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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Boston Bruins

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but only marginally so. Marcus Johansson provided a nice boost to Boston’s depth scoring as a rental, and now he’s gone. But, really, for a team that was as competitive as the Bruins — and has been as competitive as long as the Bruins have managed to be — this was a manageable offseason.

Strengths: The Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak remains in the conversation of best lines in the NHL, and plenty put them at number one, period. They dominate games not just by scoring in buckets, but by hogging the puck to a staggering degree. That trio likely stands as the biggest reason why the Bruins deployed an explosive power play last season, but Torey Krug deserves credit there, too. Being able to keep Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo in the fold should help the Bruins be strong on defense (for the most part). Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak was a strong goalie pairing last season, and David KrejciJake DeBrusk have created an effective second line duo that doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves.

Weaknesses: There’s little sense ignoring the threat of Father Time, as plenty of key scorers and both Bruins goalies are on the wrong side of 30. The Bruins must also keep an eye on Zdeno Chara, and not just because he’s at risk of missing parts of the early season with injuries. He’s slowing noticeably, so the Bruins can’t get too sentimental. It’s not outrageous to worry if the Bruins might go back to being a little top-heavy again.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Cassidy’s seat should be as cool as the other side of the pillow, with his greatest dangers coming in practice.

That said, the Bruins have high hopes, and if they falter, there might not be a ton of patience. We don’t know how long this team’s window of contention may stay open, what with so many key players battling the aging curve. It’s also worth noting that ownership is changing from Jeremy Jacobs to his six offspring, so there’s a mild risk of the Bruins turning into an NHL answer to “Succession.”

I’d rate it as a two (or maybe three) out of 10.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle, and Tuukka Rask.

Marchand is always interesting. Sometimes, because he’s performing at an all-world level. Other times, it’s because he’s being hockey’s most obnoxious troll. Plenty of times, he’s both.

In Coyle’s case, he gets a fuller taste of life as a member of the Bruins after getting his feet wet coming in around trade deadline time. This is a contract year for Coyle, so a lot of money is on the line, and it’s tough to say what kind of price tag he’ll demand.

Rask has occasionally been the scapegoat when things go a little sideways in Boston. That’s the life of a $7 million starting goalie. Fair or not, if Rask stumbles to begin 2019-20, people will wonder about the psychological aftershocks of a tough Game 7 loss against the Blues.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have shown us how a few players can seemingly age overnight, and a proud team can plummet all the way down to the cellar. The mileage on Rask, Bergeron, Krejci, Chara, Halak, and even Marchand should not be ignored, particularly after a deep playoff run.

Still, this Bruins team was fantastic last season, and should be very strong again. Matching last year’s deep run is unlikely to be easy thanks to a formidable Atlantic Division, but the playoffs are a good bet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

Losing Jacob Trouba hurts, and the defense also waved goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (with addition Neal Pionk arguably being a net negative). Kevin Hayes was clearly a rental, but either way, they once again have a 2C problem with him gone.

Strengths: Assuming the Jets sign RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg still boasts some serious firepower on offense. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we didn’t see the best out of that forward group at times in 2018-19. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler produced enough to overlook some possession numbers that were at-times middling, but it was a frustrating year for Laine, while Nikolaj Ehlers hopes to shake off a brutal playoff series where he went pointless.

Weaknesses: Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are quality defensemen, but that defense group is troubling overall — at least when you’re trying to endure the rigors of a tough Central Division. The Jets could really struggle in their own end, especially if last season’s expected goals nosedive was a sign of a new normal, rather than just a blip on the radar.

Troublingly, it’s not certain that Connor Hellebuyck will bail them out of mistakes; he was fabulous in 2017-18, but then fell back down to Earth with a .913 save percentage last season. It’s unclear if Hellebuyck can bail the Jets out if their defense ends up being as weak as feared.

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorUnder Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Normally, I’d lean almost toward 10, but Paul Maurice is some kind of coaching vampire. The dude’s somehow been consistently a head coach since 1995-96, even though team success has often been fleeting. You’d think the calls for his head would have been even louder considering how the Jets’ play plummeted basically once the calendar hit 2019.

Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart really captures that meltdown dramatically:

Yikes.

When you look at the Jets on paper, you expect more than we saw in 2018-19. How much is that on the players underachieving (or bad luck), and how much does it boil down to a coach who … frankly, hasn’t accomplished enough to make you think “that guy should be a head coach for decades.”

Because Maurice is nearly indestructible, let’s bump that 10 down to an 8 or 9. Turn on the microwave if Laine, Connor, and/or Dustin Byfuglien miss a chunk of the early season and the Jets really sink, though.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien.

In the cases of Laine and Connor, they remain RFA situations to watch. They’ll also carry a ton of pressure if they get paid more than people believe they’re worth. These are two players with quite a bit to prove already, and may only bring higher expectations with fatter wallets.

Byfuglien, meanwhile, is fascinating under almost all circumstances — a true anomaly of a player. Humans this large aren’t supposed to be able to rove like Byfuglien can, and he’s a truly unique combination of skill and nastiness. At his size and his age (34), it’s fair to wonder when Byfuglien might buckle under the burden of what will likely be a heavy workload post-Trouba and Myers.

Playoffs or Lottery: As gifted as Winnipeg’s top-end players are, it feels like they’re more likely to fight for a wild-card spot or Central second/third seed than run away with the division, conference, or Presidents’ Trophy. This team had serious problems toward the end of last season, and it’s unclear if they’ve solved them, particularly after losing important players like Trouba.

Even considering some of the red flags, it would be a surprise if the Jets missed the playoffs altogether, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.