January 3rd seems like forever ago. When Craig Berube and the St. Louis Blues went into work that fateful day, their squad was sitting dead last in the entire NHL with a roster teardown feeling imminent and a major organizational shake-up potentially on the horizon.
Six weeks earlier, heads already started to roll. But even after axing Mike Yeo and slapping the interim head coach tag on Berube in the back-end of November, the Blues looked, well, pretty damn terrible as the calendar flipped to 2019.
It was a weird time for those of us who like to think we have a decent grasp on this dumb game. How did a roster so well-balanced and with so much talent and depth look so lost and perform so terribly? How were they in dead last despite middling- Expected Goals and possession numbers?
The answer to that turned out to be a fairly simple one: Goaltending.
With a combined sub-.885 save %, the season-starting tandem of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson was the worst pairing in the NHL through the first three months of the season, and they were dragging this group down until an unexpected saviour arrived on the scene in the form of an obscure 25-year-old rookie.
After a couple of relief appearances following his recall, Jordan Binnington pitched a shutout against the Flyers in his first NHL start, and that exact moment is when the Blues’ season began to turn from a disaster into a dream.
A loss followed by three straight victories in mid-January set the table for the Blues’ beefy and absurdly unpredictable 17-4-1 tear before the trade deadline — one that included an 11-game win streak — and, before we even realized what was happening, the Blues went from sure-sellers at the deadline to legitimate contenders in the Central Division.
Over that season-altering 22-game stretch, Binnington introduced himself to the hockey world harder than any goaltender ever has. The 25-year-old went 14-2-1 with four shutouts and a delicious .939 save % while allowing just 27 goals over those 17 starts. Turned out that was just a taste of what we’d get from Binnington for the rest of the regular season.
The team’s newfound starter finished the campaign securing every Blues win in 2019 except for six — going 24-5-1 with five goose eggs, a sub-2.00 GAA and a gnarly .927 save % which was good for third-best among NHL starters at season’s end and a Calder Trophy nomination despite not bursting on the scene until January.
The Blues’ goals-per-game output stayed relatively stagnant over the course of the season, but Binnington came in and improved the team’s Sv % by nearly .50 points. It’s not hard to see what primarily fuelled St. Louis’s second-half run.
It can’t be said enough how insane Binnington’s run has been, especially considering the fact that he did it after getting called up under the most tumultuous of circumstances with the underperforming Blues occupying the dingy bedroom in the league’s basement.
Prior to his recall this season, the Richmond Hill, Ontario, native only saw a grand total of 13 NHL minutes, way back in 2016. And considering the fact Binnington, just last season, was demoted to the ECHL before refusing to report, it’s nearly impossible to understand how he was able to put this incredible season together.
Truly asinine stuff from Binnington, but he’s not the only previously overlooked difference maker that had their fingerprints all over St. Louis’ historic turnaround.
How about that guy behind the bench? Berube has been a revelation for a team that struggled to find an identity, especially defensively, under former coach Mike Yeo.
Though it took a few weeks — and a call-up goaltender — to really get things back on track, Berube’s revamp of the team’s defensive structure and how it attacked in all areas of the rink co-piloted Binnington’s emergence and gave the team a completely different look and feel, which was obviously very successful.
With their new systems in place, the team started to drastically reduce high-danger scoring chances against and tightened up defensively in all areas — increasing physicality in a smart and structured way and increasingly making it more difficult for opposing teams to find time on the ice.
The team’s new-found defensive confidence — combined with a more aggressive and free, efficient and chance-driven offense — saw the team go from 27th in goals-for under Yeo to 11th from the time Berube took over onward.
Try to quantify it however you will, but the impact Berube had on this group goes far beyond the numbers. A literal scrapper of a player who had to earn every second of his 1,054-game career after going undrafted, the NHL’s seventh-most penalized player of all time has a resiliency to him that mirrors that of the team that he has willed into the Stanley Cup final.
It’s allowed him to define roles while bringing a fresh player-management perspective to the fold.
“Guys that have a long career like that are the guys that really get it as far as team play because they’ve had to sacrifice a lot,” Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester told TSN’s Frank Seravalli.
“He saw it differently than top-end guys. He’s really put us into positions where we’re going to be better as players. Everyone’s had a role and everyone’s just kind of ran with it.”
Coach Of The Year (and likely winner) Berube, along with Binnington, both played immensely significant parts in getting the Blues to this point, but you couldn’t have this turnaround without players, obviously, and one of GM Doug Armstrong’s other big moves was acquiring — stealing, really — Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres last summer.
One of the NHL’s premier face-off guys and top two-way threats, O’Reilly took the reins as the Blues top player immediately and posted the best offensive numbers of his career while leading St. Louis in points (77), assists (49), and points-per-game (0.94) and ranking second in goals (28).
The 28-year-old was the NHL’s best in the dot with 1,086 face-off wins, finished fourth league-wide with 121 shorthanded face-off wins, and eighth in face-off percentage (56.9). His all-around prowess earned him a Selke Trophy nomination alongside fellow monsters Mark Stone and Patrice Bergeron.
Armstrong’s acquisition of O’Rielly, his firing of Yeo and hiring of Berube and the recall of Binnington were all home-run moves that worked out as good as they possibly could have for the Blues. But it’s all the moves Armstrong didn’t make — keeping the team’s key pieces together and not panicking despite the obvious temptation to sell and start a rebuild — that may have been his most crucial.
This damn galaxy brain of a hockey team went from league doormat, to back in the postseason hunt, to a No. 3 seed in the Central, to downing the favoured Sharks in the Western Conference final, all in a span of less than five months.
It’s outrageous, egregious, preposterous — but oh-so glorious — that we’re about to watch the Blues skate onto the ice for their first Stanley Cup Final in nearly 50 years after seeing that same squad so-closely resemble a scorching dumpster fire for the first 90-something days of the season.
An opportunity to become the first team in the NHL’s 100-plus-year history to win a Cup when sitting in last place at the 20-game mark seems about the only fitting ending to this weird but incredible script.
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