In early January, the St. Louis Blues had seemingly reached their breaking point, which coincided with the exact mid-point of the 2018–19 season. Their record stood at 17–20–4, on pace for 76 points, which would be the team’s worst 82-game record since 2005–06. When management fired one coach, Mike Yeo, and brought in Craig Berube to serve on an interim basis in November, it did nothing to improve the team’s prospects. By January, with 25 of the team’s 41 remaining games on the road, analytics websites gave St. Louis less than a 10-per cent chance of making the playoffs. The local reviews were unforgiving. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed up the half-season in six words: “Too much frustration, too little success.”
This wasn’t tanking either, though for the stretches when St. Louis had the worst record in the NHL it sure looked like a push for the first-overall pick — the Blues Lose for Jack Hughes. Nor was it a rebuild. St. Louis had pieces, established NHL stars in what should be their prime: Right winger Vladimir Tarasenko has been one of the decade’s most dynamic talents; Alex Pietrangelo has regularly been high up on Norris Trophy ballots; and, via a July trade with Buffalo, the team had acquired Ryan O’Reilly, a centre who might have routinely been a Selke Trophy finalist if he had played for contenders in big markets.
Ahead of the season, the Blues had looked poised for a breakthrough. The team had come within a couple games of making the Final in 2016 — losing to San Jose in a six-game Western Conference Final — and over the years it often had run into teams on a roll or hot goaltenders in the post-season. The Blues had reason to think that it was going to be their turn.
The players were restless. “We can’t be doing this throughout the rest of the year,” defenceman Joel Edmundson told the Post-Dispatch in January. “We’ve got to figure something out. It’s tough mentally winning one, losing one.”
And at that point, Doug Armstrong did one of the toughest things a GM sometimes has to do: nothing at all. With fans and media wanting Armstrong to take action — demanding it even — he stood pat and waited for a turnaround that to many seemed wishful. Soon enough — barely — the Blues, the team with the worst record in the NHL at the beginning of the calendar year, did in fact get on a run and, almost unforeseeably, became a buyer at the trade deadline, acquiring defenceman Michael del Zotto from Anaheim for a sixth-rounder.
And now, four months later, with a 2-1 win over San Jose in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, the Blues are now two wins away from their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. And, really, they have to think themselves criminally unlucky not to be up three games to one against the Sharks.