When I was sixteen, my dad took me on an amazing vacation to Toronto. We saw the hockey hall of fame, ate pancakes at a place across the street from the old Maple Leafs Garden, and visited the CN Tower. As luck would have it, we arrived right as the Ottawa Senators were in town for a Game Seven match-up in 2004. We sniffed around for tickets, but balked at the $500+ asking price.
The Leafs would cruise to a 4-1 victory and after every single goal, we could hear the screaming and car horns in downtown Toronto from our hotel room some 20 floors above the ground. Canada is fanatical about hockey. It's their sport, it's their way of life, but playing there can be an enormous headache. The media is toxic and obsessive, chasing good players out of town on a rail for the slightest (or imaginary) offenses, and once public opinion turns, it's tough to salvage.
The Blues have a long history of rescuing under-performing players that have struggled in the high-pressured Canadian markets. In St.Louis, they can walk down the street and go shopping without being mobbed or having someone ask to pay for their groceries. I'm convinced that the Blues can do the same for Nail Yakupov, because they’ve done it for many other Canadian-market exiles.
Exhibit A: Alexander Steen
Drafted in 2002, Alex Steen was a wise pickup for a Toronto club looking to bolster their offense. In the second game of his NHL career, Steen scored his first career goal against the Montreal Canadians. From 2005 through 2006, Steen never dipped below 35 points a season.
What's more, Steen played virtually every game for the Leafs during his tenure, and in addition to being a consistent point producer, he was far from injury prone. When 2008 rolled around, Steen hit a bit of a rough patch. He put up 6 points in 20 games. Toronto followed their time-honored script and the claws came out. Sportsnet claimed that Steen never "won the confidence of new coach Ron Wilson." Steen was quickly traded to St.Louis for Lee Stempniak.
The deal was widely considered to be a flop for Toronto. Steen would go on to become a 60+ point player for St.Louis in 2013 and 2014, as well as scoring an incredible 31 game-winning goals, good for 5th in franchise history. Stempniak only generated 36 points for Toronto over two seasons before being dumped in another trade to Phoenix. Lee would get his groove back eventually, breaking the thirty point barrier twice over the next ten years, but this deal may have been one of the most lopsided victories for the Blues’ front office in a decade.
Exhibit B: Matt D'Agostini
In 2011, ‘Dags’ would have a breakout year in the NHL, notching an incredible 46 points for the Blues over 82 games. His best season for the Habs only saw him reach less than half that total - 21 points over 55 games. He spent most of 2006 through 2009 being shuttled between Montreal and the Canadiens’ farm team in Hamilton. To the Habs, D'Agostini was a serviceable forward who could never break into a solid role. The Blues saw things differently, and coaxed a career-high season out of the plucky right winger.
D'Agostini might have been punching over his weight during his best NHL season, and to be fair, he would never return to the same form ever again in his career, and he was a frequently scratched player during his second season with the Blues. New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo would all end up giving him a shot, but he fizzled out quickly, signing a contract to play in Switzerland by 2014.
Exhibit C: Pavol Demitra
Pavol's exit from Ottawa was fairly bitter. The Senators chose to trade Demitra after he entered the '96 season as a hold out. It's certainly possible that the Senators, or the their front office, weren't to blame for Pavol wanting to leave, but this is another indisputable example of the Blues getting the best out of a player after they part ways with a Canadian franchise.
Ottawa traded Pavol Demitra to St.Louis for Christer Olsson in 1996. Initially, the Blues kept Pavol in the minors, but by the time the 1997-1998 campaign rolled around, Demitra would make the big club and never look back. Olsson never stuck in the NHL, but Demitra would become one of the finest athletes to ever play in St.Louis. By the time his tenure ended, Pavol had scored 204 goals (7th most in franchise history), recorded 289 assists (5th most in franchise history), and scored 493 points (5th most in franchise history).
It's possible that some of these examples are just coincidences. If you look at the complete track record of St.Louis trading with Canadian teams, you'll find that our friends north of the border fleeced the Blues on a number of deals as well. (Ben Bishop to Ottawa for a second round pick looks especially bad in retrospect). Maybe the Blues found the right player at the right time, and their success didn't have anything to do with the pressure-cooker-hockey-markets in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Ottawa.
Where there's smoke, there's fire, and when the Leafs can chase Phil Kessel - not just a Stanley Cup champion, but a guy who was maybe a handful of goals away from being a Conn Smythe winner - out of town, you know there's something wrong with the culture, not the players, and Yakupov could be another success story for the Blues.