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Hockey’s Existential Problem

The NHL Has Made a Mess of Replay, Oskar Sundqvist Is The Truth, and Here Come the Avalanche

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Dec. 16, 2019 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

“Name a more satisfying regular season win than last Monday’s, I dare you,” I wrote before Saturday’s game. Lo and behold, a new game is now in the running. There’s no better way to kick a team when they’re down than to give them a shred of hope.

Five thoughts while feelin’ stronger every day.

1. With Vladimir Tarasenko out, Robert Thomas is the most exciting forward on the team, and it’s not particularly close. Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, and Ryan O’Reilly are all great. David Perron’s wrist shot is a lethal weapon, and of course Oskar Sundqvist has been dynamic in his own right. But now that the Blues have won the Cup, I’m slightly — just slightly — less concerned with how good or successful a player is, and more interested in being entertained. Thomas is the only true jaw-dropper on the team right now (and kudos to the Blues’ broadcast for pointing out the similarities between his whirling set up of Bozak’s second goal on Saturday and his setup of Pat Maroon’s Game 7 winner.)

2. The NHL has created a massive problem for itself.

It struck me during the game on Thursday: After two of the Blues’ goals, the Vegas broadcast crew cut directly to coach Gerard Gallant, who was hunched over on the bench, watching a replay on an iPad. The implication was clear: He was looking to see if he should issue a challenge.

We’re quickly heading to a point — if we haven’t already arrived — where hockey fans must hold their goal celebrations in abeyance for a full 30 or 40 seconds, even while the goal song blares and most of the arena cheers. Until the puck is dropped at center ice, we can no longer be sure a goal will actually count, because who knows? Maybe someone’s toe was a millimeter offside. Maybe a forward made contact with the goalie.

Moments of pure, unadulterated joy are a big part of why people choose to attend games instead of watching at home on their 90-inch 4K TVs. Replay review has all but stolen those moments from us.

3. Speaking of the Vegas broadcast, they crank up the natural sounds of the arena, and it’s awesome. Another big incentive to attend a game is to hear those things — the swish of skates on ice, the clack of a puck on a stick. More of that, please.

4. Ryan Reaves was back in town on Thursday, and it was good to see him — in a visiting uniform. We tend to think of the Ryan O’Reilly trade as Doug Armstrong’s most successful move. The trade that delivered Schenn from Philadelphia and the Maroon signing were huge, too. But history ought not forget when an unknown, unheralded forward with one goal in 28 career games named Oskar Sundqvist became a Blue.

It was an underratedly massive change in philosophy for the Blues’ GM. It signaled, once and for all (let’s hope) the end of the Reaves/Steve Ott/Adam Cracknell/Brad Winchester era of fourth liners that seemed to last forever. It was always misguided to employ lumbering, no-skill, hands-of-cement guys like them (especially Ott, with his $2.6 million cap hit) on a team that considered itself a Cup contender. But in recent years, with all the statistics at Armstrong’s fingertips, it had become downright negligent.

The Reaves trade signaled loud and clear: The Blues’ bottom-of-the-lineup forwards are no longer going to be thugs. They’re going to be young, cheap, and most importantly, possess some semblance of offensive upside. Without that change in philosophy, a guy like Ivan Barbashev (on a 37-point pace this year, thank you very much) probably gets healthy-scratched because he can’t crack the top 6, instead of being slotted perfectly into a fourth-line role in which he out-talents most of his opponents. Meanwhile, Sundqvist scored huge playoff goals and is making plays this season that almost defy belief.

5. The Avalanche are no joke, but they might not be quite this good. At 5-on-5 this season, they’re shooting 10.23 percent, which is the highest number in the league. Someone named Pavel Francouz is stopping 93.2 percent of shots against him, through his first 14 games. Don’t be shocked if those numbers look a lot different come April. If Nathan MacKinnon continues to post 50 points every 32 games, and if Cale Makar can avoid hitting a rookie wall, they might have enough to steal this division from under the Blues’ noses, but how much do we really care? From this point on, finishing in the top two of the Central, so as to avoid facing Colorado in Round 1, should be the goal.

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If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.