No longer battering ram Blues, St. Louis now relies on skill

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These are not the St. Louis Blues that marched to the Stanley Cup in 2019 by plowing through opponents and wearing them down.

If the Blues are going to make another long run this spring, it will be predicated on speed, skill and scoring — a lot of scoring. After watching hockey change drastically the past several years, longtime general manager Doug Armstrong hopes this is the year it’ll be possible to score enough to offset other concerns.

“We’ve just evolved,” Armstrong said. “That’s really going to be the test for a lot of the teams that are built this same way. Is this the year where, having offensive players, can you win with a 60/40 offensive balance? Because usually it’s a 40/60 defensive balance the other way around.”

The Blues are banking on that. They open the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild next week, a series that could be the most entertaining to watch because of the pure offensive output that is possible.

Three years ago, St. Louis might not have fared so well in that kind of situation. With a roster that had more size and strength, the Blues were in the middle of the pack in the NHL at just under three goals a game during the regular season.

Now they rank fourth in the league with an average of 3.77 goals and can thank not only franchise cornerstone and leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko but blossoming young stars Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou and newcomers Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad.

“We’ve never been a team that’s been built on one or two players,” Armstrong said. “We’ve always been a team that’s been built on pack mentality. I think obviously the maturation of Thomas and Kyrou has really helped our organization, and then the steady play of the veterans and adding two plus players in Buchnevich and Saad. I view our team as we have three very good second lines, and that’s a good thing.”

It was a great thing for a long time. The Blues’ franchise-record 16-game point streak that ended Tuesday night included them outscoring opponents by 35 goals and averaging almost five per game.

Craig Berube said the team’s balance of grit and skill is different than in years past, and as a result he has changed how he coaches the Blues.

“You’ve got to go with what you have,” Berube said recently. “From the Cup year, we move the puck better. In the neutral zone, we move the puck through the neutral zone better, and in the offensive zone we score a lot of goals. You got to let guys do what they’re good at.”

This is a blue line that has only Colton Parayko and Robert Bortuzzo back from 2019 and does the puck-moving part of the game much better as a unit. That was by design with Armstrong signing Torey Krug and acquiring Justin Faulk and Nick Leddy, who have combined to replace the minutes the Blues got out of captain Alex Pietrangelo and veteran Jay Bouwmeester — in very different ways.

“We had big players,” Armstrong said. “But, like everything, time marches on and we’ve had to change our outlook. We still have those core beliefs on how to defend, but we understand that the puck is our asset and our ally and we want to get it to our forwards as quick as possible.”

Berube has stressed defending better, an important message for a team with just 10 players back from 2019 and more youthful exuberance. St. Louis is 11th in the league in goals against, and it will always be important to get solid goaltending from Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso, who have so far split starts evenly.

But the path through the playoffs for the Blues won’t be about Binnington or Husso stealing games to win series. It may be about finding a balance between what worked three years ago and what’s winning games for them now — something forward Brayden Schenn pointed out because it’s harder to score this time of year than it was from October through March.

“If you just look from year to year and the teams that win from the previous 10 years or whatever it may be, I think you look at your ability to score but more importantly your ability to defend and play defense and take care of the puck,” Schenn said. “You have to defend harder (and) keep pucks out of your net because games are going to be a lot tighter.”

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”