The St. Louis Blues did it. They won their first-ever Stanley Cup. This week’s Blake’s Takes looks at how the Blues conquered hockey’s Mt. Everest and who the key players were along the way. I also highlight the first few major moves of the offseason.
1. The St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup Champions
After a memorable Stanley Cup playoffs, the St. Louis Blues have won their first Stanley Cup championship after they defeated the Boston Bruins on the road in Game 7. The Blues beat the Bruins at their own game, they wore them down with their physicality and took advantage of offensive opportunities. St. Louis proved every single person wrong that counted them out and said they couldn’t do it, including me.
I didn’t have a rooting interested in this game so I’m happy for the Blues and their fans. I was watching the game with one of my close friends who is a die-hard Blues fan. To see the emotion on his face (lots of tears) when the Blues went up 4-1 was palpable. The good people of St. Louis deserved to see their hockey team bring home a championship.
Tuukka Rask may have been the best goaltender of the playoffs, but the best game of the playoffs belongs to Jordan Binnington. He stood on his head for all of Game 7 and the Blues didn’t have a shot without him. I know the Blues won 4-1, but Boston was the better team for most of the game. They outshot the Blues 33-20 and had plenty of prime scoring chances. Binnington stopped all but one shot and made a few monster saves. The Bruins’ lone goal came when the game was already out of reach. I can honestly say Binnington’s performance was the best Game 7 performance I have seen in my lifetime of watching hockey.
I do feel for Tuukka Rask. After everything he has gone through over the last few years, there will still be Bruins fans that will give him shit. He was the best goalie in the playoffs by far and he doesn’t deserve to take any more heat. There will certainly be no Tuukka Rask slander in this column. I also feel bad for Torey Krug. Krug was Boston’s best player in the Stanley Cup Finals and I was rooting for a former Spartan to get his name on the Cup. Thankfully, Blues’ forward, Mackenzie MacEachern, is also a former Spartan and got his chance to lift the Cup. He will not have his name on the trophy because he didn’t play in any games during the playoffs.
The NHL playoffs continue to prove why it is the best in sports. It is truly a wide-open affair and provides great storylines and entertainment. I urge all Blues fans to live it up this summer because you never know when you will have the chance again.
2. Ryan O’Reilly Wins the Conn Smythe
The Blues struck gold with O’Reilly this year. The Blues acquired the center from the Sabres last year for Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick. I try not to judge trades so quickly, but after O’Reilly was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy I think there is a good chance the Blues won this one. That’s not to say the Sabres didn’t win out too. Thompson and the players the Sabres draft with those picks could turn out to be difference makers. But unless the Sabres win a Stanley Cup or two with those guys contributing, or use them as assets in other trades, I doubt they can do any better than O’Reilly.
It seems as O’Reilly got even better as the playoffs went on. He didn’t score in the Blues’ first three games but scored in each game after. He finished the playoffs tied with Brad Marchand for first in points. He was also finished ninth on goals and third in assists in the playoffs. He led the Blues in both assists and points as well.
O’Reilly clearly proved to be the difference maker for the Blues this season. He wasn’t the sexiest acquisition but proved to be the best. Not only did O’Reilly provide his typical lockdown defensive services, but he also led the Blues in regular season scoring with 77 points, potting 28 goals and adding 49 assists. Everyone knew O’Reilly was a top-tier player, but I don’t think most pundits would have bet on him being the Blues’ most important skater before the season started. O’Reilly deserves to be revered among the likes of Anze Kopitar and Aleksander Barkov as shutdown defensive forwards that are also elite scoring centers. If the casual fan didn’t know who Ryan O’Reilly was before, they sure as shit should now.
3. Our First Big Trade
On Friday, the Washington Capitals traded 32-year-old defenseman, Matt Niskanen, to the Philadelphia Flyers for the 29-year-old defenseman, Radko Gudas. Niskanen is coming off a rather disappointing year, having scored only 25 points, his fewest since the 2012-13 season where he played in only 40 games. Gudas had a solid season by his standards, scoring 20 points in 70 games.
The trade looks to be motivated by salary cap concerns for the Capitals. Niskanen has two years left on his contract with a $5.75 million cap hit. Gudas carries a much lower cap hit of $3.35 million and is on the last year of his contract. Philadelphia is also retaining 30 percent of Gudas cap hit. This will end up saving the Capitals $3.405 million next season and will give them more flexibility this offseason to spend on free agents and extend their current players. For the Flyers, Niskanen will play a much bigger role and will become their highest paid defenseman.
I think this is a great move for the Capitals as they can use some of the money they saved to re-sign RFA Jakub Vrana and extend Nicklas Backstrom. They also used it to re-sign Carl Hagelin, dishing out a modest four-year/$11 million deal. To those who say that re-signing those players doesn’t improve the team, I disagree. Hagelin was great for them down the stretch providing speed and excelled at killing penalties. Backstrom’s contributions go without saying, regardless of his age.
Using the money towards extending Vrana is what makes this interesting. He is an RFA so the Caps ultimately get to decide if they want to keep him. He also has massive upside and has only scored 40 NHL goals. The Capitals know they can get him for a bargain now and hope he outperforms this contract. I could see Vrana signing a bridge deal in the $3-$5 AAV range for three to five years. If Vrana improves the way the Caps think he will, his contributions could mask the eventual decline of Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. All because they traded Matt Niskanen.
I don’t mind this trade for Philly either. Yes, the trade was salary cap motivated, but hockey-wise it’s a win for Philadelphia. The Flyers received a player that is better than the player they traded away and it’s as simple as that. They also have an extra year of control on Niskanen which could help them decide if they want to re-sign him. Niskanen is also a highly-coveted right-handed shot defenseman.
Overall, both teams can benefit from this trade and it appears as the Capitals already have.
4. Bouwmeester Joins Triple Gold Club
Jay Bouwmeester is now officially the newest member of the IIHF’s esteemed Triple Gold Club. Bouwmeester won gold medals at the World Championships in 2003 and 2004 and a gold medal at the Olympics in 2014, all with Team Canada. The Blues’ victory last week gives Bouwmeester a long-awaited Stanley Cup ring. He has now won the top prize in the three most important hockey tournaments on the planet putting him among elite company.
Bouwmeester is the 29th player to join the Triple Gold Club. He is the 11th Canadian and the fifth player from Canada’s 2014 Olympic team. He is also the only player from Canada’s 2003 World Championship team and third player from Canada’s 2004 World Championship team to join the club.
Bouwmeester’s entrance into the club should change the narrative on his career. Before the Blues won the Stanley Cup, Bouwmeester was viewed as a very good defensive defenseman that was overshadowed by his teammates, most notably Dion Phaneuf, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Alex Pietrangelo. This Stanley Cup win should fuel Bouwmeester’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Not solely because he is a member of the Triple Gold Club, but because his resume is deep, especially internationally. Here are his career highlights:
• 2x World Championship Gold Medal
• 2x Canada Cup/World Cup Gold Medal
• 2x World Junior Championship Bronze Medal
• 2x NHL All-Star
• 1x Olympic Gold Medal
• 1x World Championship Silver Medal
• 1x World Junior Championship Silver Medal
• 1x NHL All-Rookie Team
• 1x World Championship Best Defenseman
• 1x World Champions All-Star Team
• 1x Stanley Cup Winner
It’s tough to ignore those accomplishments when considering the Hall of Fame. Team success is what it’s all about, and Bouwmeester has contributed to his team’s success on every level and played a large role in those successes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some serious consideration for the Hall of Fame now that he can add Stanley Cup champion to his resume.
5. The Real Season Starts: Free Agency, Extensions, and Trades
We are entering one of the most exciting times — the offseason. The first few weeks after the Stanley Cup are always filled with big free agent decisions and major trades. Sometimes the start of the offseason can be more exciting than the regular season for the fans of poor teams. The Blues have been Stanley Cup champions for less than a week and we have already seen some front offices get to work. Here are a few roster moves that caught my eye.
The Isle’s Extend Jordan Eberle
Jordan Eberle was set to become a UFA before he and the Islanders agreed on an extension. The 29-year-old Eberle will spend the next five years on Long Island and will pull in $27.5 million for an AAV of $5.5 million. This is a good deal for the Islanders. Is Eberle worth a $5.5 million cap hit? Probably not. But he would have received a much bigger deal on the open market. So, the Islanders definitely inked him for a great value. It’s a great move for Eberle too. He fit in very well with the Islanders and caught fire in the playoffs. While he probably won’t eclipse 60 points in a season again, anything in the 40 point range will be acceptable. This was a necessary deal for both sides and the money worked out well for each.
Dion Phaneuf is Out in L.A.
The albatross of a contract the Maple Leafs birthed and gifted to Dion Phaneuf has plagued another team. On Saturday, the L.A. Kings decided to bite the bullet and buy out the remaining two years on Phaneuf’s contract. Phaneuf will now head to free agency with the option to sign with any team. He is a shell of his former self and adds little to an NHL roster. Last year for the Kings, Phaneuf posted career lows in goals, assists, points, +/-, shots, shot %, TOI, average TOI, and many other statistical categories that aren’t worth mentioning.
Phaneuf used to be known as a heavy hitter, above average defensively, and a good offensive defenseman. He received a lot of criticism from pundits in the past and has been voted the most overrated players in the league. The Leafs still thought he was worthy of a seven-year/$49 million extension back in 2013. His points per game had never dipped below 0.40 and he was playing well. He didn’t last another two seasons in Toronto before being traded to Ottawa. Phaneuf continued to struggle in Ottawa and was traded again during the 2017-18 season. The Kings traded for him during the 2017-18 season.
If there is anything to take away from this story, it’s this.
Good for Phaneuf for securing that contract before his career went to shit.
What a dumb move by the Kings who are in what I call the Nightmare Zone. They have zero cap space and are at the bottom of the standings.
And perhaps the most important piece of all this, the Ottawa Senators came out on top of this trade. They traded Phaneuf and Nate Thompson for Nick Shore and Marion Gaborik. I know what you’re thinking, Gaborik is just as useless as Phaneuf. That may be true, but, Gaborik’s cap hit is $4.875 million and Phaneuf’s sits at $7 million. So, I don’t ever want to hear anything bad about Ottawa’s front office, because they won this trade. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.