The NHL pre-season is just around the corner, and with it comes the final touches GMs will make to their squads in order to build their best chances at a contender (with exception to any GM who has one of those still-unsigned RFAs that are waiting for Mitch Marner to sign in Toronto).
The Blues’ agenda now shifts from Stanley Cup-related debauchery to a Stanley Cup title defense. Instead of altering the team, Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong opted to keep the entire championship group intact (minus just Pat Maroon). This poses the question: Are these Blues more like the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, or the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins? Most would view those Hurricanes as the lone exception to a relatively strict Stanley Cup blueprint in the Salary Cap Era. The Penguins remain the only team to repeat in the same era.
The NHL is a copycat league. After the 2012 Los Angeles Kings’ physicality led to their Stanley Cup, size and depth became the building mantra for NHL GMs.
When the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup while relying heavily on a highly-skilled group of four defenseman (Seriously. Duncan Keith averaged over 31 minutes a game in the postseason. After the top four of Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Oduya, the next best Michael Roszival averaged almost seven fewer minutes per postseason game), and skilled lines, the league shifted to a top-heavy, skills-based build.
The skills-based build carried the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the next three Cup Finals.
And then came the Blues. If you ask the experts, the 2019 Blues didn’t win in a way that should be emulated. Justin Bourne of the Athletic complimented the Blues and described them as a top ten team based on talent, but added that their Cup chase was aided by “an ‘uncommon’ amount of luck with the way the playoffs shook out.” Greg Wyshynski of ESPN.com credited the Blues for their victory, but instead of praising their talent, depth, or style, the former Puck Daddy cited the Blues’ quickly-forget-the-bad mentality. Wyshynski wrote, “How Berube and the Blues reacted when there were calamitous events in their Stanley Cup journey is not a recipe that can be replicated.” To take these comments literally, would be to accept that the upcoming Blues are either unlikely to receive enough luck to repeat, or will need to maintain an exceptionally Zen mindset to propel this team to the top of the chain again. On its face, both seem unlikely.
But both suggestions overlook how well the Blues on paper actually fit into the current template of a Stanley Cup winner. Since the 2006 Hurricanes won their Cup, every single Stanley Cup Champion has been aided by some combination of one (or two) reliable all-situations defensemen, enhanced depth down the middle, at least one exceptionally-skilled winger, and reliable goaltending. (The 2017 Penguins stretched this template the most by employing two of the greatest centers to ever play, and several great wingers while relying on a good committee of defensemen who all played similar 5-on-5 minutes and situations.)
Much like the 2007 Ducks (among others), the Blues have the advantage of being able to throw defensemen Alex Pietrangelo or Colton Parayko onto the ice for almost 50 minutes of any game.
The Blues group of centers include current Conn Smythe Trophy holder and analytics darling Ryan O’Reilly, skilled-competitor Brayden Schenn, maybe top prospect Robert Thomas, the reliable Tyler Bozak, 2019-surprise Oscar Sundqvist, and the rising shutdown center Ivan Barbashev.
Vladimir Tarasenko has asserted himself as an elite quick-strike star on the wings, while Jaden Schwartz is capable of big moments himself.
And there’s Jordan Binnington in net. “Reliable” is the lower end of what we’ve seen from him so far.
Sure, maybe I’m just a homer. Maybe I’m just subject to emotional whims. But as much as it’s easy to dismiss this Blues team as kissed by fate, it’s just as easy to forget how good the Blues were in 2019.
Since the calendar has flipped to 2019, the Blues not only skated to the most wins in the postseason (and a Stanley Cup Championship), but also recorded the most points of any team in the NHL. The Blues 65 points edged out Tampa Bay’s 64, and while they did have three games in hand (They had at least one game in hand on every other team in the NHL), they had to play a more condensed schedule in the final months of the 2019 regular season. The Blues point lead in 2019 puts them ahead of not only Tampa, but also Carolina (62 points), Boston (59 points), the Islanders (57 points), and Calgary (55 points). Rounding out the Top Ten included San Jose and Pittsburgh (52 points), and Nashville and Arizona (50 points).
In that same span, the Blues ranked second in goal differential with +45 behind Tampa Bay’s +52. Carolina (+37), Boston (+35), and Calgary (+33) rounded out the Top Five.
Intuitively, we would expect Tampa and Boston to be on any list involving the top teams in the league. Based on the standings, of course Calgary would be on both lists. The other Eastern Conference finalists the Hurricanes end up on both lists, while the Western Conference finalist San Jose Sharks end up on one (for the sake of argument, the Sharks finished 7th in 2019 goal differential.)
And then there are the Blues. Look, this Blues’ season was improbable, there’s no question there. But when looking at the facts, perhaps the 2018 portion of the season was the improbable part. The Blues are historically built like a Stanley Cup champion. They performed like the best team in the league in 2019, and they scored and defended at rates among the best teams in the league in that same span. If we’ve learned anything in the Salary Cap Era, it’s that it’s hard to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. But it’s been done once. There’s no reason at the moment to question why this Blues team cannot do it again.