OTTAWA — Craig Berube isn’t one for bold predictions. It’s not his style. But after Oskar Sundqvist’s breakout 14-goal season, the Blues coach thinks even better things could be possible for the 25-year-old Swede.
“I think that he’s potentially — I’m not here to determine how many goals or points — but you know he had a really good year last year,” Berube said, “his best year he’s ever had. I expect him to get better and better.”
The front office agreed, re-signing Sundqvist to a four-year contract worth $2.75 million annually. The deal was made in late July, when Sundqvist was a restricted free agent. It was the biggest commitment in terms of contract length among the nine restricted free agents brought back by the team.
And it was a show of faith and confidence, considering Sundqvist had two career goals over 70 NHL games (for St. Louis and Pittsburgh) before last season.
“We were looking for something more than a one-year contract,” Sundqvist said. “So it’s nice to get that done, especially to get four years. Hopefully I can stay here for all these years. Being a part of this team and this city, it’s been really fun.”
It was also nice to get his first goal of 2019-20 over with — a quick slap shot that seemed to surprise Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen in the second period of the Blues’ 3-2 victory Monday over the Maple Leafs.
“It’s always nice to get it out of the way as you said,” Sundqvist said. “I just need to keep playing the way I’ve been playing these last two games and the points are gonna come.”
Linemate Ivan Barbashev had the primary assist on the play; goalie Jordan Binnington later was credited with a secondary assist for his first point as an NHL goalie.
“You could see the first game, against Washington, it wasn’t a really good game for our line,” Barbashev said. “It wasn’t played good. And now, it’s just only getting better, so the chemistry’s coming back together. This is just the start, and I’m looking forward to getting even better with those guys.”
During camp Sundqvist told Berube he didn’t feel he was at his best, and some of that might have spilled over into the start of the regular season. The Barbashev-Sundqvist-Alexander Steen line didn’t have a point in the first two games, but the group’s play picked up in Game 2, against Dallas, and was even better against Toronto.
“First game wasn’t really there when it came to timing and stuff like that,” Sundqvist said. “I was too far ahead of the play. I need to be a little bit calmer and maybe not be so high up in the play. The last two games are better. We’re getting back to where we ended up last season, so it’s a good feeling.”
They ended up last season as one of the best fourth lines in the NHL. Barbashev matched Sundqvist’s goal total with 14, also a personal career high. Steen, who didn’t join the line until March 19, had 10 goals. It exemplified the depth and scoring balance that became hallmarks of the Stanley Cup championship run.
The season opener notwithstanding, the chemistry of the trio is strong. The group plays fast and practices fast.
When Steen joined the line late last season, Barbashev said he was in awe of the 35-year-old veteran, who has played in 966 NHL regular-season games and has four 20-goal seasons.
Now, Sundqvist and Barbashev are comfortable enough to tease him. During camp, Sundqvist was asked if he was responsible for Barbashev’s new contract or vice versa.
(Barbashev signed a two-year deal worth $1,475,000 a year on Sept. 1. One of the reasons it was for less than Sundqvist’s deal is Barbashev did not have arbitration rights —Sundqvist did — as a restricted free agent.) But back to the question: Who got who the new deal?
“Actually Steen is the one telling us he helped out with the contract,” Sundqvist said. “Steener’s taking all the credit for that.”
Sundqvist said he had a reply for Steen.
“I’m more telling him that my back was a little bit sore from carrying him around,” Sundqvist joked. “We like going back and forth, it’s pretty fun.”
On Wednesday, following the Blues’ morning skate, Barbashev piled on.
“Me and ‘Sunny’ help (Steen) a lot,” Barbashev said. “Sometimes we gotta take care of him, you know?”
No matter who’s helping whom, it’s working. And as Berube suggested, Sundqvist thinks he can find another level to his game.
“There’s always stuff you can improve,” Sundqvist said. “I feel I’m improving on almost all aspects of my game, and I’m hoping that I will keep improving and hopefully be a little bit better this year than I was last year.”
Sundqvist celebrated his Cup day in style over the summer, arriving with it via helicopter in his hometown of Boden, Sweden. A friend of his father is a helicopter mechanic, which explains the splashy arrival.
“It was a cool experience,” Sundqvist said. “It’s something I’m gonna remember forever.”
Even with his breakout 2018-19 season, Sundqvist isn’t what you’d call a big deal in Boden, a town of about 20,000 in northern Sweden and located just a couple of hours’ drive from the Arctic Circle.
“It’s pretty calm up there where I’m from,” he said. “Obviously some people recognize you and stuff like that. But it’s pretty easy-going.”
So it’s not like Sundqvist gets free meals all over town?
“No, I was buying everyone else dinner, I think,” he said.
Apparently, word of the new contract reached Boden.