Lessons we should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
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