People tend to forget Ryan O’Reilly was the rebound.
The trade that awarded the Stanley Cup champion Blues their Conn Smythe and Selke Trophy winner came after premier free agent John Tavares said something along the lines of, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The Blues’ struggles to attract elite free agents became a popular talking point last year – until Blues general manager Armstrong changed the discussion by turning the offseason into a spin-cycle of additions that created and eventually capitalized on Stanley Cup expectations.
“It’s worked out pretty good for us,” Armstrong said when asked about Tavares on the TD Garden ice after the Blues beat Boston in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
So well, in fact, that the Blues now face a challenge on the other end of the spectrum.
How do they manage to keep their championship core together?
And more importantly, how much are the members of this core willing to sacrifice in order to stay together?
Ironically, the team the Blues beat to lift the Cup for the first time can offer some advice.
Early on in the Stanley Cup Final, multiple Bruins spoke about how they were willing to take more modest salaries in order to protect and improve what they felt remained a championship-caliber nucleus.
“It allowed us to stay together,” said Brad Marchand, who signed an eight-year, $49 million extension in 2016. “It allowed us to bring in more guys. And it also set the tempo, where guys, if they want to be a part of this group, they are expected to buy in.”
It’s always a sensitive topic when discussing the selflessness of millionaire athletes, but here’s my point. Marchand, like his Boston teammates Patrice Bergeron and captain Zdeno Chara, might have made more money if he flexed his leverage as an unrestricted free agent. He decided leaving some on the table elsewhere was worth it to stay in Boston. He could point across the dressing room to teammates who did the same.
Now, the Bruins did not get the result they wanted in this Stanley Cup Final. It was also their third crack at it including their victory in 2011.
“If you want to try to make every dollar you can, unfortunately that’s not going to be with this group,” Marchand said. “So, we want guys that want to be here, want to win. You have to sacrifice some things. At the end of the day, if you lift a Stanley Cup and take a little bit less money, it’s worth it every single time.”
You can sense some members of the Blues nodding in agreement.
The Blues have their coach. The Blues have their goalie. The Blues have a core that includes captain Alex Pietrangelo, elite scorer Vladimir Tarasenko and O’Reilly, who is under contract through the 2022-23 season. Some of the team’s most exciting players are some of the team’s youngest players.
Repeating as champions is a daunting task made even more complicated by the length of the postseason, the short turnaround for the winners and, yes, the celebration circuit that accompanies the win.
But the Blues are not exactly built to be one-hit wonders.
Already, veteran defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson have taken significant pay cuts to return.
Goalie Jake Allen could have understandably demanded a trade after he was leapfrogged by new starter Jordan Binnington. There is no sign he has. Allen, who was Binnington’s secret weapon last season, seems willing –at least for now – to return as a backup who is competing for the starting spot. That speaks to the Blues’ culture at this moment.
The biggest question of the Blues’ offseason is if Pat Maroon will feel the same way. The hometown hero took a hometown discount to play for the Blues last season. It paid off in more ways than one. He became an icon. He became a champion. He relished the chance to be around his son, who lives here. But now contracts that offer more money and more years will tempt him to leave. He hasn’t yet. On the first day of free agency, with dollars flying left and right, there was no news on Maroon. If he had an offer that made his toes tingle, would we not know by now? How much money could he add on top of his contract in sponsorships and endorsement deals if he stayed in St. Louis? What is the value of another championship? What if a dynasty is brewing?
Look beyond Maroon. Both Brayden Schenn and Pietrangelo will be in Maroon’s skates after the upcoming season. Both could be approached by extension offers this offseason. The nearly $14 million in available cap space might even make it possible to bring back the necessary restricted free agents, bring back Maroon and extend either Schenn or Pietrangelo.
It would take some squeezing. It would take some sacrifice.
It would take the Blues taking a page from the playbook of the team they just beat to become champions.
“I wanted to be here, and be a part of this team for as long as possible,” Marchand said before the Blues beat him. “I believe in it. I love being here. It’s the culture of this group. We want to have an opportunity to win. Unfortunately, in the cap era, you need guys who are willing to take a little bit less to build a group. The more high end guys you can fit, the better you are going to be.”