The St. Louis Blues pulled off the nearly impossible last year, going from last place to lifting the Stanley Cup, all in one year.
To recap: St. Louis fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 19 and replaced him with Craig Berube, then installed Jordan Binnington as the starting goaltender and it truly became a tale of two seasons.
St. Louis was dead last in the NHL on Jan. 3 and defeated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup on June 12.
Anything can happen, and hockey is a sport subject to plenty of random variation. It’s not crazy to think that we could see another version of the Blues again.
Who will be most likely to replicate the Blues’ worst-to-first heroics in 2019-20?
It would be somewhat surprising if the Panthers lifted the Cup, considering the team missed the playoffs the past three seasons. To dismiss this year’s team based off the results of yesteryear would be unfair, and they’ve copied some elements from the Blues that make the Panthers a sleeper candidate.
Florida gave Sergei Bobrovsky the bag this summer, signing the two-time Vezina Trophy winner to a seven-year, $70-million contract. Eventually, the latter end of the deal is likely to age poorly, but for the time being the Panthers inked one of the NHL’s premier goaltenders. The always-reliable Anton Stralman joins a defence corps that underachieved, and an improved back end ought to help the Panthers at least secure a wild-card spot.
Joel Quenneville is one of the very few coaches that serves as a genuine game-changer, and the former Blackhawks boss ought to galvanize the team in a way that few others are capable of. With Aleksander Barkov, arguably the league’s best two-way center, entering his prime alongside Jonathan Huberdeau, this is the year for the Panthers to make a push, albeit in a loaded Atlantic Division.
It may take some time for all the new pieces to gel, and that’s completely fine. If it takes Bobrovsky and Quenneville some time to acclimate, it’s not the end of the world. Adding a star goaltender and a head coach with a new sense of direction worked out perfectly for the Blues, and history could repeat itself in unlikely fashion next summer.
Vegas Golden Knights
This one would be less jarring as the Golden Knights shocked the world upon reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, then capitalized upon its ample cap space to add Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty among other veterans to solidify their contender status.
Vegas has a ton of firepower and a goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury that can be downright unbeatable when he’s on his game, especially in the playoffs. There’s more than a reasonable chance that the Golden Knights will start the year slowly, reeling after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the first round to their rival San Jose Sharks. Hangovers always take time to recover from.
Stone looked like he was ready for superstardom in the first round, acting as Vegas’ own version of Ryan O’Reilly and a balanced scoring attack, in a similar vein to the Blues could be what elevates this team to champion status. Vegas’ defence always plays better than the sum of its parts and they have a goaltender that has won it all.
It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if the Golden Knights take some time to get into their highest gear, but they are a frightening force when they’re at their best, and will be looking for revenge when the playoffs roll around.
Any Blues fan will be sick to their stomach about being grouped in with the Blackhawks, but their rival could be next to lift the Cup once again, capping off their best decade in franchise history.
Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, 2012-13 and 2014-15 and positioned itself as a juggernaut. Every dynasty eventually fades, and this iteration of the Blackhawks has missed the playoffs twice, but there’s reason to believe that not only will the team return to the postseason, there’s reason to believe that winning it all isn’t out of sight.
Let’s examine last year’s splits: Chicago slumped to a 15-20-6 mark during the first half of the season, then posted a 21-14-6 record in the second half, a 96-point pace, which would’ve secured a postseason bid. Dylan Strome’s potential was finally met after a midseason trade, as he notched 51 points in 58 games with Chicago, while Patrick Kane posted a career-best season with 110 points.
Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook represent the core of the championship teams, and though the latter two have sharply declined, there’s reason to belief that both players could submit one last Herculean effort come playoff time. Alex DeBrincat scored 41 goals in 2018-19 and may be the NHL’s most underrated player, while the Blackhawks went out and astutely signed Vezina finalist Robin Lehner.
With a championship core intact, a new star goaltender and the knowledge that comes with almost making the playoffs after a first-half slump, the Blackhawks might be the new Blues, a revolting prospect for both fan bases.
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