Kevin Shattenkirk

Blues got to Stanley Cup Final thanks to bold moves, patience

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Broadly speaking, the Bruins and Blues have been built in remarkably similar ways, so it makes sense that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy described the two as twins. Generally, the two show that you don’t need to bottom out for several years to find elite talent in the NHL … but you also need clever people to pull it off.

There are some differences, though, of course.

[Read all about how the Bruins were built]

For one thing, while the Bruins have seen some different executives come through, culminating with current GM Don Sweeney, the Blues’ current structure can be credited to GM Doug Armstrong, who’s been with the team since 2008 and served as GM since 2010. Now, sure, the Blues’ other staff members deserve plenty of credit, too, but the point is that Armstrong’s been a guiding force.

So, one one hand, the Blues are a testament to patience and savvy. Where other teams keep changing cooks and recipes, Armstrong’s been the one picking the ingredients for what feels like ages in the turbulent world of sports.

Yet, the Blues have gone from pushing a boulder uphill for years to make huge leaps thanks to some big changes. Let’s start with those, and then zoom out to the “Slow and steady” moves that provided a foundation for such jumps.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Bold moves

It’s well-documented, but impossible to ignore, that the Blues began 2019 in last place in the NHL, yet they find themselves in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues partially dug themselves out of that hole because they finally started to get the bounces that simply weren’t going their way, but they had to be good to be lucky, and that meant making some waves.

Most importantly, they fired head coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. The parallels between Berube and Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy are interesting, as they both found ways to successfully inject some offense into defensive-minded teams, and also because both are enjoying immense success during their second opportunities as NHL head coaches.

And the difference has been pretty huge when it comes to the Blues under Berube vs. under Yeo. Whether you look at the Blues going from being slightly out-shot to being a dominant shot share team, go a little fancier with your stats, or just look at overall play, it’s clear that Berube has been a revelation.

Of course, a coach’s adjustments can be undone (or enhanced) by the play of their goalie, and that’s where the other big in-season change comes in.

Jordan Binnington has taken the reins from an overmatched Jake Allen, and the Blues have skyrocketed basically ever since he wrestled the starting job away from Allen. Going from absorbing gut-punching goals to having a netminder that keeps you in games – and sometimes steals them – has been huge for the Blues. About the only bit of bad news is that Binnington’s an RFA after this season, so they’ll have to figure out what to pay him, and maybe how to move on from Allen.

That’s a better problem to have than not trusting your goalie, though.

Big trades

While splashy summer moves didn’t pay off right away for the Blues (at least when it came to their win-loss record), they’ve served as another big reason why St. Louis took steps forward in 2018-19.

Most crucially, the Blues took advantage of the Sabres’ tough situation to trade for Ryan O'Reilly, who’s been a two-way star for St. Louis. The old age that “the team who gets the best player wins the trade” rings true here, as St. Louis sent a lot of parts to Buffalo to land O’Reilly, but ROR has been worth far more than anything that went out in this deal.

The ROR trade came a year after the Blues landed another top-six forward in Brayden Schenn, a move that was also quite shrewd.

Overall, the Blues have been more trade-happy than the Bruins, especially when you consider some of the smart moves St. Louis made in trading people away.

Doug Armstrong made then-painful decisions to trade away the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk and Paul Stastny, while allowing then-captain David Backes to walk away to the Bruins. Where other NHL organizations might have made missteps in being too loyal to aging players, Armstrong showed discipline, and landed some draft assets in the cases of Shattenkirk and Stastny.

The Blues’ strong depth comes in part to trades, too. Getting Oskar Sundqvist from the Penguins for Ryan Reaves looks brilliant, and while Alexander Steen isn’t what he once was, that 2008 trade still makes some Maple Leafs fans cringe.

You can also credit Armstrong for trades he didn’t make. There were plenty of rumors swirling around Tarasenko and Pietrangelo being traded this season, but Armstrong kept his cool, and the Blues have been richly rewarded for sticking with them.

Free agent savvy

Again, if you ask me, the Blues’ success is as much about showing restraint as landing big free agent fish. Would they have the room to land O’Reilly’s $7.5M cap hit if they decided to pay Backes and/or Shattenkirk? Perhaps not.

But Armstrong’s had some success dipping into the pool.

David Perron seems to keep bouncing back and forth from St. Louis, yet he delivers, particularly for a dirt-cheap $4M per year. Patrick Maroon‘s been hit-or-miss, which really isn’t so bad for a buy-low free agent. Tyler Bozak‘s scored some big goals for the Blues during this run.

None of these players transformed the Blues like Zdeno Chara‘s signing did for the Bruins many moons ago, but Armstrong’s basically used the trade route to land free agent equivalents.

Naturally, big challenges lie ahead, with Binnington needing a new contract and Pietrangelo’s team-friendly deal expiring after next season.

Smart drafting

The Blues haven’t made mega-steals like landing Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron beyond the first round, but they’ve gotten some real gems, and aside from Alex Pietrangelo as the fourth pick in 2008, the Blues have found some great players beyond the more obvious portions of the first round.

The biggest year was probably 2010, when the Blues selected Jaden Schwartz with the 14th pick and Vladimir Tarasenko at number 16. (Coyotes, Stars, and Panthers fans will cringe especially hard at their teams’ picks before those two.)

St. Louis found some other hidden treasures, most notably snagging Colton Parayko with the 86th pick in 2012, along with finding Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn as quality second-rounders. Robert Thomas looks like a rising commodity as the 20th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Matchbox 20 jokes and all.

They’ve also found value in moving on from a pick, as they used Tage Thompson (26th overall in 2016) to help land Ryan O’Reilly.

Both the Bruins and Blues consistently find players (sometimes impact ones) even though they’ve rarely had premium first-round picks, and sometimes when they lacked first-round picks altogether. Few franchises can make that argument, particularly with the frequency that the Blues and Bruins have managed.

Really, you don’t see it all that often in sports, period, and it’s allowed the Blues and Bruins (and Sharks) to persist as quality teams for longer than expected.

***

For all the Blues’ sustained success, both recently and when they once rattled off 25 consecutive playoff appearances, the focus has often been on unhappy endings.

This sustained run shines a spotlight on something that’s been murmured about before: Doug Armstrong has done what’s often been a masterful job putting this team together, and finding ways to keep the success going.

Armstrong’s shown a remarkable knack for mixing patience and discipline with the sort of decisiveness you need to make blockbuster trades and season-saving coaching changes. Whether the Blues finally win that first Stanley Cup or come up short again, Armstrong’s work deserves praise — and it wouldn’t be shocking if he found a way to make sure that St. Louis contends for years to come.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers visit Flyers on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pride will be at stake between the Rangers and Flyers when they meet in the first game on Star Sunday on NBC.

The Flyers were officially eliminated from the playoffs after a tough 5-2 loss on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been out of contention for a while, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years.

“I think the poor start is the reason that we’re in this position,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after Saturday’s game. “Every year it feels like it’s the same story. We need to figure it out…we know we can make the playoffs and be a dangerous team, but we can believe whatever we want. We just have to go out there and make it happen.”

For New York, stopping the Flyers’ six-game winning streak against them — including their three previous meetings this season — will be top of the order. The Flyers haven’t swept the season series since the 1984-85 season.

Philly put up a valiant effort this season after firing the general manager and head coach they began the season with. The Rangers began the season on a rebuilding foot, having brought in David Quinn while selling off several key pieces at the trade deadline.

Despite where both teams find themselves, there won’t be lacking for motivation.

“You want to win hockey games, especially when you’re playing a division rival,” Quinn said.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Sunday, March 31, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Vladislav NamestnikovFilip ChytilVinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyLias AnderssonRyan Strome
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenBoo Nieves

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithNeal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

FLYERS

James van RiemsdykNolan Patrick — Claude Giroux
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Ryan HartmanScott LaughtonTravis Konecny
Michael RafflCorban KnightPhil Varone

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbeherePhilippe Myers
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Ed Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage alongside Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.


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

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Capitals on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington sits in a tie for first in the Metro with the New York Islanders (Isles have one game in hand) as they look to be headed back to the postseason for the fifth straight time and what would be an 11th appearance in the last 12 seasons. The Capitals have won five of their last six games and this is the second game of a thre-game road trip after beating the Islanders, 3-1, on Friday (Washington plays at Philadelphia on Wednesday on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET).

Alex Ovechkin leads the team in points (75) and paces the entire league with 45 goals (Patrick Kane – second with 40) as he pursues another Rocket Richard trophy – aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (seven) and become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. With Ovechkin’s goal on Friday, he became the first player in NHL history to score 45-plus goals in 10 seasons:

The Rangers are coming off a 4-2 loss to Montreal on Friday – their third straight loss as they are headed towards missing the postseason for the second consecutive year – after a stretch that saw them make the playoffs 11 times in a 12-season span from 2006-2017.

Henrik Lundqvist turned 37 years old on Saturday. The longtime starting goalie is in a bit of slump having lost seven of his last eight starts (1-5-2, 3.14 GAA). His record sits at 17-17-9, and he’s currently sporting a 3.04 goals against average and .907 save percentage, both of which would be career-worsts if the season ended today.  King Henrik is just three wins away from his 14th straight 20-win season (in as many years in the NHL). If he can reach that mark, he’ll become the fourth goalie in NHL history to record at least 14 seasons with 20 wins, along with Patrick Roy (17), Martin Brodeur (16) and Ed Belfour (15).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, March 3, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadJimmy Vesey
Vladislav NamestnikovRyan StromeJesper Fast
Brendan LemieuxLias AnderssonPavel Buchnevich
Brendan SmithBrett HowdenFilip Chytil

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Libor Hajek – Neal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from New York. Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones will handle studio coverage.

Trade: Capitals hope to land another defensive gem in Jensen

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The Washington Capitals continue to load up on depth at the trade deadline, while the Detroit Red Wings set the stage for what might amount to even more dramatic selling over the next few days.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Capitals and Red Wings made the following trade, which has since been confirmed.

Capitals receive: Defenseman Nick Jensen, Buffalo’s 2019 fifth-rounder.

Red Wings receive: Defenseman Madison Bowey, 2020 second-rounder.

Jensen, 28, is set to become a UFA, with a cap hit of $812,500. Bowey, 23, carries a $1M cap hit, and his contract runs through 2020-21.

Update: The Capitals didn’t waste much time in making sure they’ll keep Jensen around. The team announced a four-year, $10M contract extension ($2.5M cap hit through 2022-23.)

This comes shortly after the Capitals acquired Carl Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings. While Hagelin brings speed, possession prowess, and playoff experience to Washington, Jensen is a sturdy, right-handed defenseman.

The comparisons between Washington landing Jensen and the Michal Kempny trade are running rampant right now. The Capitals haven’t been shy about acquiring defensemen during the trade deadline over the years, but many will argue that they enjoyed better returns from a lesser-known quantity like Kempny, rather than the splashier Kevin Shattenkirk trade the year before. Jensen even basically received the same contract as Kempny.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan also noted that Capitals GM Brian MacLellan expressed disappointment with the pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov earlier in February:

“A little disappointed,” MacLellan said. “I think they were our main pair last year, played great for us in the playoffs, and I don’t think they’ve played at the standard that they’re used to playing at. … I think they both seem to be just a little bit off, and we’re trying everything we can to help them both find their game.”

Jensen gives the Capitals some more versatility, as he tracks reasonably well as a “defensive defenseman.” He does so in the modern sense, because Jensen tends to grade well at moving the puck.

Khurshudyan wonders if Christian Djoos might be the odd-man out with the addition of Jensen.

Bowey had really struggled to find his game with Washington after being the 53rd pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. At the moment, the second-round pick looks to be far and away the lure for the Red Wings, but there’s always the chance that Bowey might be able to turn things around.

As it stands, the Capitals definitely get a short-term upgrade. Via metrics like Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, Jensen seems to edge Bowey in a lot of ways.

Many believe that the Capitals paid a significant price for Jensen, but ultimately, that comes down to how you feel about both of the defensemen involved … and also how much you weigh a second-rounder.

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.