Hartnett: Blues' Ascent Provides A Blueprint For Future Rangers' Success

Sean Hartnett
June 13, 2019 - 1:30 pm
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The St. Louis Blues were crowned Stanley Cup champions after the final seconds expired in a winner-take-all Game 7 at TD Garden. A 52-year wait for hockey’s ultimate prize ended in the most improbable fashion.

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No one could have foreseen the Blues’ transformation, from cellar dwellers mired in last place as late as mid-January, to Stanley Cup champions. Their story is proof that with the right mix of coaching and player usage, anything is possible. The Blues did not make an impact deal at the trade deadline, and they didn’t have any 80-point players or a highly-paid star goaltender.

Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as interim head coach in November. It was Berube’s decision to hand over the goaltending reins to perennial minor-leaguer in Jordan Binnington, who finished the regular season with a 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Binnington turned in a clutch, 32-save performance in Game 7 to propel the Blues to hockey’s mountaintop.

The blueprint for any franchise to capture the Stanley Cup contains the essential ingredients of star players finding their A-Game, intelligent in-game deployments, clutch goaltending and suffocating defense. Ryan O’Reilly scored in four consecutive Stanley Cup Final games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy after recording 23 points in 26 playoff games. Captain Alex Pietrangelo tied for the playoff lead with 16 assists, while Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko provided scoring punch.

Championships can also be won by making shrewd offseason moves. General manager Doug Armstrong sent Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres to acquire O’Reilly. In his first season as a Blue, O’Reilly put together career bests of 77 points and 0.94 points-per-game. He is also a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.

Game-changing trades and intelligent drafting are often crucial ingredients for Stanley Cup winners. Switching attention to the Rangers, I’m sure a lot of fans are thinking about what it would take for the Blueshirts to finally end their 25-year Stanley Cup drought.

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The St. Louis Blues celebrate winning the Stanley Cup
USA TODAY Images

The Rangers’ finished seventh overall in the Metropolitan Division in David Quinn’s first season behind the bench and ended the 2018-19 campaign with a minus-45 goal differential. Still, even after consecutive years of rebuilding, the Rangers have assembled some of the starter pieces for their Stanley Cup championship puzzle – but large, vital pieces are missing.

Henrik Lundqvist is 37 and coming off the poorest statistical season of his career after playing in front of a patchwork set of blueliners. That being said, I fully believe that he can again be an elite netminder in the right circumstances. That career-worst season doesn’t happen if Lundqvist has even a passable set of defensemen helping protect the fort.

Whether it’s Lundqvist in the near future or uber-prospect Igor Shesterkin eventually being passed the No. 1 goaltending torch, the Rangers have the capability to have splendid goaltending if the blue line is properly reconstructed.

That brings us to the harder part: decisions. The Rangers have several key decisions to make on defense. Will Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith return? The first buyout window opens on June 15, so the Rangers could opt to create cap room with the tradeoff being dead cap space.

For the Rangers to genuinely flip the switch to a real turnaround, they’re going to need to acquire a No. 1 defenseman and an elite wing. Trading for Winnipeg Jets’ defenseman Jacob Trouba makes sense on multiple levels, though there is no shortage of GMs looking to entice Kevin Cheveldayoff with a deal he can’t refuse. The possibility of throwing silly money at all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson is a much riskier proposition given his injury history. And frankly, I don’t see the Rangers making a desperate push to sign Karlsson if other routes to improve the blue line turn stagnant.

The Rangers will have a potentially elite wing in their ranks if the rival Devils select center Jack Hughes first overall at the 2019 draft, leaving the Blueshirts to choose Kaapo Kakko. Top free agent forward Artemi Panarin will in all likelihood hit the open market on July 1, though I see the Florida Panthers as the frontrunners in the Panarin sweepstakes.

If the Rangers can add a top-tier defenseman who can lead a young group of blueliners and have the fortune of drafting Kakko, they’re in good shape for the future given their strong pool of prospects. Eventually, the hope is that Adam Fox, Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov, K'Andre Miller and others achieve their full potential.

The Rangers’ chances of eventually becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender appears to be dependent on prospect development and smart drafting as much as Jeff Gorton pulling the trigger on a franchise-changing acquisition.

Look at the Blues. Pietrangelo, Tarasenko, Schwartz, Binnington and Colton Parayko were all acquired through the draft and were crucial to St. Louis’ championship run. If the Rangers are looking for a Stanley Cup blueprint, a key factor is simply getting it right in the draft.

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