With the world slowly returning to normal and the possibility that the NHL will be able to complete the season, it’s time to look at the teams that are favored to win the Stanley Cup. From now until either the season is cancelled or the playoffs begin, I’ll highlight one team per week and make the case for them to win the Stanley Cup. This week: The St. Louis Blues.
The most unlikely Stanley Cup winner since the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, the St. Louis Blues enter the 2020 playoffs not as the plucky underdog that rose from last place, but a legitimate contender with a bulls-eye on its back. When the NHL paused, the Blues were sitting second overall in NHL, tops in the Western Conference, and were riding an 8-2-0 run in their previous 10 games.
In fact, the Blues might even be better than the team that outlasted the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final last spring. Their defense corps is deeper and goalie Jordan Binnington has proved to be anything but a one-year wonder. And rather than having to play for their lives the second half of the season, the Blues will enter this playoff well rested and with the knowledge that they’ve earned their place among the league’s best teams.
“We all know how long and how hard that playoff run was and I think it goes into the experience bank,” Blues goalie Jordan Binnington said earlier this season. We’ve learned a lot and we can bring that on with the new guys we’ve brought in and keep continuing to build.”
Like most of the other teams in the NHL, the Blues will be healthy and a healthy Blues team is a dangerous one. Consider that when Vladimir Tarasenko went down with surgery on his left shoulder 10 games into the season, the Blues thought they might get him back for the start of the playoffs in April. With the season now reconvening in July, the Blues will have one of their most dangerous offensive players, one they haven’t had for most of the season. Assuming Tarasenko is reinstalled on the right side of the top line, that gives the Blues depth at forward that would be the envy of the league. How does a top nine of Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Tarasenko; Sammy Blais-Ryan O’Reilly-David Perron; and, Zach Sanford-Robert Thomas-Alex Steen sound?
And then there’s the defense corps, which has been bolstered by the additions of Justin Faulk during the off-season and Marco Scandella at the trade deadline. Obviously, the long-term future of veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who collapsed on the bench during a cardiac episode in February, is very much up in the air. When it happened, the Blues had said Bouwmeester would not play again this season and it’s unlikely he’d be able to play regardless of how late this season goes. Bouwmeester experienced something of a renaissance during the Blues run to the Cup last spring and while his steady play would be missed, having him on the sidelines also gives the Blues something around which to rally and an inspiration to win a second straight Cup.
As far as the goaltending is concerned, Binnington has pretty much picked up where he left off last season and was third in the league in wins when the season paused. And backup Jake Allen, whose career looked derailed last season and prompted the Blues to make Binnington their No. 1 man, has had an incredible bounce-back season, winning 12 of 21 starts and posting the league’s fourth-best best save percentage (.927) among goalies who have at least 20 starts.
One thing is clear. Whatever happens to the Blues this season, they have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that last season was not a one-off and if they do get bounced in the playoffs, it will not be because of any kind of complacency or Stanley Cup hangover. In fact, they’ve been remarkably consistent this season and, having had the All-Star Game in their city, have a lot of momentum going their way. But to win a Cup once, you have to peak at the right time and take advantage of the breaks that present themselves along the way. That will have to happen once again if the Blues hope to repeat.
“It’s crazy how small (the margin of error is),” O’Reilly said last fall. “Those small things that can make the difference. There were multiple times where it could have swung the other way. So many things have to line up perfectly to win and it could have been different. The specific play I remember is against Dallas, Game 7, Jamie Benn. That wraparound was inches away, and we would have been sent home. So, it’s crazy how tight it is and how hard it is to win. A lot of things have got to line up. You have to take advantage of bounces and things like that. It’s exciting. The best thing about the whole run was playing in those games. That’s what we want to do again.”
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