The St. Louis Blues kick off the NHL’s 2019-20 season on Wednesday night by raising their first Stanley Cup banner to the rafters at Enterprise Center.
Then they will play the Washington Capitals and slowly but surely the momentum that led to their unbelievable run to the championship will inevitably shift. And even the most fervent Blues fan will wonder if it could ever be possible again.
The odds are not in their favor. Over the last 20 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016, 2017) are the only team to win consecutive championships. If it was that easy to do, the Capitals would have done it again last season.
But since the Blues won the Cup on June 12, they’ve been in an intense love affair with their city.
“You go into the grocery store and people shake your hand and just start crying and say, ‘Thank you,’ still now,” forward Vladimir Tarasenko told NHL.com.
The Blues did not sit still in the offseason. Aside from naming Craig Berube to be their fulltime coach – he was the interim during the Cup run – they have made other subtle changes to the personnel. Free agent Pat Maroon, who is from St. Louis, signed with Tampa Bay and just last week defenseman Joel Edmundson was dealt to Carolina.
“We did it and everybody stayed except [Maroon and Edmundson], so why not try to do this again?,” said Tarasenko.
But there will be a much a different chemistry and there is no guarantee the playoffs will perform the way they did last season in a particularly difficult division.
“It’s going to be tough,” center Ryan O’Reilly, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, told NHL.com. “We have to completely reinvent ourselves but at the same time keep certain staples that we learned in the playoffs and over the course of the year: how even-keel you have to be when the highs are there and the lows are there, and just keep going back to work.”
The trade of Edumundson and a prospect brought back a defenseman, Justin Faulk, who will add to the depth of the position highlighted by Jay Bouwmeester and captain Alex Pietrangelo.
You’ll recall the treacherous road the Blues traveled last season to win the Cup. Shortly after New Year’s Day last season, they were in last place in the NHL. But then they won 30 and tied five of their last 45 games to get into the playoffs where they survived exhausting series against Winnipeg, Dallas, San Jose and the Bruins, a Finals series that went seven games.
“It’s a new opportunity” said St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington. “Obviously, it’s a different situation. We’re at the top right now. [Opponents are] going to come at us every game. It doesn’t really change. The second half of the season, we had to be at our best every game and keep progressing the right direction. It doesn’t change.”
Binnington was one of the reasons the Blues won the Cup. After being recalled from the AHL on Dec. 10, he played to a 1.89 goals-against average (24-5-1).
“When we talk about moving on, we can’t sit there and [say], ‘Aw, we’re Stanley Cup champions.’ You’ve got to work,” said Berube. “It’s a tough league. It’s tough to make the playoffs. There’s a lot of good teams. Our division’s very good. We’ve got to get ready.”
The Blues are not getting a lot of love from pundit across the league. USA Today placed them fourth in the Central Division, behind Colorado, Nashville and Dallas. The Athletic had the Blues 10th in its preseason power rankings.
“How do you really know, right? Where were we in January last year?,” said Pietrangelo asked. “You can look whatever rankings or whatever, we know what we have in this room, we know what we had last year. I think most people had us probably 31st last year in January in the power rankings.”
If for no other reason than sentimentality, it would be great if the Blues could show last season wasn’t a fluke by breaking from the gate with the same style play that characterized the run to the Cup.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that it’s short offseason and you don’t have a lot of time to really get yourself in the best shape possible, but I think our guys have been pretty focused,” said Berube. “We’ve been talking to them a lot about moving on from the Cup, getting over it and moving on and getting ready for the next season, so I think all that talk and things like that is important to get our guys ready.”