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Is This The Year The St. Louis Blues Stop Disappointing Their Fans?

There are few fans as tortured by their team’s constant inability to win a championship as those who support the St. Louis Blues. It’s not because the Blues are perpetually lousy — in their 51 seasons, they’ve failed to qualify for the playoffs on only nine occasions. But they’ve never won a Stanley Cup, and they haven’t advanced to a Stanley Cup Final since doing so three consecutive times from 1967-68 to 1969-70.1 They were swept in all three of those finals and were outscored 43-17.

Those early failures didn’t derail the Blues — they qualified for the playoffs in six of their following nine seasons before embarking on a streak of 25 consecutive playoff berths from 1979-80 to 2003-04. That streak is tied for the third-longest in NHL history. But while the three other clubs to match or exceed St. Louis’s streak went to the Stanley Cup Final at least three times during their runs, the Blues teams advanced beyond the second round on only two occasions. Those Blues were like a weird second cousin: always showing up to the party but never having much to say.

But all that might change this season. The Blues are currently locked in a 2-2 tie with the Dallas Stars with a spot in the Western Conference finals on the line. St. Louis might be setting its fans up for yet another postseason disappointment in what has been a long line of them — but this could also be the year that the bounces finally go in the team’s favor, for once.

The six seasons immediately following the end of St. Louis’s long playoff streak were lean for the Blues: They qualified for the playoffs just once, in 2008-09, and were promptly swept in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks. But aside from 2017-18, the Blues have used the past eight seasons to reestablish themselves as perennial playoff participants. Just like the teams in the streak years, the Blues of the 2010s haven’t advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. The Blues usually stay on brand: They are almost always pretty good, but they are seldom ever great.

That’s especially been the case since the dawn of the 1990s, back when St. Louis featured a string of stars including Brett Hull, Grant Fuhr, Adam Oates, Al MacInnis and (eventually) Chris Pronger to form potent contenders in the West — on paper, at least. Since the 1989-90 season, no NHL team has underperformed in the postseason more than the Blues in terms of actual versus expected championships. Based on a logistic regression using Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS) scores2 from each regular season, we would have expected the Blues to have won 1.4 Stanley Cups over that span; instead, they won zero. According to this measure of postseason disappointment, the next-closest NHL team since 1990 is the Ottawa Senators, who won zero Cups despite an expectation of 1.2 titles.

Compared with the other three major sports leagues, the plight of St. Louis Blues fans is only exceeded by those of fans who support the Oklahoma City Thunder (nee Seattle SuperSonics), Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. It’s a motley crew of losers that residents of the Gateway City would rather not be associated with.

St. Louis is among pro sports’ most disappointing teams

Biggest shortfalls between actual and expected* championships by sport, 1990-2018

MLB Titles Vs. Exp. NBA Titles Vs. Exp.
1 Indians 0 -1.8 Thunder/Sonics 0 -2.3
2 Athletics 0 -1.7 Suns 0 -1.6
3 Mariners 0 -1.2 Jazz 0 -1.5
4 Braves 1 -1.0 Trail Blazers 0 -1.4
5 Rangers 0 -0.9 Kings 0 -0.9
6 Dodgers 0 -0.9 Magic 0 -0.8
7 Tigers 0 -0.7 Clippers 0 -0.6
8 (Devil) Rays 0 -0.7 Pacers 0 -0.5
9 Orioles 0 -0.6 Knicks 0 -0.5
10 Nationals/Expos 0 -0.6 Hawks 0 -0.4
NFL Titles Vs. Exp. NHL Titles Vs. Exp.
1 Chiefs 0 -1.3 Blues 0 -1.4
2 49ers 1 -1.2 Senators 0 -1.2
3 Vikings 0 -1.0 Sharks 0 -1.0
4 Chargers 0 -0.9 Flames 0 -1.0
5 Raiders 0 -0.8 Flyers 0 -1.0
6 Titans/Oilers 0 -0.8 Canucks 0 -1.0
7 Bills 0 -0.6 Sabres 0 -0.8
8 Falcons 0 -0.6 Predators 0 -0.6
9 Jets 0 -0.5 Maple Leafs 0 -0.6
10 Dolphins 0 -0.5 Wild 0 -0.5

* Expected championships is based on a logit regression between a team’s regular season Simple Rating System (SRS) score and whether it won a championship.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Compounding their failures is the fact that the Blues have the fifth-best goal differential in the NHL over that same span3 and have been third-best team in terms of SRS. Always pretty good, never great.

Their destiny as also-rans aside, the Blues are hardly the only historic disappointments still competing for the Stanley Cup this season. If we look back as far as the 1969-70 season, the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks each rank in the bottom third of the NHL in terms of actual titles versus expected titles. Indeed, the Sharks — like the Blues — are still titleless. Wouldn’t that make for a devastating Western Conference finals, in which one of those unfortunate franchises — and fan bases — had to go home empty-handed?

Hope isn’t lost for the Blues just yet. Despite being deadlocked with the Stars, they’ve got home ice advantage on their side. What’s not on their side is the current form of rookie goaltending sensation Jordan Binnington. The netminder stormed onto the scene in the middle of the season, posting audacious numbers en route to collecting 24 wins in just 30 starts. But Binnington seems to have hit a rookie wall at just the wrong time: His quality starts percentage in the playoffs is 60 percent, down significantly from the 67 percent mark he posted during the regular season.

If the Blues are going to put an end to a half-century of misery, they’ll need their wunderkind between the pipes to rediscover the form that earned him the starting job in the first place. After all, it’s hard to win a Stanley Cup without a hot goalie. Otherwise, the good folks of St. Louis know how this movie will end, because they’ve seen it many, many times before.

Footnotes

  1. These were the franchise’s first three seasons, and they arguably advanced to the final only because they were the least awful team in the newly formed West Division, which included only expansion teams.

  2. Which estimate the strength of every team in the NHL by measuring a team’s average goal differential after adjusting for strength of schedule.

  3. The four teams ahead of the Blues — the Red Wings, Bruins, Devils and Penguins — have combined to win 13 Stanley Cups since 1990.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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