Tyler Bozak

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.

Blues’ Binnington goes from castoff to Stanley Cup champion

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Jordan Binnington‘s storybook ride from fourth stringer to Stanley Cup-winning goaltender was fueled by a few free meals.

The best came last weekend at Brio Tuscan Grille, one of his favorite spots as St. Louis began to feel like home.

”They were good to me,” Binnington said.

Binnington has been so good for the Blues that fans of the long-suffering franchise might never let him pay for another meal again. Drafted in the third round, shuffled to the bottom of the Blues’ goalie chart and even farmed out to Boston’s top minor league affiliate, Binnington’s comeback is one for the ages: The 25-year-old rookie led the Blues from dead last in the NHL to the first championship in franchise history.

He turned out to be the perfect backstop for the bruising Blues, a quiet anchor to rally around for a six-month run to the title. There was nowhere to go but up.

”It’s really cool,” the soft-spoken Toronto-area native said. ”I understand it’s a good story. But I’m going to appreciate it later.”

Binnington spoke not long after a 4-1 victory over the Bruins in Game 7 on Wednesday night. Stunned to be standing there with the Stanley Cup, Binnington wondered aloud, ”I can’t believe we’re here now?”

He led them here. Beginning with a shutout in his first NHL start Jan. 7 in Philadelphia, Binnington went 24-5-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.

”The first game he gets a shutout in Philly and you’re hoping,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. ”You keep watching and wondering, ‘Is this real?’ Water usually finds its level. Well, his water level is very high. I would say you’re into mid-February and March and he’s a rock of our team. … He’s a well-deserving champion.”

St. Louis’ run coincided with Binnington’s arrival and concluded with him stopping 32 shots in Game 7. Coach Craig Berube called it Binnington’s best game of the series.

”(He’s a) great goaltender,” Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly said. ”If we keep (shots) to the outside, he’s going to be making those saves.”

Making saves without looking flashy is what Binnington does best. He isn’t frantic in his play and exudes confidence that O’Reilly believes flows to the rest of the team.

”This group just got closer and closer as we went on,” Binnington said. ”They welcomed me in well and I just tried to do my job, battle and keep my mouth shut.”

Showing just how many elder Blues players hadn’t won the Cup, Binnington was the 14th player to receive the trophy after captain Alex Pietrangelo handed it off. That’s hockey, and everyone on the roster knows Binnington led the way when it mattered. He went 7-2 in the playoffs following a loss and earned a tremendous amount of respect from teammates for how he handled so much time in the minors before getting to this point.

”He hasn’t been given the greatest hand. He hasn’t been given an easy route to get here,” veteran Blues defenseman Chris Butler said. ”He’s put his head down and continued to work. It’s been fun to watch. I always had an idea that he was a pretty good goaltender. I would never have been able to predict this. I think a lot of people were expecting him to falter.”

Not Binnington, even when he was fourth string in the St. Louis organization as recently as training camp.

Butler always sensed confidence oozing from Binnington, who famously asked early in his run, ”Do I look nervous?”

He never really did.

”He’s always been extremely confident in himself, and that’s what you’ve got to love about a goaltender,” Butler said. ”You feel like the team kind of takes on that persona when he steps into the crease.”

Binnington’s quiet confidence and ability to steal games were key to the Blues climbing from last place to the top of the hockey world. Game 7 was a perfect example: He made 12 saves in the first period to keep the Bruins off the board and allow his teammates to finally crack dominant playoff goalie Tuukka Rask.

”He shut the door,” center Tyler Bozak said. ”He made incredible saves and gave us that confidence that he was dialed in, like he was all year. Just to get that first goal was kind of a relief, and we built from there.”

Binnington was nothing if not resilient. He went 13-2 following a loss this season.

”Stuff’s going to happen,” Binnington said. ”You’re going to go through adversity, right? And that’s how you handle it.”

Binnington is grateful for the free grub but all spring has been reluctant to dwell on his rags-to-riches story. Don’t expect any grand proclamations now about his road, his run and how he made this improbable championship happen.

”It’s been good,” Binnington said. ”I’ve been enjoying it.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Thomas to return to Blues’ lineup for Game 6 vs. Bruins

ST. LOUIS — Robert Thomas will make his return to the St. Louis Blues’ lineup for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final Sunday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

With Ivan Barbashev suspended following his hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 5, Thomas will likely find a spot on the Blues’ third line with Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon. Sammy Blais would shift down to the fourth line alongside Oskar Sundqvist and Alexander Steen.

“I’m good to go. I’m ready,” Thomas said. “It feels great to be back out there with the guys and I’m good to go for tonight.”

The 19-year-old Thomas has not played since taking a hit in the second period of Game 1 from Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug.

“It’s the hardest thing to watch your teammates go out there and they put us in a great position,” Thomas said. “I’m happy to be able to get out there and hopefully help them out.”

Thomas had been dealing with a wrist injury during the playoffs, but Blues head coach Craig Berube said that his four-game absence had nothing to do with the play and that there was always a chance he could return later in the series.

“It was always in the back of my mind and obviously his mind, too,” Berube said. “He wants to play, he’s a gamer, tough kid, so he was always willing to play. But I think the time off has helped him, and he’s more prepared now.”

The Bruins will be making one change to their Game 6 lineup as well. Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that Karson Kuhlman will enter for Steven Kampfer, bringing them back to 12 forwards and six defensemen after going 11/7 in Game 5. Matt Grzelcyk remains out as he still has not cleared concussion protocol.

David Backes will sit once again, but he’s ready to support his teammates as they look to stave off elimination and force a Game 7 Wednesday night in Boston.

“We’re here to win,” he said. “If my part’s grabbing the pom-poms again, I’ll shake those things ’til all the frills fall out of them.”

Blues-Bruins Game 6 is Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS COVERAGE:
Three keys to Game 6 of Stanley Cup Final
Blues looking to seize opportunity, close out storybook season
Pucks tell the story of Blues’ rollercoaster season

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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.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ most controversial calls

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The Boston Bruins and their fans were upset about officials not calling a penalty on Tyler Bozak before the Blues’ eventual game-winner in Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, but if misery loves company, than they shouldn’t feel alone.

In fact, the Bruins’ opponents in St. Louis had already been on both sides of some of the most pivotal, polarizing calls of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs before Game 5.

Let’s run down some of the biggest controversies of this postseason, starting with Thursday’s non-call. As a note: not every call was necessarily wrong, and this isn’t a comprehensive list, so feel free to air officiating grievances (or grievances about officiating grievances) in the comments.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Missed trip

Should it be considered a trip, a slew-foot, or no penalty at all? Well, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline, it sure seemed like Tyler Bozak thought he was going to the penalty box – just ask Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy – for taking down Noel Acciari.

At that point, the Blues were up 1-0, but moments after that non-call, Ryan O'Reilly found David Perron for what would eventually stand as the game-winning goal.

If the call was made, it would have still been 1-0 rather than 2-0 for the Blues, and the Bruins would have headed to the power play. It’s also worth noting that a) the Bruins seemed discombobulated by that turn of events and b) Acciari was taken out of the play, effectively making it a 5-on-4 situation, so that turn of events also heightened the Blues’ chances of scoring that goal.

The hand pass

It doesn’t get much more pivotal than a blown call in overtime, at least if that call leads to a deciding goal.

Consider this maybe the high point of the trilogy of moments that went the Sharks’ way during their playoff run, as Timo Meier got away with a hand pass before Erik Karlsson scored the OT game-winner in Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference Final against the Blues.

The Blues took the high road following that controversy, and eventually won their series against the Sharks, while top officials noted that the play was not reviewable. Could that be one of those moments that changes the goal review process in 2019-20? We shall see.

Blues score with Bishop down

File this one under the tougher judgment calls.

It all happened pretty quickly, as Ben Bishop went down after a hard shot to the collarbone area from Colton Parayko. Moments later – but arguably with more than enough time for officials to blow the play dead if they chose to – Jaden Schwartz scored a big goal that helped St. Louis force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in what would turn out to be an extremely close Round 2 series.

The Gabriel Landeskog incident

It seemed like the Colorado Avalanche tied Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Sharks, until they didn’t.

Instead, the Sharks reversed Colin Wilson‘s would-be tying goal thanks to an offside review. To Landeskog’s credit, the Avalanche captain took the blame, rather than throwing officials under the bus.

Should that play have been offside? Was there even some room to look at it as too many men on the ice? It was a strange situation, either way, and another moment that worked out for San Jose, as the Sharks ultimately eliminated Colorado.

Major problem

The Golden Knights were up 3-0 against the Sharks in Game 7 of Round 1, and then Cody Eakin was whistled for a major penalty after his check (and a bump from Paul Stastny) led to a terrifying, bloody fall for Joe Pavelski.

The Sharks stunningly scored four goals during that five-minute major, and while Vegas showed scrappiness in sending that Game 7 to overtime, San Jose eventually prevailed. It’s true that the Golden Knights’ penalty kill was preposterously porous during that four-goal barrage, but Vegas was fuming after the loss, with Jonathan Marchessault comparing the perceived officiating mistake to the infamous blown pass interference call that went against the New Orleans Saints.

Most would agree that Eakin deserved to be penalized, while the debate revolves around it being a major and game misconduct. The human element of the situation cannot be ignored, as officials saw a scary scene where Pavelski was bleeding, and it happened in front of a San Jose crowd.

This is another play that might have a ripple effect. Will the NHL decide to make major penalties (or discussions of major penalties) subject to video review?

***

It’s crucial to mention that it must be difficult to officiate any sport, let alone one as fast-paced as hockey. For every call you miss or make, there’s someone behind the scenes complaining about too many or too few calls. After all, Bruce Cassidy believes that Craig Berube’s complaints about officials changed the “narrative” of the Stanley Cup Final.

Getting these calls correct, all the time, is a prime example of “Easier said than done.”

Still, for fans and teams who feel slighted, these moments will reverberate, at least if their runs don’t end with a Stanley Cup victory.

Are there any moments that stand out to you, beyond the five splashy ones above? If you want to dig up old gripes about Wayne Gretzky high-sticking Doug Gilmour, have at it. Replaying those major, split-second decisions is half the fun/agony of being a hockey fan, right?

Game 6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

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.

Barbashev to have hearing for illegal check to head of Johansson

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(UPDATE: Barbashev has been suspended one game.)

The St. Louis Blues have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup on home ice in Game 6 on Sunday, but they may have to do that without forward Ivan Barbashev.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced that Barbashev will have a hearing for his illegal check to the head of Bruins forward Marcus Johansson. The incident occurred early in the first period deep in the Blues zone.

Barbashev didn’t get called for a penalty on the play, but the Bruins went to the power play moments later when Vince Dunn flipped the puck over the glass.

Here’s the play in question:

“Those are the hits they want to get out of the game, correct? That’s what I hear a lot about,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said after Game 5. “Clearly, they missed a couple tonight. It’s a fast game. I sat here two days ago or whatever it was and said I believe these officials are at this level because they’ve earned the right to be here. You should be getting the best. But, I mean, the narrative changed after Game 3. There’s a complaint or whatever put forth by the opposition. It just seems to have changed everything.”

This could be the second player the Blues lose to suspension in this series, as Oskar Sundqvist sat for a game because of a check on Matt Grzelcyk.

Barbashev has picked up three goals and three assists in 24 games this postseason. He’s also averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time during the playoffs, but he’s been an important part of their effective fourth line. Losing him wouldn’t be crushing, but it would hurt their overall depth.

Of course, this wasn’t the only controversial non-call from Game 5, as a Tyler Bozak trip went uncalled moments before David Perron scored a goal that put the Blues ahead 2-0 at the time. That Perron tally ended up being the game-winner.

Game 6 is set for Sunday night.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.