Before the puck dropped on the St. Louis Blues’ title defense, my colleague Terrence Doyle and I marveled at just how little respect the betting markets gave their repeat chances. According to odds from SportsBetting.ag and BetOnline.ag, St. Louis opened the 2019-20 season with 16-1 odds of winning it all again, which after adjusting for the take worked out to a 4.5 percent chance. That was the lowest implied probability for any defending champ going into a season since at least 1985.
But despite being the most disrespected defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blues have been busy proving that last year was no fluke.
At midseason, the Blues are tied with the Boston Bruins for the NHL’s second-best record (and lead the Western Conference standings outright) with 63 points; according to Hockey-Reference.com, they now have a 10.2 percent chance of winning the Cup, second-best in the league. That’s not exactly the regression those oddsmakers were expecting. And what’s more, St. Louis has been doing it in an unexpected way, relying on a different cast of major contributors than the one that powered last spring’s Cup run. As always, the Blues care little for the normal rules about how championships are won (and, apparently, defended).
The betting public could have been forgiven for its skepticism about St. Louis’ ability to repeat. The team exceeded all expectations with a second-half hot streak to even make the playoffs last season, then it watched several historic upsets clear the field before eventually reaching the Cup Final. Once there, the Blues outlasted the Boston Bruins in seven games, despite being outshot and outscored. Thrilling as it was, the clock figured to strike midnight for the defending champs this season when some of those breaks inevitably went in the other direction.
Of course, the Blues also didn’t lose much talent of note over the offseason — their biggest departures were winger Pat Maroon and defenseman Joel Edmundson, decent players but hardly stars — and they even added a high-upside pickup in the form of former Carolina Hurricanes Justin Faulk, a three-time All-Star on the blue line. So after a season of both success and upheaval, it looked like St. Louis would at least enjoy the benefit of more stability in their repeat bid.
But that plan didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. According to goals above replacement (GAR),1 which estimates the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on their box score stats, the 2018-19 Blues were led by forwards Ryan O’Reilly (15.5 adjusted GAR)2 and Vladimir Tarasenko (14.9), with rookie netminder Jordan Binnington (14.0) posting a half-season’s worth of great numbers after taking over for longtime starter Jake Allen in January. Defenseman Vince Dunn (11.2) paced the rearguard, though that seemed like it could change this season with the addition of the productive Faulk.
Faulk, however, has struggled (3.5 adjusted GAR) in possibly the worst season of his career. O’Reilly has come down a bit (10.0) from last year’s career-best season, while Tarasenko has been sidelined since October with a shoulder injury, limiting his output to 2.9 adjusted GAR, and has called into question his ability to return this season. Binnington has more adjusted GAR (20.0) this year than last, but that’s largely a function of more playing time as a full-time starter — his save percentage (.917) is lower than it was last season (.927). Considering these changes in the team’s plans, on top of St. Louis’s already low preseason Cup odds, the Blues’ success this season is even more astonishing.
Instead, St. Louis has seen a few different contributors pick up the slack in its championship defense:
|2018-19 Blues||2019-20 Blues|
|Rk||Player||Pos||Adj. GAR||Player||Pos||Adj. GAR|
|1||Ryan O’Reilly||C||15.5||Jordan Binnington||G||20.0|
|2||Vladimir Tarasenko||RW||14.9||Alex Pietrangelo||D||19.0|
|3||Jordan Binnington||G||14.0||David Perron||LW||16.3|
|4||Vince Dunn||D||11.2||Jake Allen||G||12.8|
|5||Alex Pietrangelo||D||11.1||Brayden Schenn||C||12.4|
The Blues’ top skater by GAR has been team captain and veteran defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, whose 19.0 adjusted GAR in his age-30 season is tracking to eclipse his previous career high of 18.1, set all the way back in 2011-12. Pietrangelo was a key cog last season, particularly in the playoffs, but he had averaged a solid-but-not-amazing 12.5 GAR over the previous five years. The Blues’ leading forward has been winger David Perron, who at age 31 is on pace for 82 points (and 16.3 GAR) after never previously topping 66 points (or 11.5 GAR) in any season. And after a mediocre year that saw him lose his starting job — and play next to no role in the Stanley Cup run — Allen has rebounded to provide a strong complement to Binnington on the league’s fifth-best goaltending corps.
It isn’t as though all of the best players on this year’s Blues are different from last year. O’Reilly still ranks seventh on the team in GAR and Dunn ranks ninth, while center Jaden Schwartz (third on the team in points this season) was St. Louis’s second-leading scorer during last year’s playoffs. But it has definitely been an uncharacteristically different mix leading the way for a defending Cup champion.
We can even measure this statistically. If you weight the GAR for each member of the 2018-19 Blues by his GAR for the 2019-20 Blues,3 you get an average value of 7.89 — meaning that, weighted by their contributions to the repeat effort, the average player on the championship roster had just 7.89 GAR. Going back to 1969, when the Montreal Canadiens successfully defended the first post-Original Six Cup title, only five defending champs — the 1995-96 Devils, 1986-87 Canadiens, 2012-13 Kings, 1990-91 Oilers and 1971-72 Canadiens — saw less of their championship core contribute to the repeat bid.4
|Season||Team||In Cup Win||In Title Defense||Prev. GAR, Weighted by Current Year|
|1995-96||New Jersey Devils||+0.30||+0.20||6.29|
|2012-13||Los Angeles Kings||+0.19||+0.29||7.07|
|2019-20||St. Louis Blues||+0.28||+0.49||7.89|
|2014-15||Los Angeles Kings||+0.40||+0.16||7.93|
|2002-03||Detroit Red Wings||+0.83||+0.85||8.70|
|1997-98||Detroit Red Wings||+0.66||+0.64||8.79|
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the teams on the list above played worse (according to Hockey-Reference’s Simple Rating System) in their follow-up bid, and only the 1997-98 Red Wings5 and the 1991-92 and 2016-17 Penguins ended up repeating as Cup champs. Mounting a strong title defense is hard enough in hockey, where randomness generally rules the playoffs. But doing it with a shifting set of key contributions makes things even tougher.
And yet, here the Blues are. With a sturdy defense, strong goaltending and enough offense to win games, St. Louis is a balanced team with a very good chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup again this spring. They’ve defied both the preseason odds and the history of defending champs whose best players didn’t contribute as much the following season. We’ll just have to see what kind of surprises they still have up their sweater sleeves next.
CORRECTION (Jan. 10, 2020, 1:55 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the St. Louis Blues’ rank on the NHL’s points leaderboard. They are tied for second, not tied for first.