ST. LOUIS — The cabinet full of game-winning pucks has been removed from the St. Louis Blues‘ dressing room wall. Their unkempt playoff beards have been trimmed or removed altogether. They’ve pushed stop on “Gloria,” their 2018-19 victory celebration anthem, too.
“That was last year,” said center Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in the Blues’ Stanley Cup championship back in June. “We gotta find something else that unites us now.”
How about this: The insatiable hunger to do it all again.
“It’s the hunger that you want,” said forward Alex Steen. “Before, you might not have really known what it’s like to win, but you’re really hungry to find out. But now that we’ve done it, it’s an addictive feeling.”
Back in January, no one thought the Blues could get it done. They were a last-place team, with an interim coach in Craig Berube and a rookie goalie in Jordan Binnington playing out of necessity. And then they became a juggernaut: From Jan. 3 through the end of the regular season, the Blues went 29-10-5. They battled through the Western Conference playoffs and then won the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 52-year history with a Game 7 win over the Boston Bruins.
“Everywhere you go, you still hear about how long people waited for this. However long they’ve been alive is how long they waited for this,” said defenseman Colton Parayko. “It’s cool to be a part of that history.”
But the operative word is “history.” One of the defining aspects of the Blues’ championship run was an uncanny ability to move past adversity — remember the hand pass debacle against the Sharks? — by forgetting about the past. That mindset apparently extends to their greatest triumph, as well.
“They’ve turned the page and moved forward,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong told ESPN this week. “There are still remnants of last year’s success — the ring ceremony opening night, maybe a visit to the White House or the Hall of Fame presentation — there are still moments that are connected to last year’s team. But once the guys walked into the room this training camp, they don’t talk about it.”
Until the Blues traded for defenseman Justin Faulk, it had been a remarkably quiet offseason for Armstrong. The only player from last season’s champions that left was winger (and fan favorite) Patrick Maroon, who brought his postseason moxie to a team that could use some in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That lack of turnover was partly due to the amount of long-term deals the team had on the books — they only had to re-sign a pair of unrestricted free agents in Carl Gunnarsson and Jay Bouwmeester — and partly due to Armstrong’s lack of desire to tinker with a winning formula.
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“Change for the sake of change didn’t seem prudent this summer,” he explained. “To do that, you usually have to shake out a core player or elite player. They usually control the locker room and the environment. You get to a certain level of player that doesn’t have the same swagger in the room, and those are the guys that are usually switching teams.”
(The apparent swagger-deficient Joel Edmundson was traded to Carolina for Faulk on Tuesday.)
Parayko, for one, was happy to look around the dressing room and see last year’s team intact. “The is the most kept-together group I’ve been around. It’s nice. We jelled well together. We played well together. It makes it fun,” he said.
The defenseman admitted that turning the page on last season wasn’t easy, but a necessity. “We have a championship group here, and no one can ever take that away from us. But everybody’s back to zero,” he said. “That year was a fun year, but in order for us to do the same thing, we’ve gotta hit the reset button. Remember the things that got us there, what it took to win. It’s not easy. It’s not by fluke that we got there. The hard part is that everybody will be coming and giving us their best game. They’re coming to beat us.”
Armstrong knows that the teams chasing the Blues are every bit as good as them.
“The league is structured now that if you’re one of the 16 teams participating in the tournament, you have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings won it from the eighth spot. Nashville made it from seventh to the finals. So the parity is there. You just need things to happen along the way to reach your ultimate goal,” he said.
When Armstrong was with the Dallas Stars in the late 1990s, he said it was “really a league of eight or nine” teams each season that could win the Cup. Back then, a team like the Stars could have had a payroll of $50 million more than, say, a team like the Edmonton Oilers. “So when they would upset us, that would really be an upset,” he said. “The Columbus vs. Tampa thing was an upset, but the economics weren’t an upset. There isn’t a variance between 25 of the teams in the NHL. You might have three really good ones, three that are in a total rebuild, and the rest of us are all fighting in that next grouping,” he said.
The fight for O’Reilly isn’t just to win another Stanley Cup. It’s for the chance to play for one. In the course of an 82-game regular season, there are some games that matter more than others. The deeper a team pushes in the postseason, however, the more intense the games get. That’s what O’Reilly is chasing.
“The best part of all of it is playing those high intensity games. Finding a way to win. The excitement of that. That’s the best part. And then the relief of when you win it, knowing you’re the last team standing. It’s such a proud moment. There’s nothing like it. And you want to do it again,” he said. “It’s still so cool to see how much the town has been behind us, and supported us.”
That bond between the Blues and St. Louis was forged through the decades, and crystalized in their championship run. Look no further than the rainy, boozy parade in downtown St. Louis, where the players and fans partied together.
“The way our players interacted with our fans during the parade … I didn’t expect what I saw,” said Armstrong. “I was nervous when I was seeing it, because I saw guys driving around in scooters that had a couple of beers in them. I was like, ‘this might not end well.’ But when everyone got home safe, I thought it was an incredible way to end the season and connect with fans.”
Armstrong values that connection with the city, and what the Stanley Cup meant to it.
“It’s done more than make our fan base happy. It’s made our city feel good about itself. We’ve been in the news for the last six or seven years for things that happened, and that’s how people think of St. Louis. But that’s not the reality of people that live in St. Louis. Now, there’s a pride about being from St Louis,” he said.
“Everyone in St. Louis took pride in what the guys did on the ice. They felt like they were part of it. We went through the Rams [leaving] thing. As you’re going through it, you put on your pants in the morning and you go to work and you work through it. But looking back on it, it feels like we were getting a lot of sand kicked in our faces in this town. Now, that’s not there anymore. Look at what our players accomplished last year. Look at what the Cardinals are accomplishing. It bleeds into the whole psyche of the town.”
That goes for the psyche of your team, too. The St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions. They’ll raise a banner to commemorate it on opening night. And then there will be a new place to store the game-winning pucks. There will be a new victory song blaring from the dressing room. Things will change. The ultimate goal will not, and the desire to achieve it has only intensified.
“We’re ready to turn the page,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo. “But when you win, you want to win again.”