Lessons we should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues

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Another NHL season is in the books and for the second year in a row it resulted in a long-suffering franchise and fan-base getting its first taste of the Stanley Cup.

This time it was the St. Louis Blues completing one of the most incredible in-season turnarounds we have ever seen, going from the bottom of the NHL standings in early January to the top of the NHL mountain in June.

Now that the newest champion has been crowned it is time to begin my favorite offseason activity: Dissecting how they won and figuring out how the rest of the teams in the league can attempt to model their success.

As always there are some valuable and meaningful lessons that can be taken from this particular champion.

There are also a few that lessons that teams should avoid getting lost in.

We need to talk about both types of lessons.

Your last place team next January is NOT going to win the Stanley Cup

By now you have no doubt heard the story.

In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the NHL and fought all the way back to not only make the playoffs, but also nearly win the Central Division and then went on to win the Stanley Cup once they made the playoffs.

It sounds amazing, because it is amazing, and an incredible turnaround that is worthy of praise and celebration.

Here is what you should not do: Take this as a “all you have to do is get in” lesson, or that your team that is in last place at the halfway point of the NHL season is going to be capable of turning its season around in this same way. Chances are, it is not.

Of the bottom 14 teams in the league standings on January 1 this season only two of them ended up making the playoffs — the Blues, and the Carolina Hurricanes, who were in 22nd place overall in the league standings on that same date.

If you go back to the start of the 2005-06 season when the NHL introduced the three-point game there have only been three teams in the bottom-five of the league standings on January 1 that came back to make the playoffs in that season.

Those teams were the 2019 Blues, the 2008-09 Blues, and the 2007-08 Washington Capitals. While this year’s Blues team won it all, the other two were eliminated in the first round winning just three total games between them in the playoffs.

There is also this when it comes to the Blues: They were not your run of the mill bad team at that point in the season. They were one of the NHL’s best defensive teams a year ago, had that same defensive core in place, and spent heavily over the summer to address its offense by acquiring Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Patrick Maroon, and Tyler Bozak, a series of transactions that added nearly $19 million to their cap, sending them close to the upper limits of the league’s salary cap.

This team was built to compete and win this season.

They were also not a team that just simply got hot and flipped a switch at the start of April.

Their early season record was a mirage that saw an otherwise good team get absolutely sabotaged by horrific goaltending. From January 1 on, especially after they found a competent goalie, they played at a championship level in every meaningful metric that we have to project future performance (and this isn’t 20/20 hindsight knowing the results … it is why I picked them to come out the Western Conference at the start of the playoffs. Yes, I also picked Tampa Bay in the East, but, hey, you win some and you lose some).

If your team is in the bottom-five of the standings next January it is probably there because it deserves to be there, and if your GM or coach starts talking about looking to the Blues for inspiration it is probably a sign something bad is about to happen in the form of a roster transaction.

The Blues winning the Stanley Cup is not the fluke here. Their record in January was the fluke.

Goaltending will crush you … and also save you

This is kind of related to the previous point, and it is not just good goaltending that matters.

Bad goaltending matters, too, in the sense that it significantly alters what happens to a team. This is the biggest reason why the Blues were in the position they were in at the start of the season to set the stage for this storybook ending.

From opening night through Jan. 1 the Blues’ goaltending duo of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson combined for an all-situations save percentage of .892 save percentage, a mark that was the third-worst in the NHL at that point. Goaltending that bad is nearly impossible to overcome (at that point only other team in the bottom-10 in save percentage — the San Jose Sharks — occupied a playoff spot).

It was crushing what was, for the most part, still a very good defensive team and made everyone think they were worse than they actually were.

At this point the jury is still very much out on Jordan Binnington because he still has such a small sampling of work to go on. Maybe he will be good, and maybe his career peaked this season. No matter what direction his career takes from here he gave the Blues what they needed in the second half to at least give them a chance to compete.

Maybe he did not steal many games for them, but he did the next best thing — he did not lose many games.

If you think your team that is built to win is not winning, do not assume you are worse than you thought you would be. You should start by looking at the performance of your goalies before you make more changes than you need to make.

At the same time, if your team is performing better than you thought it would do not automatically assume it is better than you thought it would be. Just assume your goalie is bailing it out.

Yes, big money stars still matter

Take a quick look at this Blues roster and name the biggest superstar.

Or the slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

Is there one of either?

Vladimir Tarasenko is probably the closest one in either category, and while I would definitely consider him a star player he is probably far from a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, if he even is one at all.

This is a team whose whole was far greater than the sum of its parts, and while general manager Doug Armstrong did a fabulous job building a well-rounded, deep team, this is a roster construction that is going to be nearly impossible to duplicate on a championship level.

Earlier in the playoffs when all of the big-name teams were eliminated there was a narrative starting to surface about big-money players and how teams that were winning didn’t have a lot of them. This postseason was very much an anomaly in that regard, but the Blues’ success is still probably going to push somebody out there in hockey-land to argue that their team is better off shedding its big-money player to build a more well-rounded team.

If (or when) it happens, it is going to be a mistake.

Here’s the thing about this Blues team: Even though it lacked a traditional “superstar” or a $10 million per year player it was still a team that carried some big contracts at the top of its lineup. Their top-five cap hits this season totaled $33 million, or 42 percent of the league’s cap ceiling. While recent Stanley Cup winners in Washington and Pittsburgh had slightly higher percentages (46 percent in Washington in 2017-18; around 50 percent for the Penguins in 2016 and 2017) it is still roughly in the same ballpark.

You still need stars to win. The Blues may not be overflowing with household name superstars, but they still have their share of big-money, impact players on their roster.

If you get the best player in the trade you will almost always win the trade

This also relates to the previous point where quality is better than quantity.

One impact player is better than two decent players.

The biggest move the Blues made before this season was to acquire Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres, and while O’Reilly isn’t a superstar he is still an excellent No. 1 center. He is a 60-70 point player offensively, he is a shutdown player defensively, and he plays big minutes against top players and does not take penalties. He can be a force on the ice. When the Blues traded Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, and a first-round draft pick for him it was viewed in some places as being a lot to give up and a solid return for the Sabres. But it wasn’t.

The Blues were still getting what was by far the best player in the trade, and a player that even before this season carried more value individually than all four assets going the other way did combined.

For the Sabres to come out ahead in this trade in the future Thompson and the first-round pick are probably both going to need to become top-line players, and the chances of that happening are just laughably small. Thompson is an okay prospect, but did not really take a step forward this season, and the historical track record of players taken with the No. 31 overall pick (or in that general vicinity) is not exactly a promising one.

The Blues feasted on a team that seemed almost desperate to get rid of an impact player and got him for what amounted to a pile of spare parts. Is it really a surprise to see the direction both teams took on the ice this season?

Play! To! Your!  Strengths!

Every word needs emphasized because the Blues’ championship is going to result in a bunch of think-tank discussions about the future of the NHL, the way the game is played, and the way teams should be built.

The only logical conclusion that anyone should come to is that there is more than one way to win and more than one style that can work.

It just depends on what your team is good at and if your team is getting the right players to fit that style.

Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Chicago Blackhawks, have found success with speed and skill over the past few years.

Some teams, like this year’s Blues, found success with a bigger, more physical roster that played better defensively.

The 2017-18 Washington Capitals were kind of a blend of both, as were this year’s Bruins (though they are not anywhere near as big or physical as the Big Bad Bruins moniker will have you believe).

The key is finding your identity and sticking to it.

If your team is built around speed and skill, don’t deviate away from that just because you think you have to get bigger and stronger (See: Penguins, Pittsburgh). It will not work.

If your team is bigger and better defensively, don’t just find a bunch of lightning quick speedsters that have frying pans for hands and can’t defend. It will not work.

The Penguins and Blackhawks styles worked because their skilled players could score and defend. They were not fast for the sake of being fast. They were fast and good.

The Blues’ style worked because their big, heavy players could also score and play. They were not big and physical just for the sake of being big and physical. They were big and good.

This should be obvious and common sense, but I have watched, followed, and covered enough NHL hockey over the years to know there is a team out there (or two … or three … or even more) that is already sitting in its scouting meetings as I write this and wondering how they can get bigger because they feel they need to get bigger, whether it makes sense for them or not. If you are a team like Pittsburgh, Toronto, Carolina, or Colorado don’t think you need to get bigger just because the Blues won playing this particular way.

The 2018-19 St. Louis Blues were a unique team in a lot of ways, and there are definitely some lessons that we should take away from their season that can be applied to other teams.

They just may not be the lessons most teams will attempt to take away.

MORE BLUES STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
• Jay Bouwmeester finally gets his Stanley Cup
• Blues fan Laila Anderson gets moment with Stanley Cup
• Ryan O’Reilly wins Conn Smythe Trophy
• Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle
• Blues latest team erased from Stanley Cup drought list

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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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First 3 🤟🏄

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


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