shade under 26 minutes per game and was close to eclipsing the 40-point mark for the sixth straight season.

In addition, Sean Walker secured a spot on the blueline with strong play in the first 70 games of his career. The undrafted defenseman also showed ability on the offensive side of the ice with 24 points, most of which came at even strength.

Most importantly, Todd McLellan looked to be making strides in his first year as head coach. The Kings finished (maybe) the season with an impressive seven-game winning streak and went 10-2-1 in the final 13 games.

The team has a lot of flexibility going forward and now it’s up to Blake to make the correct decisions, and McLellan to execute that plan on the ice.

MORE ON THE KINGS:


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

Brian Burke, Mike O’Connell feud over claims about Joe Thornton trade talks

Burke, O'Connell feud over Thornton trade
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Hockey fans have fond memories of Brian Burke’s feud with Kevin Lowe, and now it seems we have a sequel. Burke and former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell are in a war of words over alleged Joe Thornton trade talks. The biggest winners? Us.

Consider it a very short three act play or … boxing match, maybe more appropriately?

Round 1: Burke recalls trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks, “babysitting” O’Connell

Burke provided refreshingly candid answers to fan questions during an April 2 Twitter Q&A. The thread is worth your time, as Burke discusses the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo, and Gary Bettman.

But it was a two-part bit about Burke trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks that got the ball rolling.

Burke explained that he’s “still bitter” that the Ducks didn’t land Thornton, and believes he offered O’Connell a better deal than the Bruins ultimately received from the Sharks.

Most fascinatingly, Burke even gave specifics about what he was willing to offer. Now, one can speculate about who would have been in the Ducks top five in 2005. Would Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry possibly been available for Thornton?

But either way … wow.

As a reminder, the Bruins ended up receiving Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart for Thornton. As Bruins fans would like to forget, Thornton continued to be a star for the Sharks, including winning the 2005-06 Hart Trophy.

[PHT Time Machine: The Eric Lindros trade that didn’t happen.]

Round 2: O’Connell says Burke’s Thornton claims were a “fabrication”

Things got juicier between O’Connell and Burke on Tuesday.

O’Connell told The Athletic’s Joe McDonald (sub required) that Burke’s hypothetical offer didn’t happen, and that the details were a “fabrication.”

“The details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” O’Connell said. “Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”

Whew! (Shakes hand to indicate serious heat emanating from this rivalry.)

Round 3: Feud sizzles to a new level as Burke counters

Not to be outdone, Burke responded to O’Connell’s claims in a fiery appearance on ESPN on Ice with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. Burke made a key point by noting that current Ducks GM Bob Murray was in Burke’s office when he made the offer(s).

Burke also revived memories of wanting to battle Kevin Lowe in a fabled barn over the Dustin Penner offer sheet, saying “I wish we were in the same room, if you’re calling me a liar.” You really need to hear the entire clip, which Wyshynski posted:

*Ponders putting on oven mitts, this is all too hot to handle*

So obviously, this is a he-said, Burkie-said situation. We can only take each hockey executive’s word for it, and one could even argue that Murray might feel loyal to Burke.

But, considering the specifics of Burke’s claims, it seems feasible that the Ducks made some sort of offer for Thornton.

Theories

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It’s also crucial to realize how much a person’s memory can be altered by time. This happened in 2005, and sometimes the seeds of trades are planted far before a deal is consummated. It’s possible that O’Connell flat-out doesn’t remember Burke’s offer(s).

Not only has time passed, but O’Connell also took a ton of heat for the trade. McDonald notes this anonymous reaction from a Bruins player at the time of the trade:

“Are you kidding me? We traded Joe Thornton for three guys who can’t tie their skates.”

The Bruins fired O’Connell in March of 2006, and the Thornton trade undoubtedly served as a catalyst. Such events can leave you a bit scarred, and maybe even prompt you to forget certain details. Maybe phrasing like “babysitting” bothered O’Connell, even if I took it to mean that Burke was checking up on the situation quite often.

Or maybe O’Connell is right in claiming that Burke is making those Thornton trade claims with the “ultimate goal” of “self-promotion?”

One thing’s clear: this is fun

We can only really guess, and perhaps spend this coronavirus quarantine time imagining “What if?” scenarios. Could Thornton have pushed the Ducks into mini-dynasty status, as this was during their Chris Pronger – Scott Niedermayer era? Would the Bruins have landed blue chips rather than “guys who can’t tie their skates?”

(That’s totally unfair to Primeau, Sturm, and Stuart, as they all had lengthy NHL careers. Though I admit I have not received definitive proof of how adept they are with laces.)

The one thing we do know is that Thornton landed with the Sharks and had a great run. And that O’Connell (currently director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings) and Burke (Sportsnet personality) probably aren’t best buds.

Hey, it’s a lot more fun than talking about escrow though, right?

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: McGinn stuns Capitals in double OT

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NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour continues this week with matchups featuring unsung heroes.

The Hurricanes battled the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals to a Game 7 in Round 1 of the 2019 Playoffs. In Game 7 in Washington, Carolina rallied from two separate two-goal deficits to force overtime. In the second overtime period, Brock McGinn netted the winning goal that ended the third longest Game 7 in NHL history.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire had the call of Game 7 from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, April 7
• Hurricanes vs. Capitals (2019 Round 1, Game 7, Brock McGinn) – 5 p.m. ET
• #HockeyAtHome: Episode 1 – NHL Brothers – 6:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday, April 8
• Senators vs. Penguins (2017 Eastern Conf. Final, Game 7, Chris Kunitz) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL: Pause and Rewind – 6 p.m. ET

Thursday, April 9
• NHL: Pause and Rewind (Encore) – 5 p.m. ET
• Rangers vs. Kings (2014 Stanley Cup Final, Game 5, Alec Martinez) – 6 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: EPISODE 1 – NHL BROTHERS – TUESDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
Kathryn Tappen and Sportsnet host David Amber will co-host a 30-minute program about brothers in the NHL. The three sets of brothers interviewed and featured in the program are Eric, Jordan, and Marc Staal; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; and Quinn and Jack Hughes.

NHL: PAUSE AND REWIND – WEDNESDAY, 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
The premiere of a one-hour special, NHL: Pause and Rewind, will take a look back at this past NHL season as well as how players are spending their time off in the current league hiatus. Highlighted segments will include a look at the current top five teams in each conference, reflecting on the season’s milestones, including Alex Ovechkin’s historic 700 goal accomplishment, as well as revisiting the Blues’ improbable Stanley Cup victory last season.

NBC Sports commentators conducting player interviews and sharing #HockeyAtHome social content will also be featured throughout the program.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Third Avalanche player tests positive for COVID-19

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An eighth NHL player has tested positive for COVID-19.

The league announced Tuesday that a third player from the Colorado Avalanche has the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The league says the player is in self-isolation and has not had close contact with teammates or Colorado staff members.

The five other NHL players who tested positive all play for the Ottawa Senators. The Avalanche and Senators played games in California in March before the season was paused.