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

16 Comments

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.

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.