As a new NHL season begins, let us first pause and declare: The St. Louis Blues have become the standard-setting franchise in our town.
It isn’t that the Cardinals are terrible, or mediocre, or just merely average. Despite the disproportionate level of whining on social media where the fake tough guys roam, the Cardinals are good. They are good … and dull.
Problem is, the Cardinals used to be great. And they almost always provided entertaining baseball. They had the big stars, the oversized personalities, and routinely appeared on the most illustrious postseason stages. Winning a steady supply of division titles, battling in the league championship series, capturing NL pennants, charging into the World Series to hunt for more titles.
From 2000 through 2013 the Cardinals ranked second in the majors in regular-season wins and postseason wins. They made it to the postseason 10 times in 14 seasons, earned three NL pennants, and won the World Series in 2006 and 2011.
But since last playing in the World Series back in 2013 the Cardinals are seventh overall in reg-season victories, have competed in the postseason three times in seven years, and have a total of nine postseason wins.
Between 2000 and 2013, only the New York Yankees, with 62, had more postseason wins than the Cardinals’ 60. But since 2014, the Cardinals rank 13th in the majors in playoff victories. The teams with more postseason success than the Cardinals over that time include small-markets Tampa Bay (14 wins) and Kansas City (13.)
And five National League teams have won more postseason games than the Cardinals: the LA Dodgers (40) Cubs (19), Nationals (17), Giants (17) and Braves.
Again, the Cardinals are good. Even though they’ve made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, the Cardinals have slipped. They’ve lost ground. This is a quality team for the most part, but the customary dominance has weakened.
Look, when the Royals win more postseason games than the Cardinals over a seven-season stretch — including a World Series — that’s all we really need to know. When the rival Cubs moved up and took over a division owned by the Cardinals — at least for a while — it’s another discouraging development. When the Milwaukee Brewers jump in and shive you out of the way, that’s distressing. Since the start of the 2017 season the Cubs rank second in the NL in wins, the Brewers are third, and the Cards are sixth.
The Blues brought home the Stanley Cup in 2019.
The Cardinals’ last World Series conquest happened nine seasons ago.
Over the past nine campaigns the Blues led the Western Conference in most regular-season wins with 407; that ranked second to Pittsburgh (410) overall. And among Western Conference teams only Chicago (52) had more postseason victories than the Blues (44) during the nine seasons.
After a rebuild, the Blues were primed to go on an extensive run of success beginning with the 2011-2012 season, and their consistency really stands out. The Blues have qualified for eight of the last nine NHL postseason tournaments — and only one team, Pittsburgh, has exceeded that by 9-for-9.
From a historical standpoint the Cardinals have been the superior franchise. That statement doesn’t need to be explained, let alone justified. All you have to do is count the number of World Series titles (11) and NL pennants (19) procured by the Cardinals. This franchise has won NL pennants, and at least one World Series, in seven different decades.
The recent trend is flowing in the Blues’ direction. And I have to say that there’s been a glaring contrast between each team’s approach since Doug Armstrong became Blues GM in 2010, followed by Tom Stillman taking over as team chairman in 2012.
Stillman and partners provide the funding for a consistently high payroll, and the Blues often press the limit on the NHL salary cap. That’s still true even now, during a pandemic, with the Blues and all NHL teams suffering financial losses because of decreased revenue. And in another contrast with how the Cardinals are dealing with MLB revenue shortages, Stillman didn’t look to slash and burn payroll. He gave Armstrong the go-ahead to add talent. And the Blues — instead of saving money and retreating — are going full-speed ahead in the quest for another Cup. No one can question Stillman’s commitment to winning. It’s always been there — in the best of times, and in the most challenging of times.
Armstrong’s hockey operations department has scouted and drafted well to maintain a productive pipeline of prospects. The Blues always have up-and-coming young players in their talent supply. But he’s also creative, opportunistic and aggressive in filling voids with veterans.
Just look at his actions in recent months: when it appeared that the Blues were about to lose free-agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, Armstrong instantly pivoted to sign Boston free-agent defenseman Torey Krug. When the Blues lost forward Alex Steen to retirement because of a chronic back problem, Armstrong found a clever way to sign free-agent scorer Mike Hoffman to a one-year deal.
Just like that, Armstrong came up with a solution to account for Vladimir Tarasenko’s absence due to shoulder surgery. By transferring Steen and Tarasenko to the long-term injured reserve list, Armstrong was able to free up the $4 million to cover Hoffman’s salary for 2021. And when and if Tarasenko returns later this season, the Blues will have two elite scorers — Vladdy and Hoffman — to menace opponents.
About one-third of the Blues roster that won the Stanley Cup is gone — via free-agent departures, retirements, trades. But Armstrong continues to do a resourceful job of replenishing the roster, and the Blues skate on as strong as before. His trade for Ryan O’Reilly will go down as one of the greatest deals made by a St. Louis GM in any sport. The Blues don’t win the Stanley Cup without O’Reilly, who was the MVP of the 2019 postseason. And when captain Pietrangelo left town and signed with Las Vegas, the Blues already had O’Reilly in place as their next captain.
The Blues will be a strong contender in the Western division this season. The search party — for a Stanley Cup — opens tonight when the Blues play at Colorado. The town’s No. 1 team is returning to competition. And even with the pandemic surging and our government raging, the Blues give us a reason to smile and be happy. Just like the hockey team itself, all we can do is take it one day, one game, at a time.
Thanks for reading …
Listen to Bernie’s show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. And you can access the show and the show podcast online at 590thefan.com … get the 590 app in your preferred app store.