Prior to the 1993-94 NHL season, former THN staffer Mike Brophy picked the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup. He’s been dining out on it ever since. That same fall, I told a good friend of mine to pick a 22-year-old rookie by the name of Milos Holan in his hockey pool. Holan was coming off a 35-goal, 68-point season as a defenseman in the Czech League and was joining an up-and-coming Philadelphia Flyers roster.
Here’s what was supposed to happen. Holan was going to pile up a bunch of points and win the Calder Trophy. My buddy was going to win his hockey pool as a result and I’d go down forever as a hockey genius. This is what actually happened. Holan played eight disappointing games with the Flyers and was edged out in the rookie-of-the-year race by a flash-in-the pan named Martin Brodeur. I haven’t heard the end of the infamous Milos Holan saga since.
When I look back on that bold prediction, I’d have to chalk it up to the same thing Bob Clarke was thinking when he picked Rob Zamuner for the 1998 Canadian Olympic team: that he was smarter than everyone else. It was the same kind of thing I had in mind when I picked Erik Karlsson and Ray Emery to be finalists for the Hart Trophy this season.
And I suspect that’s what was going through the minds of a couple THN staffers when we picked – wait for it – the St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup this season. Yeah, the St. Louis Blues. I make this observation because I was on vacation during the crucial meeting when we, as a staff, made our pick for the Cup and I want everyone to know right now that I am distancing myself from that prognostication.
I don’t have anything against the Blues. Quite to the contrary. Doug Armstrong is putting together a formidable roster and with new deals for lynchpin defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, the Blues have displayed their intent to keep their players, even if it means being in the top 10 in payroll in the league, but well below that in terms of revenues. Ken Hitchcock is a brilliant coach and one of the best in-game strategists you’ll ever see. Up and down the roster, the Blues have quality players and you could certainly argue, as THN did in our Season Preview issue, that they have the best defense corps in the NHL today. The Blues are big, skilled and particularly adept at shutting teams down.
But the Stanley Cup? Really? Sorry, but I’m not even close to being sold on them at the moment. It might have something to do with having a hard time believing they’re going to be the best team in the league when they won’t even be the best team in their own division. That honor, of course, belongs to the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, who present as compelling a case for the first back-to-back champions as anyone has since Detroit last did it in 1997 and ’98.
The Blues will have no problem locking down a playoff spot in the revamped Central Division and will undoubtedly benefit from a heavier diet of Winnipeg Jets while cutting back on Red Wings. They are an emerging NHL power, to be sure, and have made significant gains the past two seasons. There’s little doubt they belong in the Cup conversation, but not as the favorite.
And the reason why is because the last time I checked teams still need to be able to score goals to win games in the NHL. And I have no confidence the Blues can produce the offense when it really counts. Take last year’s playoffs, for example. The Blues squeaked out back-to-back 2-1 wins over the Los Angeles Kings on home ice and had set themselves up to take a chokehold on the series in Game 3. In that game, the Blues had four power plays, including a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period, but couldn’t put a single one of their 30 shots past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. The Blues then went on to lose three more one-goal games. Their power play was impotent and their 1.67 goals per game was second worst among teams that qualified for the post-season.
Can the additions of Derek Roy, Maxim Lapierre and Magnus Paajarvi help the Blues overcome their performance anxiety when it comes to producing offense in big games? Well, Roy has a grand total of two goals in 27 games his past four playoff appearances. Lapierre had three goals when Montreal went to the conference final in 2010 and the same number when Vancouver went to the Cup final a year later, so he might be able to chip in a crucial goal. Paajarvi is just 22 and has not yet experienced the NHL playoffs.
Yes, anything can happen. But it rarely does. To be honest, I can think of at least a half dozen teams I’d pick before the St. Louis Blues. If I’m wrong, a couple guys in our office will never let me live it down. But, hey, it can’t be any worse than telling your buddy to take Milos Holan in a hockey pool.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of THN magazine.