Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where the only blueprint is no blueprint. Let’s get to it:
*The Blues made the playoffs six years in a row from 2011-17, achieving a modest level of postseason success but never making the Stanley Cup Finals, let alone hoisting the Cup.
Then they missed the postseason a year ago (albeit with a healthy 94 points) and slumped so badly to start this season that they fired head coach Mike Yeo after 19 games and at one point in early January had the worst record in the NHL.
So how the heck did it come to be that St. Louis triumphed in a winner-take-all Game 7 Wednesday night, winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history?
That’s a question for a lot of teams, and it might be one being asked particularly by the Wild and its fans. After all, these teams appear similar in many respects — right down to the six consecutive years making the postseason and the mid-year firing of Yeo.
The short answers are these:
1) The NHL is good at producing unexpected success. The margins for scoring and securing wins are very thin in the elite levels of hockey, meaning a hot goalie, a few weeks of inspired play or a few good bounces (and especially the combination thereof) can make a decent team temporarily great. It’s a lot harder in, say, the NBA. Advantages tend to make themselves known more when teams score 100 instead of a few.
In that respect, as I’ve argued before, the Wild wasn’t necessarily wrong in how it went about its business this decade: cranking out playoff berths and hoping to hit on the right combination for a postseason run, knowing that winning a cup without being the absolute best team was a real possibility.
2) The Blues have a star sniper, Vladimir Tarasenko. Sure, they also have excellent goal-scoring depth, as 13 players finished with double-digit goals in the regular season. But Tarasenko is the bona fide star the Wild has lacked since the days of Marian Gaborik. He scored 33 goals this season, his fifth in a row with at least 30. And Tarasenko had 11 more in the playoffs.
The Wild has received big seasons from numerous players, including 42 goals from Eric Staal two years ago. But a player that strikes fear into an opponent, particularly in the postseason? Again, I think you have to go back to Gaborik. (You could argue this is a compelling case to trade for Phil Kessel, which if you believe the Penguins is growing increasingly unlikely, but Kessel has topped 30 goals just once in the last five years).
It’s hard to find someone like Tarasenko, but the Blues did it without an exceedingly high pick — getting him No. 16 overall in 2010, the same year the Wild drafted Mikael Granlund No. 9. Lacking a sniper like that is part of the reason the Wild has scored just 17 goals in its last 10 playoff games, losing both series in five games.
3) The Blues took advantage of their charmed season. St. Louis has been one of the best teams in the NHL since early January. Sometimes those teams fade in the playoffs because they are out of steam, but the Blues managed to keep momentum going. The Wild’s similarly charmed season was 2014-15, when the acquisition of Devan Dubnyk fueled a second-half surge. Minnesota even upset the Blues in the first round of the playoffs that year … but then was swept by Chicago in the second round.
Add it up, and St. Louis’ long wait for a Cup is over … and Minnesota’s is still ongoing.
*There was an “uh-oh” quote from Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski in Andrew Krammer’s Star Tribune story when talking about the team’s progress on play-action passing: “It’s definitely a work in progress. At times, it’s good and at times it’s bad.”
Yeah, the Vikings have training camp and the preseason to improve that facet of their offense. But if they are relying heavily on play action as part of their scheme — and it’s a nuanced thing that requires the sort of timing and familiarity the Vikings just don’t have with so many new offensive linemen — the “work in progress” is not comforting.
*If you want a look inside the quick rise and fall of the Alliance of American Football, ESPN has you covered.
*It’s a shame Byron Buxton’s dramatic game-tying home run was overshadowed by the Twins’ sloppiness in an extra-inning loss Wednesday because it obscures this point: Buxton is becoming someone you want at the plate in those situations.