For the first time in their storied history, the Blues enter the NHL season as defending champions. This previously uncharted territory seemed like a fantasy to most fans early last season. The Blues were the worst team in the NHL on New Year’s Day, and miraculously hoisted the Stanley Cup on Market Street in downtown St. Louis roughly six months later.
Before we can look forward to the new season, it’s important to appreciate what the Blues accomplished in those wild six months.
As noted in the opening paragraph, this was the worst team in the National Hockey League, and played many abysmal games in the first half of the last NHL season. Fans and hockey analysts alike were calling for heads to roll, for players to be traded for draft picks or younger players. One head did roll, Mike Yeo was relieved of his head coaching duties and replaced by Craig Berube. Many point to that switch as the start of the turnaround.
Berube shifted the mood and culture in the locker room. The Blues had the talent to win, but for whatever reason, Mike Yeo’s message wasn’t clicking with the players. Berube’s different coaching style resonated with the club, and the team galvanized around their new energetic coach.
You can’t think or talk about the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues season without mentioning the amazing run of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Binnington didn’t necessarily seem like a future star goalie, he had been in the minors of the Blues organization for a handful of years, only playing one NHL game prior to last season.
Ardent fans were paying more attention to Blues minor league goalie prospect Ville Husso to be the breakout “goalie of the future” for the team. Binnington got his chance, and never let go, he won 24 games, posted a save percentage of .927, and a goals-against-average in the regular season. He went from proverbial unknown to one of the best goalies in hockey in 30 games.
Historically, the Blues franchise is used to playoff competition. Unfortunately, that playoff experience was often limited to the first few rounds, before they were knocked out by more complete teams in previous years. Out of sanity, people assume the Blues are going to lose at some point in the playoffs, because they have done so about forty times in the past fifty years.
So what happened when they actually won the thing? The city erupted. During the finals thousands and thousands packed downtown for watch parties that were often overflowing with people and well over “capacity.” The Blues Stanley Cup victory parade was a sea of blue downtown.
A reported figure somewhere between half a million and a million people went to the Blues parade, Metro St. Louis had to order more trains in service for the hundreds of thousands of people flooding the city. Thousands camped for better views of the parade. That Saturday in June was the absolute peak of the St. Louis Blues, as a franchise, and as St. Louis’s team.
So now what? The Blues have never been in this position before, defending champs, a target on their back, a fancy little “Stanley Cup Champions” patch above the Bluenote on their jerseys. Only one team in the past 20 years has managed to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back years, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2016 and 2017.
The Blues aren’t necessarily better or worse than they were last year, with everyone not named Pat Maroon returning this season. Due to the unfortunate business nature of sport, the hometown hero who scored the Game 7 winner against Dallas in the playoffs has moved on to Tampa Bay. The Blues have an abundance of forwards, and for Maroon to get the ice time he wants and deserves, the move was necessary.
Just like last year, the NHL Central Division is still incredibly tough, likely the toughest division in the NHL. The Blues likely cannot afford to have multiple down months, although you could potentially argue that playing low-energy hockey during the November and December months kept their legs fresh for their postseason run.
Conversely, the Tampa Bay Lightning that Pat Maroon joined, were incredible last season, setting an NHL record for wins in the process, but they also were swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. You get a trophy for winning the regular season, but it’s not quite as big a deal as the Stanley Cup.
This year is a “prove it” year for team captain Alex Pietrangelo. The captain is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, and will be playing for a contract, whether it be here or elsewhere. The Blues, more than teams probably should, rely on their defenseman like Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko for offense, goals and booming shots that create chaos in front of the opponent’s goal.
Also on a contract year is Brayden Schenn, who adds a jolt to the offense, and last scored in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Blues are hoping that motivation to get a big contract ignites both these players, and helps an offense that occasionally stagnated when Jordan Binnington was standing on his head.
The one aspect of the Blues game that needs to improve to repeat is the special teams, primarily, the power play unit. Despite hoisting the Stanley Cup, and increasing use of the word “hoisting” in and around the St. Louis metro area, the Blues power play in the playoffs was often dreadful.
The power play in the playoffs was so abysmal that Blues radio play-by-play man Chris Kerber once pleaded with the team to just hold the puck and kill two minutes until the teams were even strength again. To address this, the Blues hired former Boston Bruin Marc Savard, who was a power play specialist in his playing days, hoping he can implement a new strategy when up a man or two on the ice.
So, to answer the question of the headline: Can the Blues Go Back To Back? They’re in a better position than most teams that win the Stanley Cup, where players tend to move on and use their championship to get better deals elsewhere. With virtually the same team, and with the playoff experience of winning it all, why can’t they?