Starting this week, the St. Louis Blues will be competing in the Stanley Cup Final. In spite of picking up Ryan O’Reilly among others over the summer, this wasn’t really supposed to happen this way. In fact, by the end of 2018, the Blues were seen to be yet another team that “won the offseason” only to lose the regular season.
If you take a look at season previews from the fall, most indicated that the Blues were expected to be competitive, with unanswered questions in net. For the first half of the season, that played out. Their new additions didn’t immediately gel, and the combination of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson lived down to everybody’s expectations.
Somewhere between Craig Berube taking over the head coaching job in November and Jordan Binnington taking over the starting goaltending duties in early January, St. Louis turned their season completely around.
So now it’s the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins. Two throwback teams.
If the NHL is a copycat league, this portends poorly for the fast, small, skilled players who are the face of the “new” league.
Barring a significant change of direction, the Blues team that worked its way through the Western Conference will remain largely intact for next year. Binnington needs a new contract, as do a handful of bottom-six forwards and bottom-pair defenders. Patrick Maroon is likely the biggest question mark for cost.
Age is a potential issue, especially with Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester heading north of 35. To a lesser extent, Tyler Bozak at 33 years of age is likely to show some regression. All of that leaves a team with few holes, a team that can play heavy with skill and a modicum of speed.
What the playoffs (to this point) have shown is a team that gets scoring from four lines and a defense that can shut down skill lines while contributing in the offensive zone. Given the Blues’ 2019 record, next year’s path to the top of the Central Division would seem to go through Enterprise Center.
This is how quickly things can change in the NHL. Heading into the year, the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets were expected to dominate the division. The later portion of the season and the playoffs, however, exposed flaws within each team and those flaws ultimately became fatal.
Interestingly, the Dallas Stars came through the postseason as the team best positioned to challenge the Blues. Of course, the team that took St. Louis to overtime in Game 7 was a team that could ice two legitimate scoring lines, which assumes a healthy Mats Zuccarello on the team and a Roope Hintz who continues to progress.
Colorado’s unexpected run in the playoffs was intriguing, and with Cale Makar working into the Avalanche lineup for the regular season, this team could offer an alternative to the heavier style of the teams at the top of the division. The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild need to balance competitive tweaking to their lineups with the potential need for a complete rebuild.
If nothing else, what this season has shown is that your start isn’t your destiny. Making the playoffs opens a new door, and given the right circumstances, any team with the right combination of players, coaches, and luck can thrive — maybe even win.
Over the next two weeks, the St. Louis Blues have that rare opportunity to play for the Cup. As a fan, I’ll be watching. As much as I hate to say it, I’ll be rooting for them (okay, against Boston). But I’ll also be doing what every team (and their fans) that isn’t in the Stanley Cup Final is doing — looking at what my team has, what my team needs. Ultimately, how to get from watching the Final to playing in the Final.