The turn of the century - the most recent century - was an exciting time to be a Blues fan. Throughout the 1990s, there were many seasons where Blues flirted with greatness, if not always on a team level. Brett Hull had four 100+ point seasons in a row between 1989-1990 and 1992-1993; his lowest point total was in his Mike Keenan marred final year in St. Louis when he scored just 27 goals and 72 points. Brendan Shanahan’s tenure with the Blues hit a high point in 1993-1994 with 52 goals and 102 points. Al MacInnis was a stalwart on the blueline, and with the arrival of Chris Pronger in 1996 the Blues were in the process of building a league-best defensive corps.
The sum should’ve been better than it was considering the total punch of the Blues’ parts. Was it a mistrust of playing under coach and GM Mike Keenan? Hull, Shanahan, and Curtis Joseph - not to mention Wayne Gretzky - all had contentious ends to their Blues careers due to ongoing conflict with Keenan and his coaching style, not to mention his philosophy on asset management. Head coach Joel Quenneville was hired in 1996, which began and continued a streak of regular season success through 2004. The Mike Kitchen years that came afterward marked the beginning of the mid-2000s doldrums, and the rebuild that followed.
The Blues under Quenneville built a reputation as a solid, tough regular season opponent, but until the end of the 1998-1999 season they were a playoff paper tiger. One or two rounds, and they were gone. The tough work that the team was putting into the grind of the regular season was usually for naught. This cycle was something that Blues fans had trained themselves to expect, so you can forgive them for feeling that maybe the 1999-2000 season’s outcome would be different.
The Blues’ only Presidents’ Trophy winning club was absolutely stacked, but when you look at individual players’ point totals, you’ll see no one forward ran away in the scoring race. Pavol Demitra had 28 goals and 75 points, Pierre Turgeon had 26 goals and 66 points. Michal Handzus and Scott Young rounded out the top five in scoring with 25 and 24 goals, respectively. The lone defenseman in the top five was Chris Pronger, who had a standout season (14G, 48A).
The team in 1999 was very obviously constructed as a cohesive unit, led from the back end by Pronger and MacInnis and centered around two goaltenders with career years. Roman Turek finished with a 1.95 GAA and a 42-15-9 record, and backup Jamie McLennan with a 9-5-2 record and a 1.96 GAA. The defensive strength of the team made them difficult to play against. The Blues had a reputation for grinding and wearing their opponents down.
The Blues finished 51-19-11-1, good for 114 points and the Central Division title. They were also the only team in Blues history to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Having the best record in the league doesn’t mean that a team is destined to win the Stanley Cup. Out of the thirty-three times the trophy’s been awarded, only eight times has the winner gone on to win the Cup. The Red Wings have done this twice, the only multiple-Cup winning team on the list.
First round exits are more common than fans think when it comes to Presidents’ Trophy teams. It’s happened seven times, most recently to the Tampa Bay Lightning. A first round bump has happened five times since the Blues won their trophy, but just once before.
Fans didn’t expect a fizzle, but they got one. The Blues fell to the number eight seeded San Jose Sharks in seven games in the first round. Steve Shields, a goalie most folks don’t remember, was the difference-maker for the Sharks in game seven; Turek, who had such a good season overall, laid a massive egg in game seven.
“I feel so bad,” Turek said. “You cannot win in the playoffs if you have goaltending like I played these game. I cannot explain it.”
No one could.
And with that, a thousand beach ball memes were born before the internet even knew what a meme was.
The best team in the NHL was worn out, tired, and worn down. They let themselves fall into a 3-1 series hole, which added to the fatigue. Sometimes the grind down teams wind up grinding themselves out in the end.
The Blues began a season by season decline through 2003-2004, finishing with 91 points and second in the Central. Post-lockout there was a three-season long dip where the bottom fell out and the Blues didn’t make the playoffs. Since the end of the 2010-2011 season, the Blues were on an upward trajectory, going from missing the playoffs in 2011 to winning the division in 2012 and again three years later in 2015. It would take four more years - and one missed playoffs - before the Blues would win the Stanley Cup.
The 2018-2019 team was built as a unit, much like the 1999-2000 squad. It relied on goaltending and defense that was the envy of the league. They could wear a team down, but as the season went on and the Blues righted their own ship, they didn’t wear themselves down.
That difference in play and philosophy is what differentiates the Stanley Cup winning team from the best points team in franchise history.