St. Louis Blues 2016-17 Season Preview

Being a fan of the St. Louis Blues may not seem so difficult on the surface. The team is usually quite competitive and qualifies for the playoffs regularly. The team consists of highly skilled players who are exciting to watch, and that’s not unique to this season nor the last decade. The franchise has won nine division titles and made it to the playoffs 40 times in its 49 seasons. Its players and coaches have won individual awards for their prolific seasons. The logo – affectionately known as “the Note” – looks classy and remarkably fierce given that it is an inanimate object (until given its voice by some willing and able instrument). These are all things I appreciate as a fan. I am grateful that the Blues are not some basement-dwelling, bottom-feeding doormat resigned to a hopeless existence full of losing seasons. There is little fun in that enterprise. But what the Blues ultimately lack is what matters the most for fans young and old who have lived and died with each playoff series won and eventually lost: a championship.

When the final horn sounded at the end of Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, I was about as drained emotionally as the St. Louis Blues were physically. In truth, I had had some time to come to terms with the Blues’ elimination by the game’s end. Their performance was the last gasp for a team that had been beaten and bruised by physical opponents through their first 14 brutal games. The big Blues did their fair share of checking in the first two rounds, too, but it was clear in those final six games against the speedy and physical San Jose Sharks that the Blues’ defeats of the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars had taken a significant toll. While one could very reasonably argue that the Blues were better than the Sharks throughout the season, there is no question that they were the inferior team over the course of that series.

With that said, it was still a huge disappointment. After a month-and-a-half of tense playoff hockey, the Blues had progressed in the playoffs further than they had at any other point in my life in winning 10 games. Yet they were still six shy of the total required to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, and of all the trophies out there, the Stanley Cup is the one that I (on behalf of my preferred team) covet the most. It’s the most magnificent, and to win it, a team has to battle through what I believe strongly to be not only the most exciting (sudden-death overtime games are the best and the worst) but the most grueling playoffs in all of sports.

Certainly, for the players, two months of games is no small task. The teams that advance to the Stanley Cup Finals could conceivably play 28 games – if each of the four series goes the full seven games – which equates to just over a third of the entire regular season. Even if the maximum number of games aren’t played, the pressure on teams is significant. Goals are harder to score, pucks are harder to stop, play is more physical. To top it all off, it’s not at all uncommon for games to go to overtime where there are no shootouts to save a team with tired legs. It has to be exhausting.

For fans, the drama is considerable, the momentums swings drastic, the feelings of hate for opponents strong. Come April, May, and – fingers crossed – June, I know what sport I’ll be following intently. Each gameday morning I wake to feelings of excitement in anticipation of that evening’s contest, but as the first puck drops, those feelings immediately morph into all-out anxiety. As each game passes, win or lose for my Blues, I think to myself, “Oh, Lord [Stanley], I have to do this all over again in two days’ time?”. And this doesn’t even touch on the lost sleep. If the Blues win, I’m buzzing as I climb into bed, but after a stomach-churning loss, it can take a long time to stop replaying the crucial plays in my mind enough to actually nod off.

Apart from that daily turmoil, there’s the ever-present notion that this playoff run will be all for naught, that my Blues will win X games and then get eliminated just as dreams of the Cup start to come into focus. Realizing that the Blues have to once again play a full regular season, qualify for the playoffs, and then win 16 games from scratch is the most excruciating feeling of all. Sisyphus never had it so tough.

Throwing aside that 2016 was yet another missed opportunity for the franchise to raise the Stanley Cup, of greater concern as the Blues headed to the offseason was the fact that David Backes and Troy Brouwer, a couple of their key contributors, were headed for free agency. For a team with little flexibility in its payroll, the path ahead would be left a little murkier without those two wearing the Note on their sweaters the following season. How would management replace their offensive production, physical play, and veteran leadership? How would the Blues get back to the Western Conference Finals – a stage that has proven so elusive for the franchise – and perhaps beyond?

Sure enough, both players bolted – fairly so – for more money, and on top of that, the Blues traded away Brian Elliott, their starting goalie throughout the playoffs and one of the best in franchise history (leading all others in career shutouts as a Blue with 25 in five seasons). In a strict managerial sense, the trade was a good one for various reasons that I won’t tackle here, but it only left the Blues’ prospects for the upcoming season even foggier. What was clear was that management had left the Blues a younger team, and while that’s all well and good for the long-term, the idea that the Blues might not follow up and improve upon their great playoff run wasn’t exactly palatable. It’s tough to be patient.

To fill in the gaps, the Blues didn’t make any big trades or sign high-profile free agents. Instead, they signed free agent winger David Perron, a player the franchise drafted back in 2007 but eventually traded away due to his enigmatic and flashy play, and to fill Elliott’s vacated spot in net, they brought on backup netminder Carter Hutton to serve as the backup to Jake Allen, the Blues’ goalie of the future. To cap off their offseason, a few days before the season opener, the front office traded for Nail Yakupov, a former number one draft pick who failed to live up to lofty expectations for the Edmonton Oilers. For a team so close to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, it was tough to watch the offseason go by without a clear improvement on either side of the puck.

Fast forward to October…

The Blues are eight games into the 2016-17 campaign, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Part of that is simply having hockey back, but the other part has been the Blues’ start. When I looked at the schedule a few weeks ago, it didn’t seem possible that the Blues would start the year with three straight wins against the Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, and New York Rangers (and earn at least a point in its first four games), and yet here we are. Yakupov has already notched two goals and two assists; Hutton earned a win against the Rangers; Perron had a hat trick and an assist in a game against the Flames. It’s still really early yet, of course, but so far, the Blues have looked anything but young and inexperienced. The defense has been tight, the offense has produced, the special teams units look in midseason form, and the goaltending has been quite good. If anything, this start has given me hope that this team – when right – can contend with the best. There are bound to be dips in play throughout the regular season, but my hopes have been buoyed that they will once again make the playoffs, and with past years as a guide, that’s all a team has to do.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to get my picture taken with the Cup. I watched as many others before me scanned the trophy to find their teams and touched where their favorite players’ names were etched forever in the metal. Others put their hands on the Cup simply because it was the Cup. After all, when would they ever get the chance to see it again in person? When it was my turn, however, I abstained. I gazed longingly but never did a finger come in contact. I got my picture taken, and that was that. Ridiculous or not, it felt wrong to touch it before any Blues player had earned the right to do so. I will of course never earn that right myself, but in a way, should the Blues ever progress far enough and win that 16th game, it will feel as though I have.

This year, the Blues are celebrating their 50th season in the league, and since 1967, St. Louisans have paid witness to some good teams and players, as well as some particularly bad ones. There have been amazing goals scored, legendary comebacks, euphoric moments, and heartbreaking, crushing defeats. Even though the Blues have missed the playoffs on only eight occasions, each of the previous 49 seasons have ended without a Blue touching the Cup, and this season may very well be no different. Nevertheless I will soldier on and cheer each time the Blues light the lamp and this glorious horn and song echo through Scottrade Center. (I may be biased, but there is no better sound in sports.) And if I ever get to see the handoff of the Cup from NHL commissioner to Blues captain, I will weep tears of unfettered joy.

I now leave you with these ten facts about the Blues:

  1. The Blues were one of the six teams part of the NHL’s original expansion in 1967 and were named after W.C. Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues.”
  2. Of their 49 years in the NHL (one of which was the 2004-05 lockout), the Blues have qualified for the playoffs on 40 occasions, including a streak of 25 consecutive appearances.
  3. Brett Hull, the legendary goal scorer and greatest Blue ever, won two Stanley Cups elsewhere after leaving the Blues over a contract dispute in which the Blues refused to include a no-trade clause as part of his contract.
  4. Of those 40 playoff runs, the Blues have been eliminated in the first round 20 times and second round 14 times.
  5. The Blues traded for Wayne Gretzky toward the end of the 1995-96 season, and he tallied 37 points in 31 games, including the playoffs. The Blues’ season ended, however, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings (see “crushing” above), and that offseason, Blues’ coach Mike Keenan ran “The Great One” out of town.
  6. The Blues were once owned by pet food giant Ralston Purina, but the relationship soured after six years. At the end of the company’s tenure as owner, no team representative was sent to the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, resulting in the Blues failing to select a single player. The company eventually abandoned the team and turned it over to the league, which nearly led to a move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (vetoed by the league), and then its contraction altogether, if not for a last-second deal to keep the Blues in St. Louis.
  7. Since 1986, the Blues have made the Western Conference Finals three times (once every 15 years) and lost in each of those series.
  8. The only time that the St. Louis Blues won the Presidents’ Trophy (as the best regular season team in the NHL), they were eliminated in the first round by the Sharks. The winning goal in Game 7 was shot near center ice (see “heartbreaking” above). The series also featured a Blues defenseman throwing the puck into his own net to turn the tide of the series in the Sharks’ favor.
  9. The Blues have been coached by the four most winningest coaches in NHL history: Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Joel Quenneville, and Ken Hitchcock. These four coaches have 17 Stanley Cup wins between them but none with the Blues.
  10. The Blues have competed in three Stanley Cup Finals (their first three seasons in the league) and are 0-12 in those games. The franchise remains the oldest in the NHL without a Cup to its name.

Cover photo by Charlie Lyons-Pardue via Flickr

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s