By Lou Korac
Since that historic June 12 night, one in which the Blues won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, there have been celebrations, really festive celebrations, there have been days with the Cup, there has been a ring ceremony, and finally on Wednesday night, there will be a banner ceremony.
One of the last acts of celebrating that Stanley Cup win over the Boston Bruins will come to fruition when the Blues open defense of their title against the 2018 Cup champion Washington Capitals in the 2019-20 season opener.
There will be emotions, especially when the players are on the ice, in front of a packed Enterprise Center house that, along with their Blues hockey-fan brethren, will celebrate the franchise’s first Cup title to eternity, and seeing the banner go to the rafters will be the finality of what was accomplished last season.
But as players have been saying since training camp opened Sept. 13, it’s time to flip the switch and go for it again. The Blues will attempt to be just the second team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings (2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins) to repeat as Cup champions. And the grind will not be easy.
“It’s not going to be easy for us this year,” said center Brayden Schenn, who is going into the final year of his contract and can be an unrestricted free agent July 1. “I think we’re really going to have to dig in and be tough. Everyone’s going to be gunning for us. We’ve got to expect that.
“I think that’s a challenge any hockey player or any athlete would welcome. You know you’re gunning for the champs and I think to have that target on your back the whole year, or at least the first half of the year, we’re going to see a team for the first time, I think people are going to be up and excited and bring their best game against you.”
The Blues bring back virtually an entire roster that competed for the Cup last season, which is a benefit in today’s salary cap era. The only omissions are forward Pat Maroon, who signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and defenseman Joel Edmundson, who was traded last week to the Carolina Hurricanes in a package that brought the Blues three-time all-star defenseman Justin Faulk.
“I guess when you don’t bring in many new faces, it’s obviously easier,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, also going into the last year of his contract. “You’re not trying to rebuild some chemistry. I think for the most part, all the lines are the same and pretty much everything’s similar. When you walk back into the room and you see almost every single guy is the same, it makes it easy and comfortable and you get excited to get back at it.”
Coach Craig Berube, who removed the interim tag from his title after he signed a three-year contract shortly after the Blues won the Cup, feels that the mental grind will be the Blues’ greatest challenge.
“Yes, it’s mental for me,” Berube said. “We did have a long season and a short summer, but it’s a mental thing that you have to get over. You’ve got to get through the physical tiredness and that’s mental for me.
“Instead of talking to our team about, ‘Wow’ we’ve got to get off to a good start,’ I’m more focused on, ‘Listen, you’re the Stanley Cup champs of last year. Now you’ve got to go out and prove it again, now you’ve got to start over again, people are going to be gunning for you.’ You’ve got to be mentally prepared and mentally tough for a grind and not be surprised by it. We’re going to have to be dialed in every night.”
But getting off to a good start will be helpful for the Blues, who were dead-last with 34 points last season on Jan. 3 before making their improbable run to a third-place finish in the Central Division (45-28-9, 99 points) and then get series wins over Winnipeg (six games), Dallas (seven games), San Jose (six games) before finally finishing off the Bruins in seven.
Pietrangelo called last season’s start “not ideal.” The Blues were trying to incorporate new players (Tyler Bozak, David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly and Maroon) into a group that needed to find its identity. There’s really not much worry to that now.
“It’s an uphill climb, right? It’s obviously tough when you bring in a lot of new faces and we were trying to find our identity, but once we did, obviously things took off,” Pietrangelo said. “I think we all feel comfortable where we are right now and this is a group that has a lot of chemistry. Everyone talks about the way we played for each other down the stretch, and nothing’s changed. You have the same group of guys, so we kind of expect that same thing, same character to carry over.”
Jordan Binnington, coming off his improbable run of going 24-5-1 with a league-leading 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, will get the cage as the starter for the first time in his career to begin a season, and that’s a challenge in itself, although he has the veteran savvy of Jake Allen (19-17-8, 2.83 GAA, .905 save percentage last season; 250-136-88, 2.54 GAA and .911 save percentage for his career) to back him up.
The Blues are healthy, unlike last season when they had to deal with injuries on the back end to Carl Gunnarsson (knee, wrist) and Jay Bouwmeester (hip), Robby Fabbri was coming off his two ACL surgeries in his left knee, Oskar Sundqvist was coming back from a concussion sustained in the preseason from Washington’s Tom Wilson and Robert Bortuzzo was suspended the first game.
“All these things that’s coming up, ring ceremony, White House, banner, that’s just a little bonus,” Gunnarsson said. “It’s kind of fun in the moment, but then you’ve got to just focus on what’s ahead of us. When I had my Cup day, I let (last season) go and I let it sink in for a few days and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’ That was my turn with it and now I can turn the page and look forward.”
After seven preseason games, the Blues are geared up and revved up to get their team going again.
“We haven’t played a full game together really as a team, so we’re going to have to use these practice days and Game 1 to really start building our team again,” Schenn said. “I don’t think we’re a team that can just flip a switch and can start winning hockey games that easy. I think we have to really buy in and really build our game and that’s how we’re going to be successful.”