The unluckiest number in the world. But for the St. Louis Blues and its no- longer suffering fans, thirteen is the mark of providence for it was Doug Armstrong, the franchise’s 13th general manager (including interims), who led the team to the promised land.
How Armstrong was able to finally break the curse of Scotty Bowman, the curse of Al Arbour, and a whole lot of cursing from generations of Blues fans, is a fascinating web of transactions that went right (Ryan O’Reilly) to horribly wrong (Ryan Miller) and everything in between.
There are dozens upon dozens of transactions, signings and deals from which we could choose. Below is a selection of highlights, a baker’s dozen if you will, that tell the twisting tale that eventually delivers Lord Stanley to the Gateway City.
First, a little backstory. From the NHL lockout of 2004-05 to Armstrong’s ascension to general manager in 2010, the Blues failed to qualify for the playoffs on four occasions, and the one season they did (2008-09), they were bounced in the first round, losing four straight games to the Vancouver Canucks. Despite having some elite players, the Note was experiencing its worst run of play in its history. That was all about to change.
On July 1, 2010, Larry Pleau stepped down as general manager and the Blues promoted Doug Armstrong from his position as director of player personnel. (Interesting side note: Pleau owns the distinction of being the longest-serving GM in Blue history for, you guessed it, 13 years.)
Armstrong’s first unofficial move happens two weeks later, when he dealt prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schulz to the Montreal Canadiens for goalie Jaroslav Halak. The quiet, Slovakian-born netminder would tend the crease 159 times for the Blues, putting up respectable stats (83-47-19, .916 save percentage (SV%), 2.23 goals against average (GAA)). He would also play a part in one of the riskier trades Armstrong would make a few years down the road that put the cosmic tumblers into motion that finally unlocked the winning combination.
Armstrong Makes His First Deals
The first trade that directly contributed to the championship roster occurred eight years ago and started a relationship with Armstrong’s favorite trade partners, the Buffalo Sabres.
Feb. 28, 2011
No longer producing as a top-liner, right winger Brad Boyes was shuffled off to Buffalo in exchange for the Sabres’ second-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Who did the Blues select? None other than defenseman Joel Edmundson, who would suit up for 22 games in the Blues historic playoff run.
April 1, 2013
Armstrong pilfers stalwart defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames for the price of a first-round pick and two prospects – defenseman Mark Cundari and goaltender Reto Berra.
Six years later, wearing No. 19 for the Blues, the unflappable blueliner would prove pivotal in the march to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
July 10, 2013
David Perron is traded to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Magnus Paajarvi and a 2014 second-round pick. On the surface, this trade was ugly. Paajarvi never developed his ‘A’ game, while Perron went on to deliver 57 points for the Oilers in his first season. The only saving grace was the second-round pick. The Blues nabbed Moncton Wildcats center, Ivan Barbashev. He, too, would find his name being etched on the Cup in the years to come.
The All-In Trades That Fall Flat
Feb. 28, 2014
Four days before the 2014 NHL trade deadline, Armstrong pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade, sending Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, a 2015 first-round pick and a 2016 third-rounder to the Sabres for goalie Ryan Miller and former first-round draft pick Steve Ott.
Despite posting very similar numbers to Ryan Miller (Halak: 40 games played, .917 SV%, 2.23 GAA, Miller: 40 games played, .923 SV%, 2.72 GAA), Armstrong had decided Halak was not the one to lead the Blues glory, even though he put on a brave face with the press just 24 hours before the swap.
“St. Louis historically has been a graveyard for goaltenders,” Armstrong said. “I’m not being critical of the fans, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve ever been happy with who’s in the net. Jaro doesn’t deserve to have the past put on him.”(from ‘Ryan Miller trade: 40 years of St. Louis Blues history led to deal with Sabres,’ SBNation.com, 3/1/2014)
The Blues and Miller were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks in a series that included four overtime games, including a triple-overtime thriller to start the series. To make matters worse, Miller decided to test free agency in the summer, bolting from St. Louis by inking a three-year, $18 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks.
While none of the players involved directly impacted the 2019 team, this gutsy move would define Armstrong’s willingness to go all-in when he feels the time is right.
July 2, 2015
T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer. Dumping 2014 Winter Olympic hero T.J. “Sochi”, the Blues acquired grizzled veteran Troy Brouwer, minor league goalie Pheonix Copley, and a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. While in the short-term, this trade helped push the Blues to the 2016 Western Conference Final, Brouwer turned out to be a single-season rental and skipped town to the Calgary Flames.
More than the marquee names, Copley and the third-round pick would contribute significantly to the parade down Market Street four summers in the future.
June 24, 2016
The Blues traded the aforementioned third-round pick and their first-round pick (28th) back to Washington in exchange for the Capitals pick at number 26. The Blues selected rangy 6-foot-5 University of Connecticut forward, Tage Thompson. While the former Huskie didn’t sell a lot of sweaters, he too would play a pivotal role in the Blues’ fairytale season.
Wheeling and Dealing, Berube, and the Schenn Miracle
During peak trading periods, the late and beloved general manager Ron Caron (1983-94) was fond of saying “the meat is on the burner.” In no year was this truer than 2017-18. Doug Armstrong was busy cooking up deals that would further define the 2019 champs.
Feb. 27, 2017
Kevin Shattenkirk to the Capitals. With previous attempts to deal the power-play quarterback failing due to Shattenkirk’s unwillingness to sign an extension as part of a trade, Armstrong swapped the blueliner and Pheonix Copley to the Capitals in exchange for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a 2017 first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round draft pick in 2019.
Sandwiched between player trades, Armstrong pulled off a coaching move that proved to be prophetic. The Blues had decided not to renew its primary affiliation with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, which left then-head coach Craig Berube at loose ends. Armstrong quickly convinced the former NHL enforcer to join the club as an assistant coach on Mike Yeo’s bench. Just as Armstrong had done with Mike Yeo – having him serve as a “coach in waiting” – Berube was in position should Armstrong need to replace Yeo. It’s important to remember is that Berube had just coached the likes of Barbashev, Vince Dunn, Sammy Blais, and one Jordan Binnington while in Chicago.
During the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, Doug Armstrong made some peculiar choices in who he protected and made available. The list of keepers included Paul Stastny, Patrick Berglund, and Vladimir Sobotka. Meanwhile, David Perron – who had signed with the Blues for a second time in his career just a year early – was left adrift and quickly snagged by the debutante Las Vegas Knights. Perron would become a critical piece of that team’s shocking run to the Cup Final in its inaugural season. The only other team to do that? The Blues.
June 21, 2017
In what most Blues’ fans would consider Armstrong’s second-biggest miracle, the general manager was able to dump Jori Lehtera and the horrendous contract Armstrong himself had gifted the Finnish skater for centerman Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers. To sweeten the deal, Armstrong forfeited a 2017 first-round pick (27th overall) and a conditional 2018 first-round pick.
June 23, 2017
The Blues selected Robert Thomas, 20th overall, from the OHL’s London Knights. His puck-dangling skills and vision had him marked for an early NHL arrival. He would make the Blues team out of camp in 2018-19, and help the Blues win a Cup while still a teenager.
June 24, 2017
The smiling enforcer and fan favorite, Ryan Reaves, is sent to the Stanley Cup holders, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Most eyeball the first-round pick Armstrong nabbed to replace the one in the Schenn/Lehtera deal – who would become Klim Kostin. Shrewdly, Armstrong also finagled Oscar Sundqvist from his counterpart, Jim Rutherford. With only 28 NHL games to his name, Sundqvist would transform from a trade throw-in and become a key component on the Blues Cup roster.
The 2017-18 season did not pan out the way the experts, nor Doug Armstrong, had envisioned. At the trade deadline, just one point out of playoff contention, Armstrong flipped Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets. Remember, Stastny was one of the players protected in the Vegas draft. A six-game losing streak forced Armstrong’s hand.
“Two or three weeks ago I didn’t envision this (trading Stastny) being an option today,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “We were, I don’t want to say comfortably in (the playoffs), but we were in the top portion of our conference and our division, and the last couple of weeks we haven’t played to a level that kept us there.”(source – Thomas – “Stastny shipped to Jets as slumping Blues turn into sellers at trade deadline” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2/26/2018)
Needing only a tie in their final game of the season to clinch a playoff berth, the Blues lost to the Colorado Avalanche. While the picks he received wouldn’t factor in the Cup run, the Stastny trade created a serious void at center which would need filling. And oh boy, was it ever filled.
The Stanley Cup Roster Comes Into Focus
That summer, Armstrong turned from seller to buyer as he quickly made a series of dazzling moves that put the hockey world on notice: The St. Louis Blues were all in.
July 1, 2018
Perron comes back for a third stint, this time with Stanley Cup Final experience gained while in the Mojave Desert.
July 1, 2018, Part II
Armstrong signs former Toronto Maple Leafs’ center Tyler Bozak to a three-year, $15 million contract. When the Regina, Saskatchewan native penned his heartfelt goodbye to the Maple Leafs fans, the eye-catching quote read: “I want to win a Cup. So damn bad. That’s why I signed in St. Louis. There’s your headline. Print it.”
July 1, 2018 will be forever be remembered as the day Armstrong made the biggest deal of his career. Remember those players he had protected in the expansion draft? Armstrong packaged Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, along with Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick, in a franchise-altering deal with his favorite trade partners, the Sabres.
In return, the Blues received just a single player. A player who said he had, at times, lost the love of the game. A player who in 11 months would be a Selke Trophy winner, a Conn Smythe trophy winner, and a Stanley Cup winner. Ryan O’Reilly. The luck of the Irish indeed.
Of course, this list cannot be complete without mentioning the acquisition of Oakville, Missouri native, Pat Maroon on July 10, 2018. A low-cost, low-risk move, Armstrong was able to bring the player known as the “Big Rig” back home. Though he had a somewhat disappointing regular season, Maroon’s Game 7, double-overtime winner against the Dallas Stars propelled the team to the Western Conference Final.
Not surprising for a franchise that waited 51 years for its first taste of champion champagne, building this team took what felt like an eternity. It took some exceptional drafting, from sure-fire first-rounders like Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko to great finds like Colton Parayko (86th, 2012) and Sammy Blais (176th, 2014). It also took a helpful dose of puck luck along the way, like having Jordan Binnington climb from fourth on the depth chart to back-stopping all 16 Stanley Cup playoff wins as a rookie.
So it only makes sense that it was number thirteen to change the fortunes of this seemingly cursed franchise forever.
Dyed-in-wool Blues fan living behind enemy lines in Chicago. First-line aspirations, third-line skill.