The answer might surprise you, because the answer is nothing.
There is nothing particularly unique or trendy or different about the Blues. They didn’t change the game, or go about team-building in a unique way, or build around one generational player, or play a singularly different style of hockey that ultimately proved better than the other 30 teams over the test of the regular season and playoffs.
Like all NHL champions, they are a special band of brothers and all that. They will get their names etched on the Stanley Cup and visit their hometowns this summer to show off the trophy. With 19 Canadians, that’s a lot of summer Cup parties coming to the Great White North.
So if the Blues weren’t particularly unique, how did they do it?
After missing the playoffs last season, GM Doug Armstrong certainly didn’t intend for his team to be the worst in the NHL from October into early January, and then to magically flick a switch and become a decisively better team from January to June. You couldn’t say it was planned. This wasn’t some extended version of load management. Armstrong might have hoped it would happen when his team was so bad, but he didn’t plan it that way.
But this is how you win a Cup these days. Not by building a great team and separating yourself from the pack, which is virtually impossible in the salary cap era, but by being ready when that gust of wind comes along like it did for Washington a year ago.
The Blues and the Capitals had very much the same experience. Both teams tried for years to build a champion and couldn’t come close. They just kept accumulating and replacing talent over the years until one year it all fell into place.
The genesis of this year’s Blues championship could be traced back to 2006 when St. Louis had a terrible season in which it won only 21 games. That ended a streak of 25 straight seasons making the playoffs. Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk were the stars, although Weight got traded at the deadline to Carolina. Larry Pleau was the GM, and Mike Kitchen was the coach.
The prize for being so bad was the first overall pick. The Blues took strapping defenceman Erik Johnson first overall and, with a second first-rounder 24 picks later, drafted towering Swedish centre Patrik Berglund.
The plan was that Johnson and Berglund would one day be the centrepieces of a championship team in St. Louis. We know that didn’t happen. Johnson lasted four years in the Blues organization. Berglund stayed with the Blues until last summer.
The Blues hired Armstrong as GM in 2008, and a revised plan began to unfold. Alex Pietrangelo was drafted as the new stud on defence. Two years later, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko were drafted. Colton Parayko was harvested in 2012.
Armstrong just kept trying to build a better roster. He tried different goalies. He traded for different marquee players. Ryan Miller was brought in to play goal. Then forward Paul Stastny and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester arrived. Brian Elliott and Jake Allen eventually became the goalies, and Martin Brodeur played the final part of a season.
Armstrong kept Pietrangelo, Schwartz, Tarasenko and Parayko, but kept changing the rest of his roster. Nail Yakupov got an audition. Brayden Schenn came in, Joni Lehtera and draft picks went out. Berglund, who had come to dislike being a professional hockey player, was pawned off on unsuspecting Buffalo in a package to acquire Ryan O’Reilly.
Finally, virtually out of nowhere, it all came together. There’s no way Armstrong knew it was going to happen. The O’Reilly deal looks like a steal now, but for months it didn’t work. Jordan Binnington, a 2011 draft pick, languished in the organization for years while the potential for him to be a Cup-winning goalie went undetected.
So the lesson of the Blues is that there really is no lesson. Ownership stuck with Armstrong, he kept trying to mix and match his players and strengthen his team, sometimes with success, sometimes without. Sometimes he unconventionally traded away good players at the deadline — Stastny and defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk — even when the Blues were contending for the playoffs. This winter he hung on to Bouwmeester when many believed the veteran defenceman was all but finished.
The right mix is elusive. At one point, Armstrong believed Mike Yeo was the right coach, right up until the day he replaced him with Craig Berube.
The Blues are a memorable team to St. Louis, but they’re not a particularly noteworthy collection of NHL players. What they are is a group of athletes who fit perfectly at the right time for a relatively short period. Just like Washington did last year. Just like Vegas almost did.
That doesn’t diminish this St. Louis accomplishment. But it does put it in perspective. There was no grand design. There was stability in management, the slow maturation of a handful of drafted players and an unheralded goalie who arrived as a last resort and became a star.
It took 13 years. No other team right now is saying “let’s do it how the Blues did it.”
But that’s what it takes.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin