Even as hockey leagues all over the world take a hiatus, the Last Word on Hockey team is still devoted to publishing quality content in the absence of live sports. Our NHL Rivalry Breakdown series hopes to fill the void. Each article will take a look at two longtime rivals and break down how the rivalry came to be, how the teams stack up against each other currently, and how the matchup may look down the road. Two Central Division foes will be featured in this piece: the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.
NHL Rivalry: Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues
While these two squads will always be stacked up against each other, they came into the league roughly 40 years apart and under very different circumstances. The Blackhawks entered the league in 1926 and became one of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’ teams along with the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers. That’s elite company. In contrast, the Blues entered the league in 1967 as part of ‘The Second Six,’ which also consisted of the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
For the Blues’ first three seasons of existence, they sat in the East Division with the rest of the Second Six. Only after the NHL realigned in 1970 did the Blues move to the same division as the Blackhawks, and they’ve been divisional rivals ever since. Their first playoff meeting came in 1973, where the mediocre Blues were bounced in five games by the Blackhawks. The ‘Hawks team featured legends such as Dennis Hull, Stan Mikita, and Tony Esposito, and they went on to the Stanley Cup Final only to be defeated by Montreal. It was a theme that would continue for many years – the Blues would fail to upheave the supremacy of the Blackhawks come playoff time.
The Playoff Series of the 2010s
The frustration was brooding for years and years until finally, the 2010s saw the rise of both Central Division teams to elite levels. The early 2010s saw the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups, while the Blues were building a solid core out of Alex Pietrangelo, David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, and others. In 2014, the Blackhawks edged the Blues in a six-game series that had four overtime games en route to a Western Conference Final appearance. However, in 2016, the Blues won a seven-game series against the ‘Hawks in the first round that effectively ended Chicago’s reign of terror, as the Hawks have seen limited success since then while the Blues have their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Chicago: Rebuilding on the Fly
Projected lineup when healthy:
Chicago’s problems certainly don’t stem from their first line. Kane is still an elite goal-scorer who is worthy of his franchise tag. While Toews has regressed over time, he’s still capable of being a first-line centre. DeBrincat is a nice young piece that’s on his way to being in the ‘elite’ conversation, but even, for now, he finds a solid home on the first line. Even the second line boasts some nice pieces – Kubalik’s rookie season has turned many heads, and could certainly make a case to be on the first line in DeBrincat’s place. Strome and Saad are confusing pieces who both have consistency issues, but are still okay pieces to have in the top six.
It becomes clear pretty quickly that offence is not Chicago’s problem, as the third line boasts some really good talent in Shaw, while Dach and Caggiula are young pieces that are still trying to figure it out but are okay for now in a third-line role. The fourth line gets a tad hairy, however, as although Nylander looks at home in an NHL uniform, Highmore and Kampf have both shown significant deficiencies and are more suited for AHL play.
If the Offence is Capable, What Gives?
The defence, however, is a fragment of the Cup champions of yore. No name in their starting six has any business playing above a second pairing role, yet someone has to, right? While none of these pieces are truly terrible, the entire core is just a mishmash of middling second or third-pair defencemen. No name is worth picking out of the crop, not even Keith or Seabrook anymore.
Goaltending hasn’t been a huge issue for them either. Crawford has proven this season that he can overcome his past injuries to still be a true starting goaltender in the NHL, while Subban has been a passable backup with the Vegas Golden Knights who gets another chance in Chicago.
St. Louis: The Depth of a Champion
Projected lineup when healthy:
Even though Chicago is a good offensive team, the disparity that exists now in this NHL rivalry becomes apparent at first glance. The first line sports two players who deserve to be in the elite conversation with O’Reilly and Tarasenko, and they’re complemented by a solid first-line piece in Schwartz. The second line looks even better, as Perron and Schenn would be two-thirds of a first-line on most other teams, while Thomas is a young piece suited for his role, but could grow in the future.
Other NHL teams start to seeth with envy when viewing the Blues’ bottom-six forwards. Sanford could pass as a second-liner on most teams, as could his centreman in former Maple Leaf Tyler Bozak. While Steen has had an illustrious career in St. Louis, his age and speed limit him to a comfortable third-line role now. The fourth line looks stellar too, as a passable piece in de La Rose is complemented by a stellar utility centre in Sundqvist and a good plug-in piece in Blais.
Separating Themselves From the Pack
Don’t look now, but St. Louis has the defence of a champion to accentuate this NHL rivalry, too. Pietrangelo chalks up to everything you’d want an elite defenceman to be, and he’s got a partner in Dunn that’s capable of playing first-pair matchups. Pararyko is a name that could certainly be playing on the top pair too if it wasn’t for Pietrangelo. Scandella also fits in just right on the second pair, as the defenceman enjoys a renaissance year in his own end. Gunnarsson and Faulk round out a perfectly acceptable third pair. It makes Chicago’s defence look amateur in comparison.
The Blues even have the edge in goaltending, too. Whereas Binnington hasn’t been quite as good as his spectacular run last season, Allen has done everything and more asked of him in a backup role, posting one of his better statistical seasons to date while giving Binnington a chance to rest. Crawford in Chicago doesn’t have that luxury.
Chicago’s future is not without some great pieces to look forward to. Dach and Boqvist have looked good in limited NHL action, and look to be top-flight pieces for them down the road. Nicolas Beaudin is close to cracking the surface in their defence core as well, so help is on the way in that regard. Throw in Ian Mitchell‘s name, and you’ve got a bright future ahead in terms of Chicago’s worst weakness. That’s not a bad place to be. These young pieces on defence will make for an interesting twist on this NHL rivalry in a few short years.
The Blues are not without some intriguing names too. Jordan Kyrou, while not a full-time NHLer quite yet, should be next year, as he follows a very similar path to Thomas in his projection. He’ll be ready to replace a player like Steen as he ages out. Players like Scott Perunovich and Mitch Reinke are interesting pieces on the back end as well, which could end up being incredibly talented if they’re able to make an impact sooner rather than later.
While Chicago is on the upswing, St. Louis shows absolutely no sign of slowing down their recent success and should hold the edge in this NHL rivalry for at least another few seasons. The likes of Kane and Toews may never see Chicago dominate the Blues again in their NHL careers, which many St. Louis fans would be happy with.
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