The last thing the St. Louis Blues want is a repeat.
They’d like to win another Stanley Cup, of course. It’s not like they didn’t enjoy every minute of a celebration that, as it does for every other winning team, lasted all summer long.
But a repeat of the entire 2018-19 season, with all the angst, difficulties, firings and second-guessing? That’s something that the Blues could easily live without.
This is an organization that knows, while the history books will simply record them as the 2019 Cup champions, that doesn’t begin to tell the essence of the story of last season, one that had them last in the NHL on Jan. 3.
A little more than five months later, they hoisted the Cup. This was a rags to riches story played out at warp speed. One day a doormat, the next day the toast of the entire NHL.
All that hockey fans in Missouri really care about now is that it happened. The season seemed like it was going to be another case of the Blues underachieving before the hockey gods sprinkled a little pixie dust on the team and turned them into Cup winners.
What’s interesting is that the Blues made decisions this summer and fall based almost entirely on the second half of last season and the playoffs, all but discarding the first half as meaningful.
They brought back most of the team. Brayden Schenn got a new eight-year contract that will take him to age 36. They’re working on a new multi-year deal for Alex Pietrangelo. Jordan Binnington went from making $650,000 (all figures U.S.) last season to $4.4 million. Ivan Barbashev doubled his salary. Samuel Blais got a new one-year deal.
The only major change was the acquisition of defenceman Justin Faulk from Carolina in a deal for Joel Edmundson and a prospect, and then the Blues gave Faulk $45 million over seven years. Otherwise, the Blues are back with the same group, perhaps hoping they can play a lot better from October until January this season but knowing they don’t have to.
In many ways, the Blues took the NHL to its ultimate conclusion, demonstrating that parity is a very real thing, and that the regular season really is meaningless as long as you’re one of the 16 teams good enough to make the post-season.
We saw that the year before when the Vegas Golden Knights made the final. Now, with the Blues going last-to-best over the course of half a year, the notion of winning the Cup as a measure of excellence has really taken a beating. Winning the Cup is about being the hottest team at the right time. Period. That’s it. The regular season is one competition, the playoffs a completely different competition.
The Blues had the horses all season. But it wasn’t until an 11-game win streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19 that the team began to play to its potential. Remember, Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 19 with the club struggling along with a 7-9-3 record. It took another two months of losing hockey (8-9-1) before St. Louis began to show signs of being a really good team and before the off-season trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues started to bear fruit.
What turned it around? Well, Binnington’s arrival from the minors, for sure. O’Reilly started to assert himself, Pietrangelo found his game and Vladimir Tarasenko demonstrated an ability to produce in adverse conditions. It really wasn’t one thing.
It’s going to be fascinating to see whether the Blues can now pick up where they left off and put an entire season of quality hockey together. It could be that the experience of last season changed the players who experienced it, and now those players are more likely to understand what is required to win a Cup.
At the same time, they’ve given the rest of the league reason to believe that a bad start to the season, or even a lousy half-season, doesn’t necessarily mean the playoffs — or the Cup — are out of reach. The Blues weren’t the exception to the rule. They simply proved what many suspected, that nothing really matters until the winter.
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Moreover, one season isn’t necessarily connected to the next. We’ve had 12 different Cup winners this century, and one repeat winner. In the 20 years before that, there were five repeat winners.
So the chances of a second straight Cup seem rather unlikely for the Blues. It’s not that they aren’t good. They are. But nobody is that good anymore.