Ed. note: Today’s guest post comes from Friend of Game Time Joe Garcia. - Hildy
They say winning a championship is easier than defending one. If that’s the case then the St. Louis Blues have a monumental task in front of them for the 2019/20 NHL season, especially since it took half a century to win their first Stanley Cup. In fact, the Cup has been successfully defended just five times in the past 35 years, twice in the last 20 and only once in the salary-cap era.
However, the Blues ignored the odds last season too when they went from last place in the league at the turn of the year to winning the championship in game seven on the road. Still, the likelihood of St. Louis repeating as the kings of the league are quite slim. It’s not mission impossible but it’s close to it as the stars need to align perfectly for the team to have their names engraved on the trophy again.
Head coach Craig Berube will have to work his magic once more without losing the players’ interest and everybody in the organization needs to be on the same wavelength. That in itself shouldn’t be too difficult since the only face missing from last season’s title-winning team is forward Patrick Maroon, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an unrestricted free agent.
To achieve their goal of winning two-straight cups, the majority of the roster is going to have to play just as well or better than last year. Realistically, some will and some won’t. There are a few players who are keys to the puzzle though and they are goaltender Jordan Binnington, defenseman Alexander Pietrangelo and forwards Vladimir Tarasenko, Jayden Schwartz, and Ryan O’Reilly.
Binnington was called up to the Blues midway through the season and changed the team’s fortunes. They caught fire with the rookie netminder in the crease and didn’t look back until they hoisted the cup at TD Garden in Beantown. He proved he could handle the tough going both mentally and physically and didn’t seem to be affected by the odd bad goal and losses. He’s quite confident and aggressive and should be able to build on his performance in the playoffs where he set a record for 16 wins by a rookie netminder.
It will be interesting to see how Berube uses his number one goalie this season since Binnington thrived with the heavy workload he received since January. Statistics have shown that most Stanley Cup-winning goalies over the past several years have started under 60 games during the season. If the Blues are going to play Binnington about 55 games this year they will need some solid performances from backup Jake Allen.
Other players who need to pull their weight or even a heavier load this season include blue liners Vince Dunn, Colton Parayako and the injury-prone Robby Fabbri as well as forwards Robert Thomas, Tyler Bozak, Brayden Schenn, Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist.
There’s no reason to believe the Blues can’t improve on last year’s regular-season performance but the playoffs could be a different story. The rest of the league will be gunning for the champions and focusing on how to neutralize them once the postseason begins. The Blues will likely continue to play strong defensive hockey since they aren’t really a high-scoring squad and if other teams can solve them they could be faced with an uphill battle.
Everybody chipped in during the playoffs last season though and lifted their game to another level, especially O’Reilly and Schwartz. This brought a huge sigh of relief to the team’s fans since it’s safe to say Schwartz struggled during the regular season. He played 69 games and managed just 11 goals after playing 62 games the season before and notching 59 points. Yes, there was some bad luck involved as he scored on just six per cent of his shots in 2018/19 and his luck turned around in the postseason with 12 markers in 26 outings.
As we saw last year, what happens during the regular season doesn’t always have much of an impact on the playoffs both individually and as a team. The key, of course, is that you have to make the postseason to give yourself the opportunity of showing what you’re made of. The Blues are in the tough Central Division and can’t afford to falter out of the starting gate like they did a year ago.
If they fall behind the rest of the pack again this season fans shouldn’t expect another miracle finish. Therefore it’s imperative the Blues keep their heads above water from October until April and are comfortably in a playoff position once the curtain comes down on the regular season. Management has a lot of faith in this group of players and that’s one of the main reasons most of their free agents were re-signed during the summer.
The club also added some depth with players who are likely AHL bound such as Jake Dotchin, Derrick Pouliot and Nikita Alexandrov, who was drafted in the second round this year. With last year’s roster being eerily similar to this year’s the Blues should be able to begin the campaign with similar chemistry to last year’s playoffs. If anything, they could even get a head start on the rest of the league since they know each other so well and have obviously jelled over the past 12 months.
While the Blues may not surprise anybody anymore with their gritty style of play they still have all ingredients to be a highly successful squad. They possess a lot of talent in all areas of the ice but there are always question marks. You can teach goalies how to stop the puck and players how to skate, pass, hit and shoot...but it’s impossible to teach them how to deposit the puck in the net.
The Blues scored 247 goals last season to rank in 15th in the league and no matter how well they play they simply have to outscore their opponents to win games. This could be 1-0 or 7-6, but since scoring is so unpredictable it’s tough to say where the team will end up after 82 games. Their chances of making the playoffs are quite good, but the odds of them repeating as Stanley Cup champions are as slim as going from last place in January to winning it all...so history could very well repeat itself.
My name is Joe Garcia, an NHL addict and a regular contributor to Pucky.com who lives, eats, and breathes Ice Hockey. And when I’m not watching, analysing and writing about hockey, I’m trying to be the star of my own beer league.