Back-to-Back: Can Blues Repeat as Champions?

The St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup since joining the NHL in 1967. Most of the players seen here will look to defend their title in the same jersey for the 2019-20 season. (Photo courtesy: Bruce Bennett, AP Photo)

After 52 years of failure and heartbreak, having two straight years of ultimate success in St. Louis may not be out of the question.

The St. Louis Blues did the unthinkable in the ‘18-19 season: Come back from dead-last in the standings in January to win their first-ever Stanley Cup. While the “hangover” curse of earning the hardest trophy to win in sports could be palpable, the high-caliber core of the team is still together. In addition, as the offseason of celebration continued, general manager Doug Armstrong had a big task ahead: keeping the entire team together.

Can the Blues do what has only been done by the Penguins since the turn of the new millennia and repeat their success? Though at one time as unthinkable as what they accomplished last season, this upcoming season still has (almost) all of their pieces. Take a look at some of the pros and cons the Blues will have going forward to their first title defense in 2019-20.

Pro: Returning Cast

After a quiet offseason, the priority of re-signing players with expiring contracts and working around that pesky salary cap was handled well by Armstrong. Rookie sensation Jordan Binnington was the top prize, signing a contract with St. Louis for two more years. Other depth players like Zach Sanford, Oskar Sundqvist, Carl Gunnarsson, and Robby Fabbri all re-signed as well.

Michael Del Zotto, who was traded to the Blues at the deadline, went back to Anaheim (though he never played in the playoffs). Veteran defenseman Chris Butler hung up his skates, and hometown hero Pat Maroon has yet to find an NHL squad, with a return to St. Louis unlikely. With a quiet 2019 draft and some minor AHL trades, the last remaining task for Armstrong is to resign Ivan Barbashev and Joel Edmundson. Edmundson is eligible for arbitration and his hearing is scheduled for August 4th.

Though a couple of pieces of the bottom 6 and defensive depth were lost, this team is still nearly identical to the team last year. O’Reilly, Tarasenko, and Schwartz look like the obvious top line that will tear up the league in points. Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Sanford, and David Perron found some great playoff chemistry and can emulate that next season. Bouwmeester proved he was still an elite defenseman at his age, even after a rough first half. Even Brayden Schenn can turn the heat up in the top 6, despite some rumblings of trades.

Con: Defensive Depth

With Joel Edmundson’s future up in the air, the Blues are at seven defensemen in their rotation. In addition, players like Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson aren’t getting any younger, and Gunnarsson only played 25 games due to recurring injuries in the regular season.

The San Antonio Rampage, the Blues’ AHL affiliate, have promising rookies like Mitch Reinke and newly acquired Andreas Borgman; however, Reinke makes just the 4th defenseman on the right side on both rosters (Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Bortuzzo make up the other three). Derrick Pouliot and Jake Dotchin, signed to the Blues on July 1st, could crack the roster depending on health.

Pro: Hiring of Marc Savard

Even with the Blues taking the ultimate prize, the power play was inconsistent at best for most of the playoffs. There was a lot of passing from the blue line to the wingers hoping for an opening, but the opposition easily boxed out their chances. In addition, the Blues had two shorthanded goals scored on them in the postseason, of the 4 SHG’s scored amongst all 16 playoff teams.

On July 24th, however, Armstrong announced former Bruin Marc Savard would join the Blues as an assistant coach. A former teammate of now head coach Craig Berube, Savard played 13 years in the NHL, amassing over 700 points. Berube stated that Savard “was a tremendous player and possesses an elite offensive mind.” Hopefully, Savard will be what the Blues need to get their power play back on track for next season.

Con: “Hangover”

For some teams, the elation of a Stanley Cup win is drawn out for a while. Players celebrate all year, get their own personal day with the Cup, and start to sit back and appreciate their hard work. For some, however, it could be drawn out a little too much. Such is the urban legend surrounding the “Stanley Cup Hangover”.

Sometimes the winning team starts out the new season slowly, falling behind in the standings quickly. Like Boston after 2011, they fell behind in the first half, yet managed a decent resurgence later on. While the theory is probably more fiction than fact, the idea could still hold water with a team winning their first title after half a century.

Pro: Era of Good Feelings

After missing the playoffs in 2018 and having a rough start the next season, the identity of the club was quickly cemented: fragile. The Blues looked like they had no cohesion, coach Yeo gave little inspiration or emotion to the club, and St. Louis almost looked to rebuild after the first half saw them in dead last by 2019.

Even players like Kyle Brodziak and Carter Hutton wanted out of St. Louis, believing the club’s immediate future was doomed. Not surprisingly, Blues fans still point to the Sanford-Bortuzzo fight as a dark but paramount turning point in the season.

“Chief” Craig Berube finally helped to change all that in less than one season. 7th all-time in NHL penalty minutes, Berube taught a no-nonsense style of hockey that was both physical and frustrating to play against. More than that, however, Berube managed to unite the team together as one. Berube gave it to the players straight, telling them to get over their own egos and interests and start playing some hockey.

Multiple veterans with the Blues have stated how Berube was also the uplifting kind of coach, one that invested time and care into each and every player. Berube knew the time for positive morale and when to give a player a kick in the pants. The results obviously paid off, and Berube was quickly rewarded by signing with the Blues for three more years as their head coach.

Pro: Youth of the Nation

The Blues’ youth scouting has been superb in recent years. Players and picks like Robert Thomas, Sammy Blais, and Vince Dunn have all proven invaluable assets to the team’s depth. Even some AHL-ers like Makenzie MacEachern or Jordan Kyrou showed promise on the NHL stage.

That’s not all the San Antonio Rampage’s roster has to offer, either: Players like Dominik Bokk, Klim Kostin, or newly acquired Dakota Joshua could all see themselves playing minutes in a Blue Note sweater as early as this season. Finally, the veteran presence of players like Chris Butler or coaches like J.J. Daigneault helped the younger players quickly mature in their game and will help the transition process for these prospects immensely.

To Be Determined: Goaltending

Like any player, analyst or fan of hockey will tell you, a Stanley-Cup caliber team needs good goaltending. The Blues got that prestigious echelon thanks to NHL rookie Jordan Binnington, who stunned the hockey world by lifting Lord Stanley for St. Louis after starting in early January. As fans did at the beginning of the playoffs, however, some still question if this was “beginner’s luck”.

While Binnington’s spectacular play in the postseason makes this sound ridiculous, some players still have suffered the plague of a “one-hit-wonder” season (the most recent example being Vegas’ William Karlsson in 2018). Will Binnington remain elite as he did in 2019, or could his play falter? There’s little evidence to support the latter, but the Blues could be in serious trouble if it rings true in ’19-20.

While it’s only gotten harder to repeat as champions in the National Hockey League, St. Louis’ roster certainly has the talent and the depth to rise to the challenge. The team managed a remarkable, storybook comeback in the second half of the season, so with a full season under their belt, this could be a team to watch out for. One thing is for certain: the future of St. Louis hockey looks brighter than ever.

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