Updated: Jul 11, 2019
Patrick Maroon is a hometown hero. The 31 year-old power forward took his talents to the city of Saint Louis on a one year free agent deal signed on July 9th of 2018, the city that he grew up in playing in and developing into an NHL prospect. Coming off a thirteen point season playing for the New Jersey Devils, the Maroon came home in order to spend more time with his son and play with minimal expectations. That's the kind of setup that great hockey stories are made of- and that's exactly what developed over the next year. If Saint Louis faithful weren't cheering for the hometown boy before, then this was more than enough to sway them over:
Maroon's double OT conference semifinal clincher was dramatic, heroic, and memorable. That goal, and his hometown ties, made him a natural media draw once the Stanley Cup Final came to a close on Wednesday night. And, boy, did he ever use that opportunity to give a classic soundbite:
"Old time hockey is back, screw the speed."
The NHL has a reputation as a copycat league, with teams observing the previous champion's path to success in order to bring some of that success over into their building. This method of team building has its pros and cons, but with general managers constantly under pressure to succeed, them looking for a precedent to build on, rather than blazing an unfamiliar trail, is at least a logical strategy for them to use to stay employed. But if GMs are looking to become "The Next Saint Louis Blues", heeding Patrick Maroon's advice is a great way to find yourself as "The Next Los Angeles Kings" instead. Slow, overwhelmed, and ineffective in both play-driving and possession. The Saint Louis Blues didn't win the Stanley Cup by being heavy, they won the Stanley Cup by being the more balanced, bought in, and, frankly, healthy team compared to their opponents as the playoffs wore on. It's ironic that, whether Maroon believes so or not, it took a great deal of foot speed for his double OT goal to come together at all, illustrating the variety of roles required for a team to succeed. As seen above, Robert Thomas took a pass from Maroon and then used his quick feet and quick stick to avoid the defense, which allowed him to take the shot that left the rebound sitting squarely in the blue paint, where Maroon drove in in order to tap it home. Maroon's net front presence was vital on the play, obviously, but it took Thomas's play-driving ability to allow the goal to come together. So, as much as the 200 hockey men love their grit and size, it would be a mistake for them to latch onto Maroon's hypothesis. However, that does not there is not some good that can come from a team being a Saint Louis copycat, but the GM that goes that route has to be certain they're learning the right lessons along the way.
Takeaway #1: The Blues were balanced and bought in on offense
Saint Louis was projected at the beginning of the season to be very successful and contend for the top seed in the Central Division. After coming up short of the playoffs on the last day of the previous season, the team went to work in the summer to improve their core. To go along with Maroon, the Blues also added two-way maestro Ryan O'Reilly (essentially fleecing Buffalo to get him), and paid for Tyler Bozak and David Perron on the open market in order to deepen the forward position. These additions bolstered a lineup that already had Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Alex Steen, up-and-comers like Ivan Barbashev and Robert Thomas, and the perpetually injured Robby Fabbri (Robby Fabbri remained perpetually injured this year). It took the Blues two months to get it into gear, but after a slow start, the effort started to appear, and soon after, the results started to appear as well. Here's the Blues expected goal share numbers over the season, illustrating how putrid their start was and how effective they became as the season wore on:
The Blues hired Craig Berube as their interim coach on November 20th to replace Mike Yeo, and that began the meteoric rise in the team's expected goal share, as seen above. At their peak on February 7th, the Blues were expected to scored 67% of the goals in the games they played, which is just absolutely ridiculous, especially considering where they had been two months prior. Berube laid the foundation for the Blues' later success, and after Jordan Binnington arrived and stabilized their goaltending, the forwards were able to succeed more consistently and the team was able to roll through the second half of the season. Buying into Berube's system was at the core of their rejuvenation, so it was fitting that their game seven victory was a complete team effort. After a Boston siege proved to be fruitless in the first period, the Blues put together an excellent neutral zone trap that essentially eliminated any chance of the Bruins entering the attacking zone. It helps when you have Ryan O'Reilly, one of the league's most defensively responsible forwards, leading the charge, and defensive core featuring Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo (see below). But it takes a village, and the Blues, with their revitalized core and focused leader behind the bench, developed through the course of the season into a team that could attack and defend with balance.
Takeaway #2: The Blues were balanced at defense
Colton Parayko does a lot of things right, in both the defensive and offensive zone. His neutralization of the Blues' playoff opponents was critical to the team enjoying any form of success, and he did it all while being deployed next to an out-of-his-prime, but still fairly functional Jay Bouwmeester. Parayko is a big dude (6-6, 230 pounds, according to hockeyreference.com), but plays an even better mental game than physical game, which is not an insult on his physical game whatsoever. He's good at blocking both passes and shots, exiting the defensive zone, and stopping offensive zone entries. In the 430 minutes he played 5-on-5 in rounds two, three, and four, the Blue's opponents scored eight goals (via Dmitri Filipovic on the Hockey PDOcast). The Blues, in large part thanks to Parayko, shut down the Bruins' top line to an unprecedented degree. The Bruins scored zero goals at 5-on-5 when Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak were all on the ice together (which is quite the feat to accomplish, even if they were struggling with injury). To go along with Parayko's talents and contributions, the Saint Louis blueline featured sturdy defenseman and captain Alex Pietrangelo, who was a +7 at 5-on-5 goals in the Final, the aforementioned Bouwmeester, a veteran who played better than advertised by the media, and Carl Gunnarsson, a former 7th round pick who secured the Blues' first ever Stanley Cup Final victory:
The Blues had even more solid depth to turn to in players such as Vince Dunn, Joel Edmundson, and Robert Bortuzzo. So while the defense didn't have a lot of flash, the team was able to excel, in both the regular season and the playoffs, of protecting their rookie goaltending and putting him in a position to succeed. During the Finals in particular, the Blues control of 5-on-5 play in games two, four, five, and critical stretches of seven was enough to slow down a very talented Bruins team. When the D wasn't enough, they either lost by a lot (game three and six) or Binnington came to play (game seven). Having a strong defense and a goalie that can elevate their play at the right times goes a long way towards pushing a team in the right direction.
Takeaway #3: The Blues stayed healthy enough to finish the job
It may be better to be lucky rather than to be good, but the best option for the Blues was to find a way be both. While they certainly did have a few injuries during their run (every team is going to), they were certainly feeling a little fresher than the Bruins by the time that game seven rolled around. Boston's list of injuries was as follows: Kevan Miller broke his kneecap horizontally after just recovering from breaking it vertically, John Moore will take four to six months to recover from a broken humerus and blown out shoulder, Patrice Bergeron had a tweaked groin, Zdeno Chara's jaw was wired shut and he played anyway, Noel Acciari had a fractured sternum, Brad Marchand had groin trouble, Pastrnak aggravated his thumb, and Jake Debrusk and Matt Grezlyk had concussions. Essentially half the lineup was dealing with less than ideal circumstances, including their entire first line. This is not to discredit the Blues, by any means. Injuries are (unfortunately) a part of the game and Saint Louis was certainly not one hundred percent healthy either. Ryan O'Reilly played through cracked ribs since the first round of the playoffs, Vince Dunn missed significant time due to injury, and Robert Thomas, orchestrator of Pat Maroon's OT goal, missed all but game one of the Final with a suspected wrist injury. But the Blues also benefitted while playing the Sharks from a slowed down and then absent Erik Karlsson, a suffering Joe Pavelski, and a debilitated Tomas Hertl in the game six of Conference Finals. They stayed healthier than their opponents and benefitted top-to-bottom because of it.
This year's playoffs serve as a reminder that sometimes a team can do everything right in roster makeup and coaching system, and it stay may (and/or probably won't) end with a Stanley Cup win at the end of the year. The Tampa Bay Lightning, juggernauts lauded for their seeming invincibility didn't win a single playoff game, thanks to injuries (surprise), subpar goaltending, and a tough matchup they may have underestimated. The San Jose Sharks appeared to be a team of destiny this year, getting a solid team effort from up and down the lineup and some (very) fortuitous calls, and fell in six games to a debatably less talented Blues team because they got out played and started falling to pieces physically and mentally around game four of the Conference Finals. The Boston Bruins received incredible goaltending from Tuukka Rask throughout the playoffs, and had a roster just as deep as the Blues and certainly capable of winning the Stanley Cup. But none of those teams won, the Blues did. The Blues deserved to win, but had the Lightning, Bruins, Sharks, or another team come out on top, they would have been worthy as well.
So before those teams, or other successful teams, go out to try and become "The Next Saint Louis Blues", perhaps they should focus on improving on the core and identity they've already been developing that has brought them success. That's what the Blues did last year, and what the Capitals had done the year before that. There were calls for the Caps' star players' heads for years before they finally won the cup. But Ovechkin & Co. persevered through some awful ends to their seasons to finally win the cup. The 95-96 Red Wings won sixty two games and didn't get to raise the cup that year. But they did the next year. And the year after that. The Red Wings organization continued to believe in itself and those players and coaches have a legacy of winning because of it. If I were a GM, the biggest takeaway I can learn from this Final, and every Final before it, is to trust the talented players on my roster and give them as much help as I can. Trying to develop a new identity on the fly is how a team ends up with no identity at all. The 2016-2017 Edmonton Oilers made the second round of the playoffs and then tried to get bigger and tougher to be the next Anaheim Ducks. They haven't made the playoffs since. The 2013-2014 Colorado Avalanche won their division and then got older with more veterans. They were a laughingstock that culminated in a 48-point season before putting it back together two seasons ago. You're not going to win the Stanley Cup every year. But most of the time, trying to copy another team won't get you all the way up the mountain top. Especially if your plan as a copycat involves old time hockey and a disregard for speed. For the Blues, this year was a longtime coming, but they got the job done by building on their foundation, leading to a fantastic roster, one that was able to capitalize on any fortune and fight through any misfortune that came their way. It was a storybook ending. But next year opens a new storybook, and teams that fell short this year have ample opportunity to find themselves writing the final words.