By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Fifty previous times, Blues seasons have ended short of where they wanted to be.
Well, that can be said for all but one team each and every year; that's why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports.
Not this time, not this year.
In their 51st season, and 52nd year since they debuted in 1967, the Blues are Stanley Cup champions, doing so in brilliant, yet predictable fashion on the road in Game 7 against an Original Six team, the Boston Bruins.
The Blues went from worst to first, a record of 15-18-4 (34 points) on Jan. 3 to 45-28-9 (99 points), and finishing just one point -- amazingly -- out of winning the Central Division that included a franchise-record 11-game winning streak (Jan. 23-Feb. 21).
St. Louis qualified for the postseason after missing out last season for the first time in eight seasons, then won series against the Winnipeg Jets (six games), Dallas Stars (seven games), San Jose Sharks (six games) and finally, an epic seven-game series against the Bruins that culminated with a 4-1 win in Game 7 at TD Garden.
The Blues, who made big splashes fortifying their roster with free agent signings of forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon, then making the biggest splash of all by trading for Ryan O'Reilly, who went from having lost his love for hockey to winning the Stanley Cup and being named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner all in one year. Mike Yeo was fired as coach after 19 games and replaced by Craig Berube when things didn't start off so well; Goalie Jordan Binnington burst onto the scene on Jan. 7 with his first NHL start, eventually replacing Jake Allen as the starter and the rest is history.
With the 2018-19 season now complete, here are my grades for the season on players, coaches, management and most importantly, those that prepared the players for this long, grueling but rewarding 114-game season that included preseason, regular season and playoffs that finished with the Blues' first time being on top:
Ivan Barbashev -- This was a coming out party of sorts for the Blues' second-round pick in 2014. Barbashev set career highs in goals (14), assists (12) and points (26) while being a minus-4 playing in a career-high 80 games in his third season in the NHL. Barbashev got off to a much better this season after spending the summer in St. Louis refining his game, but it was a challenge finding what exactly his role would be and where he would fit. Once he realized his potential as a checking forward, playing center or the wing and finding a niche with Oskar Sundqvist and Alexander Steen in the postseason, Barbashev's value was quickly found, and interim coach Craig Berube even labeled Barbashev as the Blues' best checking forward. Barbashev would finish with six points (three goals, three assists) in 25 playoff games and really came on as the season wore on. He was part of arguably the Blues' most valuable line when it came to playing a defensive/checking/hitting role against the opposition's top lines in the postseason, and I really love his upside moving forward now that there's a defined role for him. Is there more upside there offensively? I think so. If the Blues can get him in that 15-20 goal range, and perhaps in the 30-35 point area, this will be a very valuable player moving forward, and he's only 24. One would think Barbashev is in for a pay raise as a restricted free agent.
My grade: B+
Sammy Blais -- I would normally give an incomplete grade here considering Blais played in only 32 regular-season games but I can't discredit his importance in being a solid complementary piece in the playoffs. Blais' second season in the NHL (he played in just 11 games last season) saw him remain on the San Antonio Express, being jettisoned between St. Louis and San Antonio of the American Hockey League, where he was one of the Rampage's top offensive weapons, and rightfully so considering his penchant for offense coming up through the QMJHL and AHL with Chicago and San Antonio the past two seasons, where Blais had 83 points (43 goals, 40 assists) and another 18 (eight goals, 10 assists) in 26 games this season. What impressed me most about Blais is his ability to adapt to a checking forward, one that wasn't afraid to throw his body around and adapt to kick his NHL career off. I think he finally understands that he has to play with an edge if he's going to stick with the Blues and in the NHL. Berube inserted Blais into Game 6 of the second round against Dallas, an elimination game, and he paid immediate dividends by scoring what amounted to the nail-in-the-coffin goal in a 4-1 win. Blais was used in a top-six role, primarily with Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron in the playoffs, and he combined his skill with his physicality, a component tough for a skilled player to adapt to, but he did it well. There's still parts to his game Blais has to round into form, and I believe he will with game experience, but I think it's safe to say the Blues developed themselves a nice player drafted in the sixth round in 2014, and he's only 23. Blais had four points (two goals, two assists) in 32 regular-season games and another three points (one goal, two assists) in 15 postseason games. I think Blais is in for a nice little raise as he enters restricted free agency.
My grade: B
Tyler Bozak -- My first thoughts when the Blues signed Bozak to a three-year, $15 million free agent contract were that this was a solid signing, but one that if he's going to average $5 million per season, I needed to see the offense, and more than a guy that filled a necessary role as a responsible two-way center. Bozak's numbers (13 goals, 25 assists) aren't what I would call eye-popping numbers in the regular-season, but boy, what I do remember when he was on the scoresheet is that his inclusion on them came when the Blues scored critical goals, and his face-off percentage (54.34 percent) and defensive responsibilities couldn't be denied. And when the playoffs started, Bozak, Robert Thomas and Pat Maroon started things off as one of the most consistent lines that was at the center of the Blues' identity, one that forechecked the heck out of Winnipeg, Dallas and San Jose. That trio would have solid, sustained zone time with their puck possession, and Bozak set up one of the most important goals of this postseason, to Jaden Schwartz with 15 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 5 of the first round against the Jets that completed a 3-2 comeback win, and he scored the game-winner in that series in Game 1 as well as help set up the game-winner by Maroon in Game 7 against the Stars. Bozak's 13 points (five goals, eight assists) and 54 percent face-off percentage in 26 playoff games was sufficient and a vital part of the puzzle for the Blues. I would have liked to see bigger offensive numbers for a guy used on the power-play. His power-play points have dropped from 18 to 13 to eight the past three seasons, but all-in-all, a solid first season in St. Louis for the veteran.
My grade: B
Robby Fabbri -- This is a tough one for me to grade, simply because I feel for Fabbri. I get that he's had two major knee surgeries on his left ACL that preceded the other ailments that followed, including a separated shoulder. Fabbri, who was selected by the Blues in the first round in 2014, has seen his numbers regress as a result of his injuries and his role regress as a result of not being able to find his form of his rookie season when he produced 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in 72 games in 2015-16 and 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 15 playoff games that season. He played in just 32 games this season with six points (two goals, four assists) and another 10 in the playoffs (one goal), often being a healthy scratch but continuing to work hard and give the coaching staff an option of inclusion into the lineup. There were signs of the former Fabbri coming back at times, but there were also those moments of a guy that hadn't seen an NHL game in a year and a half, and that's what makes this a tough grade. This is going to be an important off-season for Fabbri, who enters as a restricted free agent and is still just 23 years old. Nobody knows if Fabbri will get past those major knee surgeries moving forward, but for him to be in the Blues' future plans, he needs his health to return to as close to 100 percent as possible, his mental state to be back pre-injury and his game to find its way. I really liked pre-injury Fabbri, but the one that we saw in limited action this season isn't the one the Blues will be counting on. They have to hope he finds that former game again. Fabbri's a restricted free agent but without any leverage at this point.
My grade: D
Jordan Kyrou -- The Blues' second round pick in 2016 dressed in just 16 NHL games this season (one goal, two assists) and showed at times with his speed and finesse why the Blues picked him and why they're high on him. But he also displayed at times, that he needed to play in the AHL at San Antonio to enhance his pro game. Kyrou is just 21 and a part of the Blues' long-term plans, perhaps as early as next season he will get a permanent look, and they have to be encouraged with his season with the Rampage (16 goals, 27 assists) in 47 games.
My grade: incomplete
Mackenzie MacEachern -- I wouldn't normally give a guy a grade here playing in just 29 games, but MacEachern deserves one considering he was thrust into the NHL on Jan. 10 against Montreal right when the Blues were on the cusp of building their worst-to-first run. He was brought into a situation when the Blues were hurting for bodies and the 25-year-old gave them what they needed, a responsible fourth-liner that would play his role well and chip in the occasional offense (three goals, two assists). I thought MacEachern handled his role well and used his resources accordingly. MacEachern didn't play again after March 17 and had just one assist in his final 17 games after four points in 12 but always was a team player. He kept himself ready if the Blues needed him.
My grade: B
Pat Maroon -- Can a better script be written for the Oakville native coming home and winning a Stanley Cup in his first season? Talk about fairytales, but it certainly didn't start that way. Maroon's season was much like that of his team's: bad start, terrific finish. When Maroon signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract to come home and be with his family, turning down more term and money, it was a sign of a guy willing to live out a dream. But that dream nearly turned into a hometown nightmare. In fact, Maroon was that close from being placed on waivers by the Blues in January. He was a healthy scratch on Jan. 10 but returned to play the next game in Dallas with the Blues dealing with injuries. He scored in that win, and his season seemed to springboard from then on. I believe Maroon's back injury from the previous season and off-season wasn't quite up to par and affected his ability to protect pucks in the offensive zone with his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame. But he found his game with Bozak and Thomas, and that trio went on to do some terrific things down the stretch and into the playoffs, including Maroon scoring one of the biggest goals of this playoff run in Game 7 against Dallas in double-overtime of a 2-1 win. Maroon finished with just 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 74 games, a dropoff of his previous season in Edmonton and New Jersey (17 goals, 26 assists) in 74 games but he's a perfect example of general manager Doug Armstrong remaining patient instead of blowing the roster up when the Blues were laboring in last place at the turn of the calendar year. Maroon is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and indicated he'd like to return and go for another Stanley Cup, but in assessing his season, which included seven points (three goals, four assists) in 26 playoff games, he turned a bad season into a solid one my sticking with things and finally looking healthy. Maroon is an unrestricted free agent, and whether he returns or not depends on if the Blues can work something out with him again. One would think he'd be hungry for a repeat title, but you never know. What if Maroon decides to hang them up and go out on top? Not like it's the first time that's ever happened. Time will tell.
My grade: B-
Jordan Nolan -- A two-time Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, the 29-year-old Nolan was signed for depth purposes, a veteran presence in case the Blues needed one with injuries always a possibility. Nolan got into just 14 games in the regular season and none in the playoffs, although he was my pick when Thomas was ailing in the third round and in the Cup Final against Boston. I can's assess Nolan's play with limited action, but I'll tell you what, nothing stands out more to me than when Nolan obliterated Winnipeg's Patrik Laine with the cleanest of hits in the first period of a 1-0 Blues win on Dec. 7. I mean, just absolutely crushed Laine and set the tone for the game.
My grade: incomplete
Ryan O'Reilly -- What I say about this man in this space can't be enough. If there was ever a player in the NHL that needed a change, not just lifestyle but from a professional workload standpoint, it was O'Reilly. From the moment he was traded to the Blues last July 1 and declared to GM Doug Armstrong in the initial phone conversation to "Let's go win a Cup," the season couldn't have gone any better for O'Reilly, who is a finalist for the Selke, King Clancy and Lady Byng. He already has the Conn Smythe to his name after being named the Stanley Cup Playoff's MVP by being tied for most points with 23 (eight goals, 15 assists). O'Reilly's play this season was nothing short of spectacular. He centered most, if not all, of the Blues' top six forwards at one point or another, and no matter who he played with, he seemed to mesh with them instantaneously. Not only did O'Reilly lead the Blues in points with a career-high 77, he tied a career-high in goals (28) and set a career-high in assists (49). His plus-22 was by far a career-high, and although his face-off percentage fell off from 59.98 percent past season to 56.86 this season, he won the most in the league with 1,086, including second in even-strength face-offs won (813). O'Reilly was used in all facets. He was a top 5-on-5 guy, top power-play guy and penalty killer. Want someone in 3-on-3 in OT? OK. And when it came to the playoffs, O'Reilly disclosed he played with a cracked rib for much of it, and his face-off numbers were reflective of it despite still winning 50.08 percent of his draws. The guy wanted to win so badly he put his health on the line, as many players do, to accomplish this feat. Other than the games where he was playing injured, I just can't recall coming away from any games this season thinking that O'Reilly had a bad game, didn't do much or didn't affect it in some shape or form. A perfect ending to arguably the best season of O'Reilly's career. When the new season starts, his first point will be the 500th of his NHL career.
My grade: A+
David Perron -- There must be something about St. Louis for the French-Canadian from Sherbrooke, Quebec, because he just keeps coming back, time and time again. Three times as a matter of fact. And in this third stint, which began when Perron returned as a free agent on a four-year, $16 million contract after helping lead Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final (losing in five games to Washington), he helped lead the Blues to the promised land for the first time. Perron's regular-season was limited to 57 games (coincidentally, which is also his number) after sustaining another concussion that forced him to miss 25 games. I liked Perron's season (23 goals, 23 assists) for the most part. He was an offensive factor and scored some key, timely goals and was one of the veterans who kept the glue of the locker room in tact when things appeared to be falling off the rails after a poor first half of the season for the team. What may have been best for him was when Berube benched Perron one game in December because he came back motivated and hungry to contribute. His bad marker, however, was the penchant for taking inopportune penalties in bad spots, particularly in the offensive zone. But he played a solid top-six role this season and kept that going into the playoffs with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 26 games. I've always been a fan of Perron's game. Not the game-breaker people always talk about but someone that always seems to find himself involved in wins. His 23 goals were the most since he potted a career-high 28 with Edmonton in 2013-14 and most in a Blues uniform in eight seasons. Perron will remain a key cog moving forward.
My grade: A-
Zach Sanford -- I prefer to talk about Sanford backwards here, because his contributions in the Stanley Cup Final against Boston were fantastic. I never had him on the radar to replace Sundqvist when he was suspended for Game 3, but Berube -- again -- made the right choice and inserting Sanford into the lineup, first on the fourth line, and then when he stayed in, he moved up to play with O'Reilly and Perron. Not only did Sanford, who hadn't played since Game 3 of the first round, contribute with a point (one goal, three assists) in four of the five games he played in, including the final Blues goal in Game 7, he was a factor in the checking/physicality department that enabled the Blues to win the series. Of course, Sanford was motivated to play against the team he grew up watching and cheering for, having been born 30 minutes north of Boston in Salem, Mass., but this was the perfect sample size and body of work that if Sanford can consistently contribute, he can be an effective player in the NHL. The problem, as was the case in the regular season, this hasn't always proven to be the case. Sanford did play in a career-high 60 regular-season games this year and contributed 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists), but I think the inconsistencies can be ironed out here. Yes, Sanford is only 24 and will be 25 but the untapped potential moniker needs to show some legs moving into his mid-20s. Washington selected him in the second round in 2013 for a reason, but there is also a reason they included him in a trade for Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017. If the Sanford of the Boston series can surface on a more regular basis, this can be a nice complementary player. If not, then the Blues must decide which direction to go with the arbitration-eligible player who is a restricted free agent. But Sanford's play against the Bruins most certainly raised his grade.
My grade: B-
Brayden Schenn -- Skill and guts. That's the best way to describe Schenn's play this season, despite his numbers falling back a hit from his first season in St. Louis. When I look at Schenn's numbers alone, they didn't seem to fall from 28 goals and 42 assists a year ago to 17 goals and 37 assists despite playing in 10 fewer games (injury). Sure, the drop from 28 goals to 17 is a little alarming, but I think it's overshadowed a bit because of the way Schenn plays the game, and I think the physical nature and switching from center to left wing and back to center altered his game at times. Schenn lays it on the line each and every game, and I think, to a fault, it affected his offensive output this season, but that's the price he paid to sacrifice himself physically at 6-1, 200 pounds for the benefit of the team. Schenn is capable of 25-30 goals in a season but can't get there playing the way he did this season. So does he scale back in the physicality department to better his numbers and perhaps negatively affect the team goals? That's a tough call. That was particularly evident in the Winnipeg series when Schenn looked spent at times because he was throwing his weight around against the big, bruising Jets. But he helped make up one of the hottest lines in the NHL with O'Reilly and Tarasenko that helped the Blues go on a tear. Schenn, who finished the playoffs with 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 26 games, has one year remaining on his contract before be can become an unrestricted free agent. He'll be 28 when the next season starts and still think some of his best hockey is ahead of him, and it'll be interesting to see if the Blues try and extend him or feel they can't afford him and trade him. In a perfect world, I say try and keep him, but in a salary-cap world, that option may not be viable. All-in-all, Schenn had a solid year but the number dropoff is the only thing that kept him from earning a higher grade. But at $5.125 million, numbers similar to what he had in 2017-18 is more to the liking.
My grade: B+
Jaden Schwartz -- If Schwartz isn't another example of how the Blues' season went, I don't know who is. A guy who kept working his tail off couldn't buy a goal on the season; he had just 11 in 69 games, his lowest output in a full season. But Schwartz was able to turn it around and have 12 goals and 20 points in 26 playoff games, including two hat tricks (Game 6 vs. Winnipeg and Game 5 vs. San Jose). Never will there be a sentence typed in this space questioning Schwartz's work ethic. It's second-to-none, always has been. Teammates love him, coaches praise his style of play, and he'll always be the first in line to try and make teammates better. Schwartz has many times been mentioned in the same breath as the player that is the engine of a line, and none was more evident than helping fuel the line with Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko in the playoffs when that trip was assembled together again. But again, this is a results-oriented business, and is expected to produce more than the 36 points (25 assists) he had in the regular season. What's also surprising is Schwartz was a minus-6, the first time he's been a minus in a season since his rookie year (2012-13) when he was a minus-4. You can't say he didn't have chances though. His 183 shots are the most since 2014-15 (184), but the shooting percentage (six percent) left a lot to be desired. At 26, there's no reason to think Schwartz can't bounce back and have statistical numbers that mirror previous outputs of when he scored 28, 25 and 24 goals in 2017-18 along with points in the 50s or 60s, but his playoff helped boost his grade. With two years and a $5.35 million cap hit, he'll be given the chance to raise his numbers for sure.
My grade: B
Alexander Steen -- After 14 seasons, including the past 10-plus with the Blues, Steen finally has his Stanley Cup, and it came in a completely different role than what he's used to playing. Steen has been a top-six skater in the Blues' lineup since his trade to St. Louis in 2009, but with the emergence of younger players and the Blues' addition of O'Reilly, Perron and Bozak, and Steen's lack of offensive production in the regular season (10 goals, 17 assists), he was relegated to a fourth line role and excelled as a defensive specialist/penalty killer. But let's face it, at $5.75 million, much more offensive production is needed for that amount of money spent on an aging player. Steen is 35, and his offensive production has fallen drastically. Since putting up a career-high 33 goals in 2013-14, Steen's goal production has fallen from 33 to 24 to 17 to 16 to 15 and to 10, and point production has fallen from a career-high 64 in 2014-15 to 52, 51, 46 and 27. The work Steen did with Sundqvist and Barbashev as a fourth line in the playoffs was terrific. That line matched up against the opposition's top line many times throughout a series and did so effectively, but let's face it, effective checkers/defensive skaters are a dime a dozen, and can come much more cheaper than $5.75 million. I'm not suggesting Steen's days are over, but he's being paid as a top-tiered player and one has to wonder if he'll be Armstrong's first buyout candidate with two years and $11.5 million remaining on his contract. Steen played in 65 regular-season games this season and also contributed five points (two goals, three assists) in 26 playoff games, but again, if we're strictly taking about dollars, the production is far below the expectations. From an effort standpoint, not even a question. The mileage and pounding simply catches up to everyone.
My grade: C+
Oskar Sundqvist -- This may be the story of the year for the Blues, and what a story Sundqvist is. Listen, I didn't even have this player pegged on the opening night roster, and with good reason (he nearly had his head decapitated by Washington's Tom Wilson during a preseason game). But I didn't even have Sundqvist on the opening night roster even before the injury; I had him destined for San Antonio, and perhaps back in St. Louis on recall when needed. He was the throw-in player from Pittsburgh in a trade with the Penguins on draft night in 2017 that sent Ryan Reaves to the defending Stanley Cup champs and brought the Blues a No. 1 pick, which turned into Klim Kostin. Sundqvist came into the season with 70 NHL regular-season games' worth of experience; he had two goals and seven assists. It was an important off-season for Sundqvist, and not only did he take advantage of it, he seized the moment. Once he returned from concussion on Oct. 25, Sundqvist never relinquished his spot in the lineup. He finished with 74 games and a career-high in goals (14), assists (17) and points (31) playing a variety of roles, from top-six duties, to centering whatever line needed him, to settling in as the fourth-line center with Steen and Barbashev. He was a tremendous penalty killer and defensive specialist, one Berube didn't hesitate to use late in games protecting one-goal games. Sundqvist, who had nine points (four goals, five assists) in 25 playoff games, became a huge piece. Where would the Blues have finished without the 25-year-old Sundqvist's contributions? Seriously. Another restricted free agent that will get a nice pay raise, and deservedly so.
My grade: A+
Vladimir Tarasenko -- Since he was drafted by the Blues in the first round in 2010, Tarasenko has been labeled as the Blues' star. This has been their go-to guy, the one looked upon when a goal was needed, No. 91 needed to provide it. Tarasenko matched his goal output (33) this season in 76 regular-season games that he had last season in 80 games, but had two more points (68) this season. He would go through stretches where the puck wasn't going in, then heat up in a flash. Even though Tarasenko has reached 40 goals once (2015-16) in his career, I maintain he's a 40-plus goal guy who has the potential to reach 50, plus 80-90 points. At 27, he's entering the prime years of his career, and when these playoffs started, there was a sense that it would end in more disappointment because Tarasenko seemed in and out of a lot of the games. But after Game 1 of the conference final against San Jose, Berube reached his star like no other coach before him has, and the Blues' version of the Russian Rocket wasn't going to be labeled as simply a scoring factor. His game became more well-rounded, playing more of a checking game, being responsible defensively and doing whatever was necessary to help the team win; he finished with 17 points (11 goals, six assists) in 26 playoff games, and as long as Tarasenko was willing to put the work in, the offense would come, and it did. He had an eight-game point streak during the playoffs, including three goals and an assist against the Bruins in the Cup Final. Listen, Tarasenko can be a game-changer; he should be a game-changer. Once fans see that on a more consistent basis, the love for him will grow even bigger. It's going to be critical moving forward.
My grade: B+
Robert Thomas -- Welcome to the NHL, Robert Thomas, a 19-year-old who was given the responsibilities to jump right into the big leagues with with no minor hockey experience. That's how highly the Blues thought of their first round pick in 2017. The Blues had the option of keeping Thomas around for nine games, then sending him down, but he would have had to go back to juniors, and Armstrong maintained Thomas had nothing to prove by going back to junior hockey. He would play in 70 regular-season games (nine goals, 24 assists), then had a goal and five assists in 21 playoff games that was hampered by a left wrist injury. With Thomas, we saw flashes of what he can be. When he was confident and at his best, he was poised with the puck and making plays. What he's going to have to shake, and he will, was his insistence to defer to veterans on the ice. Just think how many more goals Thomas could have scored if he wasn't deferring shooting the puck? But he's still a teenager and will learn. A natural center iceman, Thomas learned to play right wing, and eventually developed great chemistry with Bozak and Maroon to help form one of the more well-rounded, more consistent puck-possessing lines during the playoffs. The game that stands out to be is Game 7 against the Stars. Thomas had his fingerprints all over that game and was a dominant factor in it, and rightfully so, helped create Maroon's game-winner and send the Blues to the conference final. Thomas was unfortunately not healthy at the end of the postseason, but the Blues were able to persevere without him, but this player will be a centerpiece for this franchise for the next decade or so, and the upside is promising once he realizes how good he is and once he puts on a few more lbs to help him protect pucks more. But imagine being a 19-year-old and already in possession of a world junior championship, two OHL titles, a Memorial Cup and now a Stanley Cup before turning 20. Impressive resume to say the least.
My grade: B
Chris Thorburn -- What in the world am I doing grading a guy who played a grand total of 1:52 in the NHL this season? Well, I'm doing this one for sentimental reasons. Yes, the 36-year-old Thorburn was hardly even a blip on the Blues' radar this season; he spent practically the entire season in San Antonio (two goals, five assists in 24 games). But that's what impressed me the most, was his willingness to up and move himself to Texas while his wife and autistic son stayed in St. Louis to receive the best of care and lifestyle. That had to be the hardest decision for Thorburn to make, and the Blues were gracious enough to accommodate him in moving back and forth to juggle his personal and professional lifestyle. It had to be hard to life that life being away from his son for so long at this stage of Thorburn's career. The Blues are to be commended for bringing Thorburn up during the playoffs, allowing him to be with teammates and family during this run, something that had to ease the mind of the 14-year veteran. And to have Thorburn on the ice as the Blues won the Cup, getting to raise it for the first time in his career was a special moment. Thorburn wasn't a factor for the Blues on the ice, but he sure was one off it. Teammates love him, and understandable why.
My grade: honorary A
Nikita Soshinkov -- It was another injury-plagued year for Soshnikov, who played in just five games for the Blues this season and 17 total since he was acquired from Toronto in 2018 for a fourth-round pick this year. Soshnikov dealt with concussion issues and a shoulder injury before playing just 11 games with the Rampage this season (three goals, three assists). There was always upside with Soshnikov's play, but injuries could never keep him on the ice, and players passed him up on the depth chart. He's a restricted free agent and property of the Blues when he returns to the NHL, if he ever does, but recently signed with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.
My grade: incomplete
Robert Bortuzzo -- When assessing the play of a third-pairing defenseman, the less you talk about them, the better. In the case of Bortuzzo, the chatter wasn't as noticeable, which made for a pretty solid season. Bortuzzo was the perfect player when the Blues needed some sandpaper on the back end with a little grit, even though at times he would cross the line when it wasn't needed. But this is Bortuzzo, who has a bit of a temper to his game. But the one thing about Bortuzzo, who played in 59 regular-season games (two goals, eight assists), is when he was good, he was really good, and when he was not good, it was noticeable. That's why in his case, the less you talked about him, the better. He had his struggles in the series against the Stars, a higher up-tempo team. An area I thought Bortuzzo excelled in this season was his penalty kill. He was always really sound positionally and wasn't afraid to block shots and sacrifice himself physically for the better of the PK. Speed wasn't one of Bortuzzo's top traits, and there were times when he was exposed by fast skaters. Bortuzzo played in 17 of the Blues' 26 playoff games and had two goals, but not just any two goals, two really big goals, in Game 2 against San Jose and Game 2 against the Bruins. Bortuzzo is signed on for the next three seasons at $1.375 million, a good number for a guy that can give you 12-14 minutes a night.
My grade: B
Jay Bouwmeester -- Arguably one of the greatest turnarounds in NHL history. Bouwmeester seemed destined to being a trade candidate when things were doom and gloom for the Blues to a potential waiver candidate, someone who was a healthy scratch four times this season, they were tough times for the 35-year-old Bouwmeester, who was coming off major off-season hip surgery. But therein lied the problem. Bouwmeester obviously wasn't ready to return to top form, and it showed in his play. The reliable smooth-skater was vulnerable, and if Bouwmeester didn't have his skating that allowed him to be responsibly good with his stick and positionally sound, he would be susceptible to mistakes. But Bouwmeester finally got healthy, finally looked like his pre-hip surgery self and wow, did he form one of the top shutdown defensive pairings with Colton Parayko in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. Bouwmeester, who had seven assists in 26 playoff games, led all skaters in ice time in the Cup Final in Game 5 (29:08) and Game 7 (28:34). His speed was back, his effortless skating was on par and his fundamentally sound positioning was second to none. Bouwmeester was to be a UFA but re-upped for one year next season at a very affordable $3.25 million and if he plays anything like he did the second half and in the playoffs, this will be a steal of a deal. It's an incredible turnaround and he finally raised the Cup for the first time in 16 seasons.
My grade: B+
Chris Butler -- The St. Louis native played in just 13 games this regular season (one goal, one assist) and was needed when injuries were hampering the Blues in December. A consummate professional, Butler was part of his first Cup being one of the extra, extras in the playoffs. He's played in just 25 NHL games the past four seasons but has been a terrific captain for the Blues' minor leaguers in San Antonio the past two seasons. With such a little body of work in the NHL, hard to justify a grade here.
My grade: incomplete
Michael Del Zotto -- Del Zotto was acquired at the NHL trade deadline to give the Blues added depth on the blue line and got into seven regular-season games (three assists). He always kept himself ready if needed in the playoffs, but with the Blues being seven-deep on the back end, Del Zotto was the eighth option and wasn't needed. Being a part of the first Stanley Cup-winning organization had to be a thrill, but it's all but certain Del Zotto will land elsewhere this summer when he becomes a UFA on July 1.
My grade: incomplete
Vince Dunn -- The super sophomore improved on his offensive stats with career-highs in goals (12), assists (23) and points in 78 games after 5-19=24 in 75 games his rookie season. Dunn finished a plus-14 and four of his goals were game-winners. The offensive upside continues to show in Dunn's game. He's become a go-to guy as a power-play quarterback, and his quick release from the point continues to provide offense through redirections or screens. His puck movement in transitioning pucks from the defensive zone is as good as anyone on the back end. He's still 23, and he's still growing his game in the defensive zone, but it does need work. Clean exits haven't always been there, and that's because Dunn is a bit of a daredevil. He likes to take risks, and sometimes those risks turned into mistakes. But that's the chance you take with a kid that's got a penchant for being offensive-minded. Focusing solely on defensive responsibilities will come to Dunn as he gets older, but for now, the Blues will keep working with making him a well-rounded player and will do so on a very team-friendly contract ($722,500 on the final year of an entry-level contract). The upside is intriguing and the glimpses we've seen favorable. Dunn, who sustained a broken jaw in Game 3 against the Sharks and missed six games, finished with eight points (two goals, six assists) in 20 games, including a big first goal in Game 7 against Dallas in the second round. While there is work to do with Dunn on the defensive end, I really like the upside.
My grade: B+
Joel Edmundson -- When Edmundson signed a one-year, $3 million bridge contract last summer in a prove-it type of deal, I thought this might be his breakout season and he'd be due for a big raise and larger term contract this summer. But Edmundson had what I call a roller-coaster season this year, his fourth in the NHL. While I still think there's upside in the soon-to-be 26-year-old's game, I was expecting to see more of that next step this year, especially offensively. But Edmundson, who played in 64 regular-season games and 22 more in the playoffs, fell to two goals and 11 points in the regular-season after seven goals and 10 assists the previous season. Edmundson, who had a goal and seven points in the playoffs, was a healthy scratch in the postseason twice, but that's the luxury that Berube had in case he wasn't getting maximum performances from his blue liners. When Edmundson is on, he's physical, he's knocking you off the puck, he's playing with a mean edge and very reliable for his partner. There was pressure on him to perform up to par, especially when he was playing top pairing minutes with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko until Parayko was paired permanently with Bouwmeester. I think Edmundson's best course of action is to take another short-term contract this summer, another prove-it-type deal. He has another chance to do so because I don't think he did himself any favors going into this negotiation. I still think there's upside there, I was hoping to see more of it this season. I still think he can be in the long term plans of the organization, and a championship under his belt now should help him get there.
My grade: C+
Carl Gunnarsson -- It was an injury-plagued season for Gunnarsson, who much like Bouwmeester was recovering from a serious off-season surgery (torn ACL), then dealt with multiple wrist injuries throughout the regular-season. Gunnarsson played in just 25 games, the fewest of his 10-year career and finished with seven points (three goals, four assists), just two points less than what Gunnarsson had in 63 games and 38 fewer games last season. Gunnarsson had a goal and two assists in 19 playoff games, and his goal will go down in Blues history as the first Stanley Cup-winning goal in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 2. The thing about Gunnarsson is when he played, he was as steady-solid as can be. He's probably the one guy I talked about so little because he was so smooth in his game. He didn't make many mistakes, was always a good support for whoever his partner was and made good decisions with and without the puck. Gunnarsson's biggest issue was staying healthy, and that's a part of it all. I liked what he brought to the table. Gunnarsson becomes a UFA on July 1 and is likely destined for a bigger, higher-pay day. It's not a guarantee he will be among the top six moving forward, and with the Blues needing to give other RFA's more money, Gunnarsson is likely to be on the outs and moving on. Somebody can certainly use his services, including the Blues. I just don't see the figures working.
My grade: B
Colton Parayko -- Rumors were swirling like a raging tornado last summer and fall when it came to Parayko, and with good reason. But as I maintained in this space, and was told a number of times, Parayko was going nowhere, and the Blues are quite happy to have the big fella. Parayko established a career-high in goals with 10, but his point production slipped from 35 the previous season to 28 this past season, his lowest in four seasons, but his plus/minus improved from minus-7 to plus-20, and playing in a more shutdown role with Bouwmeester certainly bolstered his overall game. Parayko is the best puck-transitioner on the Blues and at times, does it so effortlessly. Having a long stick and being positionally sound in the d-zone were two areas I thought Parayko improved immensely at, and it showed especially in the playoffs. Parayko had 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in 26 postseason games. Do I still think there's more for Parayko to offer? Yes, especially from the offensive side. I still think he needs to use that booming shot of his, and he has to be more accurate with it. He scored on 5.7 percent of his shots, which is a career-high, but a 3.9 percent career shooting percentage is not nearly good enough. Parayko can be used as a power-play quarterback but hasn't shown the consistency to run if on a regular basis. But at 26 and three more years with a $5.5 million cap hit, no wonder teams were calling Armstrong to see if Parayko was available. He's not. He's going nowhere.
My grade: B+
Alex Pietrangelo -- Pietrangelo will go down as the first captain in Blues history to hoist the Cup, and that says something. Although his point production slipped from 54 to 41 this past season, Pietrangelo reached double digits in goals (12) for the third straight year and fifth time in his nine full seasons. He played with multiple partners this season but it didn't matter. The Blues' top minutes man at 24:05 gets a lot of criticism from fans, and at times it's warranted since he does play so many minutes, and I've been critical of him a number of times because of puck errors and mismanagement, but I will say that I saw arguably the best game he's played as a pro in Game 4 against the Bruins when he logged a game-high 29:37, had two assists and was a plus-3 in the game. Pietrangelo had 11 breakouts from the Blues' defensive zone, and 10 of them were clean, which is nearly spotless. I guess to a fault, I almost expect perfection out of Pietrangelo, but he's got that capability. He's logged a lot of responsibility guiding this team and holding things together while they finally began to put things in place in January. In the playoffs, Pietrangelo had a really good run with 19 points (three goals, 16 assists) in 26 games; I didn't think he had a good series against the Sharks after playing well against the Jets and Stars but rebounded nicely against the Bruins with six points in the final four games. I hold the captain to high standards and deservedly so. Sure, he made mistakes throughout the season, but when all was said and done, the top objective was accomplished and he had plenty to do with it.
My grade: A-
Jordan Schmaltz -- A first round pick in 2012, Schmaltz should alredy be an established defenseman in the NHL, but in three seasons, including 20 games this season, Schmaltz has played a total of 42 games; that's it. He has yet to score, has only five assists and has seen the likes of Dunn, Edmundson, Parayko and even Mitch Reinke, who was called up as a Black Ace ahead of Schmaltz, pass him on the depth chart. It's going to be tough sledding for Schmaltz, who was a minus-7 in his 20 games with the Blues last season, to find a spot on this team moving forward, but he does have one year remaining on a contract that pays $700,000. I believe the Blues have given Schmaltz every opportunity to seize a job but he just hasn't done it, and I'm not sure he ever will here.
My grade: incomplete
Jakub Jerabek -- Well, this will be short and sweet. Jerabek played in one game for the Blues after they acquired him from Edmonton for a 2020 sixth-round pick. He played 7:52 in a 7-2 loss to Calgary on Oct. 11 and was a minus-3, then played in 52 games for the Rampage with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) but has since moved to Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL and will play in his native Czech Republic next season.
My grade: incomplete
Jordan Binnington -- If the Sundqvist story didn't get you, this one will. Sundqvist may be the story of the year for the Blues, but this is the Cinderella story of the century. Coming into the season, Binnington was not even on the Blues' radar. He was behind Jake Allen, Chad Johnson and Ville Husso. Binnington, who spent past season with Boston's AHL affiliate in Providence, of all places, was having a hard time getting games with the Rampage. But once he did, he was 11-4-0 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Then he got summoned up to the Blues, made his first NHL start on Jan. 7 against Philadelphia and never looked back. After shutting out the Flyers 3-0, Binnington was 24-5-1 with a league-leading 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage and eventually took over the reigns for Allen and led the Blues to their first Stanley Cup championship and setting all sorts of records along the way. Binnington was an incredible 14-2 after losses, including 6-0 in the regular-season. The guy was cool as a cucumber and by his own question when asked early in his tenure, never looked nervous in guiding the Blues. Binnington had a few games sprinkled in when he looked vulnerable at times, but what goalie is going to be perfect every time? Those vulnerabilities were far and few in between. And being a RFA this summer coming off a very modest $650,000 salary, the Blues can go one of two ways here: offer a short-term bridge contract, a sort of keep-establishing-yourself contract and earn a big payday down the road, or pay him now and bank on that this amazing run can continue over the long haul. If I'm Binnington, I want that now, of course. If I'm the Blues, I go with a two-year contract, say, for tripling the salary at $1.5-$2 million per season because with goalies, you just don't know if this is sustainable. But knowing Binnington, he'd take this challenge and slam it shut and earn his money. He has the right frame of mind for how to play the position, I love his willingness to challenge shooters and his rebound control, for the most part, is pretty impeccable. Puck handling can use some work, but the way the soon-to-be 26-year-old 2011 third-round pick came in and helped save the season for the Blues will go down in franchise lore forever.
My grade: A+
Jake Allen -- I know where a lot of Blues fans want me to go with this one, but it's not going to happen. Yes, Allen was given another chance to grab the No. 1 job and run with it and for the third straight season, his ups and downs were quite noticeable. My experiences watching Allen has been when he's good, he's very good, and when he's bad, he's really bad. There's not many in-betweens with Allen, and his 2018-19 season as the No. 1 was defined with a 3-1 loss to Dallas the night after Binnington made his first NHL start when he allowed three goals on 17 shots. But to Allen's credit, when Binnington took over and started gaining more starts and grabbed the No. 1 spot, Allen took his role in stride, and when called upon, he made solid starts -- all on the road -- and gave the Blues a solid 1-2 punch down the stretch that gave them a chance at winning the division; he was 5-3-4 with a 2.21 GAA and .927 save percentage. Allen finished 19-17-8, the fewest wins he's had since his rookie season of 2012-13, with a 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage, by today's standards, less than average GAA and save percentage. The numbers aren't awful, but they're not among the kinds of numbers top goalies should have. He made one relief appearance in the playoffs when Binnington was pulled in Game 3 of the Cup Final but that was all the action he saw as Binnington carried the cage. Allen still has two seasons left of a four-year, $17 million contract he signed on July 1, 2016, a cap hit of $4.35 million, and in his situation, he's getting paid well but would go into next season as the backup and would form a solid 1-2 duo with Binnington. But is that what he wants? Time will tell. I believe if Allen asks the Blues to explore a trade for him to try and get a fresh start at challenging for a No. 1 spot, they could certainly accommodate him. Allen will be 29 by the start of next season, which is still prime age for a goalie, so one couldn't blame him for wanting to challenge for a spot elsewhere, but the Blues may not find any takers, which would bring him back here, and that wouldn't be a bad insurance policy either. I liked how Allen rebounded and gracefully kept working knowing Binnington took over the No. 1 role. It seems Allen is at his best when someone else is there pushing him, as was the case with Brian Elliott before, and Jaroslav Halak. His season wasn't great, but it wasn't a disaster either.
My grade: B-
Chad Johnson -- Johnson was not called in to be a savior for the Blues last season. Armstrong just needed a solid backup to Allen to make a spot start here and there to keep things afloat. But Johnson was put on waivers after going just 2-6-0 with a 3.55 GAA and .884 save percentage in 10 appearances with the Blues before being picked up by Anaheim, which needed a goalie at the time due to the injury to former Blue Ryan Miller. Johnson's two wins with the Blues were both pretty spectacular, a 4-1 win over Carolina on Nov. 6 followed by a 4-0 shutout win over San Jose three nights later, but that was it. To say Johnson struggled when he lost is a bit unfair considering the team was playing so poorly at the time, but other than the wins over the Hurricanes and Sharks, Johnson really didn't have any of those stealing-a-game type of effort to help his cause, and when Binnington came onto the scene, well, it was pretty easy who had to go. Johnson signed a low-risk $1.75 million contract that the Ducks took on.
My grade: D
Doug Armstrong -- It took guts for Armstrong to do what he did: stand pat when the Blues were floundering after he filled the salary cap and made the Blues a cap team before stumbling out of the gates. He gave this group a chance and they paid off with a walk-off grand slam, winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup. It started well when Armstrong got busy and signed Bozak and Perron to free-agent contracts, then hit the biggest off-season home run by trading away castoff forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and young forward Tage Thompson along with a No. 1 pick in this year's draft and a 2021 second-round pick for O'Reilly but didn't settle there. He brought home Maroon one-year, $1.75 million contract to give the Blues depth down the middle of the ice and veteran experience up front throughout. And when the Blues didn't come out with the vigor everyone expected, he fired Mike Yeo 19 games into the season in hopes of sending a jolt in the locker room. It didn't work right away, but Berube finally got the room straightened out, and good thing Armstrong was in Russia on a prospects trip at the time, because it didn't give him any thoughts of blowing things up. All the big names (Tarasenko, Schenn, Pietrangelo) were named being dropped out there in trade rumors, but Armstrong was determined to give the last thread one more opportunity of solidifying itself, and that thread continued to gain ground, put the Blues in the playoffs and then went 16-10 in winning the Cup. Had the early-season disaster continued, Armstrong's job would have been in jeopardy, so for him to stay the course knowing that after already missing the playoffs the previous season, ownership likely wouldn't stand for another omission, had to take a lot of resolve to stay the course. It may go down as Armstrong's best decision of his executive life, through all the hits and misses of trades and free-agent signings and misses. Sometimes the decisions you choose not to make wind up being the best decisions in fact you do make, and in this case, it certainly was. Full marks for Armstrong by, first, being determined to make this roster better and knowing what the deficiencies were after missing the playoffs, then serving notice that what was happening would not be accepted and putting a new voice in the room, and finally, saying to the players he'd allow them one more chance to right the ship. Did they ever, and the GM should be commended for it.
My grade: A
Craig Berube -- The man known to everyone as 'Chief' had a challenge on his hands, but one he was obviously ready to tackle. Nineteen games into what was already a head-scratching start to what was supposed to be a season in which the Blues were going to be relevant again, Berube was thrust into the role of head coach after being Yeo's associate. He already had a leg up on working with the roster because of his familiarity with them, but it wasn't all roses for Berube at the outset. He was 10-11-1 in his first 22 games before the Blues started gaining traction on Jan. 10 to begin a three-game winning streak, then start an 11-game winning streak on Jan. 23. Berube is known as a player's coach who communicates well with the players and offers tough love no matter if you're a veteran, a young guy or rookie. He's a straight shooter and one who doesn't pull any punches. Players responded to him, they played for him and most importantly, what every coach needs, they played for each other. With the help of assistants MIke Van Ryn, Steve Ott, Sean Ferrell and David Alexander, Berube and the coaching staff galvanized a roster into adapting an us-against-the-world mentality and took them on an unprecedented ride from worst-to-first. Berube has held the interim tag throughout the season, but it's safe to say, he's not only going to get paid, but get the job on a permanent basis.
My grade: A
Eric Renaghan (strength and conditioning coach) -- These are the behind-the-scenes guys, the ones that nobody hears about but deserve just as much credit as those that get the spotlight, and Reneghan and those that work with him deserve much praise. The Blues played 26 postseason games, on top of the six preseason and 82 regular-season games this year for a total of 114 games. For them to play the kind of style they needed to play, someone needed to be the hands-on person to keep these players in the fittest shape possible and keep them mentally stable after punishing their bodies on a nightly basis. The Blues' way of playing, which required plenty of checking, hard-hitting and absorbing physical punishment themselves, required someone to keep these guys working day in, day out. Renaghan has been doing this since he was brought to St. Louis in 2016. Teaching the methods of recovery as well as the rigorous training do hand-in-hand, and the work was evident in each playoff round when the Blues got better as each series moved along despite the bruising way they played. It's not easy telling athletes to go out and batter and bruise their bodies every day, but someone has to do it, and channel that message in the right way. The fullest of marks here, and recognition well-deserved.
My grade: A+
Joel Farnsworth (head equipment manager) -- Farnsworth, Rich Matthews (assistant equipment manager) and Andrew Dvorak (equipment assistant) are the ones I say never sleep. These are the guys that fix a broken skate in seconds, replace broken sticks in games on the fly, put up and take down equipment after games and practices, have whatever supplement drinks ready for players at their lockers, load and unload hundreds of pounds of equipment every day from one city and venue to another, doing so at all hours of the night just to make sure the players are properly equipped wherever they are. They're the ones sharpening skates on gamedays or whenever necessary at the rink while nobody else is around, fixing equipment, taking care of equipment. I see what these guys do every day; you fans don't, so I thought I'd also include them and give you a small glimpse of what their lives are like. So when you see those lifting the Cup and smiling as much as the players are and you wonder who was that, now you know.
My grade: A+
Thanks! I know I was a bit tough on some of these, but that's who I am. I tried to be fair.Delete
Forgot to give Yeo an FReplyDelete