Why the NBA Suddenly Has My Interest

In case you didn’t already know, I’m from St. Louis. Although we somehow still manage to have more NBA championships to our city’s resume than 12 cities with a current NBA team, the last time St. Louis fielded a basketball team was during the year 1958.

I was not alive during 1958, and thus I have no recollection of professional basketball being played in St. Louis. Considering the fact that St. Louis was a three sport city for the first 17 years of my life and I was heavily invested in all three of those sports, professional basketball just never really interested me.

For me, the NBA has just always kind of been there, and recently I’ve been extremely critical of it. In the past, I’ve criticized the NBA for just being a dunk fest with some three pointers sprinkled into the mix. I never saw or heard of any defense being played, and when SportsCenter would fawn over a big dunk as a top 10 play, instead of a diving catch in baseball or an amazing goal in hockey, I would lose my mind and just get really angry at the NBA for being stupid.

As recently as 2015, I wanted no part of the NBA and would publicly and prominently announce that while almost dis-owning the entire sport. Basketball and I didn’t get along, and it was really a shame.

So, what changed?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at the sport of basketball as a whole. My brother has played basketball for as long as I can remember, and so the game has been in our household since the dawn of time. My dad coached and my brother played, so I have spent a lot of time around the sport in an intimate setting and couldn’t stay mad at it for longer than a week maybe.

The NBA has always been a different story for me. I don’t exactly know if I can pinpoint the reason(s) why, but I’ve just never liked the NBA.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always believed that the NBA is predictable. In basketball, if the starting 5 that you put out on the floor is better than the starting 5 that I put out on the floor, your starting 5 is going to win that matchup 97 times out of 100. And that’s just how it is.

In mostly all other sports, there is a great equalizer.

In baseball, the great equalizer is the pitcher. No matter how good a line-up is, if there is a pitcher on the mound that has it going on any given night, that line-up has no chance of hitting him.

In hockey, the great equalizer is the goalie. If you run into a hot goalie that’s just stopping every shot put on net, you won’t score and you won’t win. Teams have ridden a hot goalie all the way to a Stanley Cup title, and the goalie can change games singlehandedly.

In football, the great equalizer is the sheer physicality of the game. The amount of punishment that is dished out over the course of a 60 minute football game can be truly terrifying and can take the greatest players ever seen on a field and turn them into shells of themselves.

In basketball, the great players are going to be great. It’s rather predictable and I guess I just always found it boring. Every single year, LeBron and Kobe were going to be the show stealers, the Spurs were going to do something significant, and everyone else would just be pawns in the court of Kobe, LeBron and the Spurs.

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Photo by Mike Ehrmann for Getty Images

It was all just so predictable.

And, with that in mind, why would I want to watch teams like the Jazz or the Bucks or even the Dallas Mavericks when there just weren’t going to matter later on. Watching those teams was like doing homework that you knew the teacher wasn’t going to collect. Why put in the effort and waste my time when it just isn’t going to matter? And that lack of variety just turned me off from the game.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but that all changed for me sometime around last year. The NBA suddenly and rapidly expanded from being just a league about LeBron, Kobe and the Spurs, and turned into a genuinely fascinating showcasing of superstars.

I found myself attracted to players such as the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl Anthony Towns. I suddenly started caring about who was going to win the NBA title instead of just assuming it would be a simple multiple choice test.

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Karl Anthony Towns celebrates after throwing down a dunk. Photo by Brad Rempel for USA Today Sports

Would it be LeBron or would the Warriors do it again? Boy, the Hawks and Raptors are awfully good, what if they made it to the finals? Wow, the Thunder are really good and so are the Clippers; this is really interesting.

I had the benefit of almost being born into a new age of the NBA without much prior knowledge of what had happened in the past. I didn’t care that the Clippers had perennially sucked and that they were the laughingstock of the league for years, I was interested in them now because of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

I had the benefit of not knowing the age of dominant Lakers teams and dominant Bulls teams, and thus I got to know smaller teams that would have never had a chance in that era. I got to know the Milwaukee Bucks and the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz, among others.

The NBA suddenly fascinated me, and everything culminated during the 2016 NBA Finals back this past June. The LeBron James-led Cavaliers delivered the first professional sports championship to Cleveland since 1970 by defeating the Warriors in a thrilling 7 game series.

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LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate their first ever NBA Championship victory. Photo by Bob Donnan for USA Today

In a sport and a league that I normally would have paid no mind to, I was completely drawn into every single game. When the Cavaliers won that 7th game and clinched the title, I was hooked on the NBA. The very league that I had criticized and turned my nose up at for all the years of my life now had my full attention, and I’m loving every second of this season.

I am a unique fan of the NBA because I don’t have a hometown team and I don’t have a favorite team. I am as non-partisan as it gets in my fandom of professional basketball. I watch the game because I love the game. I love players more than I love teams. And I believe that’s part of the reason that I’m enjoying this season so much.

I don’t follow the highs and lows of one particular team, so I don’t experience any anger or sadness towards the NBA. I don’t have a team, so I really never lose. As long as I get to see the superstars that the NBA has to offer play quality basketball, I don’t ever lose.

And that’s also the main reason why the NBA has my full interest and why I am a fan. The plethora of superstars in the Association is incredible and more diverse than I think the game has ever seen.

Like I said earlier, I grew up in an era of the NBA that was dominated by Kobe, LeBron and the Spurs. Outside of those two players and maybe one or two others here and there, there were no real bona fide superstars that were worth paying attention to.

That is definitely not the case with the current NBA.

The league is infused with superstars, young and old, and it’s incredible to watch and witness night in and night out. And those superstars aren’t just in prominent locations like past years.

In the past, your true superstars have really only been in LA or Boston or Miami. Now, you’ve got stars from Milwaukee to Utah to Portland and Charlotte.

Last Friday, January 6th, ESPN was broadcasting a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks. Normally a random game that I would have no interest in, I found myself not only watching this game but watching the game after having looked forward to it for nearly the full day leading up to the telecast. I found myself completely enamored with Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and just had to tune in and watch him play when I had the chance.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo rises up for a dunk over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks

And that’s the sort of effect the NBA has on me now.

The league is so chalk full of superstars from coast to coast that I find myself circling games to watch and tuning in night after night just so I don’t miss an opportunity to watch these players.

This past Sunday night, January 8th, I found myself watching a double overtime thriller between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Detroit Pistons. It was 12:30 AM and I had work at 9 AM the next day, so why was I watching? Because C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond drew me in and made sure I couldn’t miss this seemingly mundane matchup.

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Photo courtesy of Portland Trail Blazers

The NBA has always been a star and player driven league. Players will always mean more to the league than teams will. The names of ‘LeBron’ and ‘Kobe’ and ‘Steph’ and ‘MJ’ will always mean way more to the overall fabric of the NBA than teams like the Lakers or the Celtics.

That being said, the NBA has never had more stars than right now. And that diverse and widespread star power has drawn in a previously uninterested and even inimical person like myself and converted me into a huge fan.

Excited to see where this league continues to go.

Why the NBA Suddenly Has My Interest

Los Angeles Chargers and the NFL’s Continued Self-Destruction

When the world finally invents time traveling, yesterday – January 11, 2017 – will be the day that NFL people travel back to and try to alter. Yesterday was the day that the San Diego Chargers announced their intended move to Los Angeles, and the NFL continued to implode on itself.

There will now be two teams in Los Angeles, including one that just feels wrong, to put it nicely. The Chargers flat out do not belong in Los Angeles. No one from the area wants them there and no one from the area will support them. Period.

The NFL will have to wait no later than week one to find that out, because in week 1 the Chargers face the Oakland Raiders and when the 27,000 seat StubHub Center is painted in 90% black and silver, the NFL and the Chargers will realize just how badly they’ve messed up.

Ever since the Rams and Raiders moved from Los Angeles in 1995, the NFL has desperately been looking to move a team back to LA. It’s why commissioner Roger Goodell ignored every rule in the rulebook to allow Rams owner Stan Kroenke to snatch his team out of St. Louis and move straight into the presumed open arms of Los Angeles.

Except LA’s arms weren’t open for a losing team.

The Rams suck and they’ve sucked for a long time now. But, being buried in the small midwest market of St. Louis, the NFL and everyone else has been able to mostly ignore how badly the Rams have sucked. But after a 4-12 season, they can’t anymore.

In their grand return to Los Angeles, the Rams finished 4-12 and somehow managed to be even worse off the field than they were on it. There was drama between now fired head coach Jeff Fisher and team legend Eric Dickerson. Unnamed team personnel were taking shots at each other anonymously in a Sports Illustrated article. The same Sports Illustrated article detailed an anonymous head coach calling the Rams a “Junior High football team.” Star running back Todd Gurley openly complained that the team was running a “pop warner offense.”

The list goes on and on and on without even mentioning that General Manager Les Snead traded away a bounty of draft picks to trade up to #1 in the 2016 draft and select the presumed franchise quarterback Jared Goff, which has turned into an absolute dumpster fire of a situation.

After a 4-12 disaster of a season, the NFL can no longer ignore the facts of the Los Angeles situation. LA has a market for the Rams, but that market will not accept losing and will not accept another team.

The attendance for the Rams’ home games at the Coliseum noticeably diminished all the way to the point that the stadium looked pathetically empty in a 42-7 blowout at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. As far as television goes, the Rams averaged a 9.4 rating. While in St. Louis, a much smaller market, the lowest rating the Rams ever got in their 21 years of playing there was a 10.4, and that came during the 2013 season when a St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series game was being played simultaneously.

Like I said, while the Rams were in St. Louis, the NFL was able to mostly ignore how bad the team was and bury them underneath all of the other teams in bigger markets. In St. Louis, sports are our thing, so on a Sunday afternoon we really had nothing better to do than watch our football team lose week after week after week after year after year after year.

Los Angeles is not St. Louis and they will not tolerate losing football.

LA is a sports market that already includes two baseball teams, two hockey teams, two college football teams that are more popular than the Rams or Chargers will ever be, and two basketball teams. The sports market was stacked and set in LA before the NFL even came knocking on the door a second time around.

However, the move of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles at least made some sense. The Rams were born and raised in LA, spending nearly 46 years there before being uprooted and sent to St. Louis. There was a holdover Rams fan base in LA, and it was extremely plausible that the Rams could succeed there. Putting their disastrous first season aside, the Rams’ move to Los Angeles at least made a lot of sense.

But, the Chargers? Yikes.

I have long been saying that the NFL’s insatiable appetite for money will be their ultimate downfall, and it’s starting to manifest itself in an ugly way that is making my prediction look startlingly true. It wasn’t enough to just move one team into the untapped Los Angeles market to try and take as much LA money as possible and put it into NFL owners’ pockets; no, the NFL had to take a second team and move them there too.

In an article written by Albert Breer this morning for Sports Illustrated, he points out that the NFL didn’t want the Chargers to move to Los Angeles and, “some owners feel bad about taking the team out of its home in San Diego.”

As much as I love Albert Breer, he seems to have been blinded by the NFL machine.

You really think the NFL doesn’t want a second team in Los Angeles? That they actually wanted to keep the Chargers in San Diego? If the NFL actually wants something, they make it happen. That showed last January when the Rams were moved to Los Angeles, and it’s the kind of power that the NFL just inherently has in our society.

The NFL can do what they want, when they want, so to paint them as some sort of victim of circumstance and say that they didn’t want to move the Chargers to Los Angeles is just a giant load of crap. The NFL wants to suck as much money out of LA as possible, and Dean Spanos is leading the charge after getting spurned by NFL owners in a vote last January that gave Stan Kroenke rights to the coveted Inglewood plot of land to build his $2.6 billion palace of a football stadium.

Spanos got rejected last January and is now rejecting the city of San Diego. When the NFL ultimately succumbs to financial ruin and is rejected from our society, we’ll look back on this day as the beginning of its long and slow descent into oblivion.

We have long been able to simply enjoy the game of football without any of the behind-the-scenes greed that the NFL has always been run with. But now that greed is being pushed to the forefront of the picture, and fans are no longer able to simply ignore it.

Attendance numbers were down across the league this year. Television ratings were down so far that the NFL panicked and began giving away games for free, live streaming Thursday night games on Twitter in an effort to “understand and cater to the modern NFL fan.”

The NFL is beginning to fade, they have nobody to blame but themselves, and allowing a vengeful Dean Spanos to move his Chargers from San Diego to Los Angeles is simply a microcosm of the problems that are so deeply rooted in the NFL’s culture it will be impossible to fix them.

In an extremely compelling and honest article, Jack Dickey of Sports Illustrated writes that, “An observer from outside the sports world could reasonably conclude that the NFL is actually a trade group for land barons, and that the game of football is just used as a front to disguise that.”

Dickey carries on, “Most owners seem to aspire to little more than keeping up with the Joneses – Jerry and Stephen, in this case. Each new stadium and each renovation pushes existing stadiums toward supposed obsolescence, hence the recent remodeling efforts at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Arrowhead Stadium, Bank of America Stadium, and at New Era Field. Lambeau Field has been renovated twice since 2000.”

The article is finished when Dickey writes, “Recall, also, that the supposed decrepitude of the Edward Jones Dome—it had fallen out of the “first-tier” of NFL stadiums—allowed the Rams to break their lease in 2015. What’s better than a new building when fans are footing the bill? A rising tide lifts all boats; construction seems to spur only more construction.”

Owners don’t care about winning football or the fans that love their game or anything of that sort. Owners care about how much their “business” – in this case, their team – is worth and whether or not they look better and richer than the guy next to them.

It’s the reason why the Rams refused to give the city of St. Louis even a remote shot at keeping the Rams, because Stan Kroenke didn’t look good or rich by owning a team in St. Louis with a stadium that looked pathetic next to the stadium the Dallas Cowboys play in. So he needed to move to Los Angeles and build a palace.

And now it’s the reason why Dean Spanos refuses to stay in San Diego. Spanos is willingly forking over nearly $650 million in a relocation fee just so he can move to Los Angeles and share Kroenke’s palace with the Rams when it opens in 2019.

Spanos wanted a new stadium built in San Diego, but he wanted the San Diego taxpayers to foot the majority of the bill instead of himself and his family – which is worth $2.1 billion, might I add. The NFL gave Spanos an unprecedented $300 million grant in an effort to help him build a new stadium in San Diego, but he refused to pay his share, and is opting to move the team to LA instead.

Spanos had a choice, he could either have used his $650 million to build a new stadium in San Diego and keep the team there, or he could use it to make a glamorous and bold move to Los Angeles and share the Inglewood stadium. We all know what his choice was, and it is a brutally bad one.

The Chargers’ move is doomed to fail before it even gets going.

The Chargers have been in San Diego for 56 years and have an extremely loyal fanbase that sell out Qualcomm Stadium every single Sunday to watch a team that has won 4 playoff games in 22 years and has only made 1 Super Bowl ever, which it got blown out in. By ditching those fans for Los Angeles, Spanos is essentially alienating one of the NFL’s most loyal fan bases while still counting on them to support his team in Los Angeles.

The Chargers have no fan base in Los Angeles. As LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke pointed out, “the Chargers aren’t even the second team in town behind the Rams. The Chargers aren’t even the third team of interest here behind the Rams and Raiders. The Chargers might not even be in the top-five favorite NFL teams in Los Angeles.”

Like I said, when the Chargers play the Raiders in week one of the 2017-18 NFL season, and the 27,000 seat StubHub Center where they will call ‘home’ is sold out in 90% black and silver, the NFL and Dean Spanos will realize just how badly they’ve messed up.

And there’s no looking back. Once the Chargers begin to fail in Los Angeles, there is no way the city of San Diego will welcome them back. As a citizen of a city that had an NFL team ripped away, the city that the NFL leaves behind has no interest in wanting a team back. The NFL is dead to us, and it’s now dead to San Diego.

Without even getting into the nitty gritty of the financial aspect of this move, I can already guarantee that it will fail just from the simple fact that the Chargers have no fan base in LA and alienated one of the most loyal fan bases in a city that smartly wouldn’t fork over hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium that would simply benefit a room full of billionaires.

Dean Spanos and the NFL got greedy and impatient, but what’s new?

The NFL has long survived on their greedy business model because they’ve been able to bury it under heaps of football that the masses eagerly gobble up. The NFL’s greed is coming to the forefront, and it will be the result of their ultimate demise.

Yesterday was simply a continuation of the NFL’s ruin, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love every second of it.

Los Angeles Chargers and the NFL’s Continued Self-Destruction

The Time is Now for the Blues to Trade Kevin Shattenkirk

Wait, wait wait; hold on just a second. The Blues are 20-13-5, currently in comfortable possession of a playoff spot, and the biggest current team need is defense, as the Blues have a -3 overall goal differential. So, keeping all of that in mind, why on earth would the Blues want to trade Shattenkirk, one of their top 4 defensemen?

Well, first off and in all honesty, Kevin Shattenkirk is not re-signing with the St. Louis Blues when his contract ends at the end of this 2016-17 season. Obviously, as a complete outsider with no real knowledge of the negotiations, I can’t say that for sure. But, what I do know is that Shattenkirk is from New York, has clear interest in playing in New York, and has not signed an extension with the Blues yet.

I believe that if Shattenkirk was genuinely interested in staying in St. Louis, he would have already signed an extension. From what I’ve seen, Shattenkirk has a clear intent in testing his free agent market.

And for good reason.

Shattenkirk can serve as an absolute asset to any team. He is a bona fide top 4 defender, capable of putting up 50-60 points a season and captaining a power play. Offensive defensemen capable of playing top 4 minutes are sought after in this league like water in a desert.

The Blues have one of these commodities, and they can’t let him get away with nothing to show for.

Now, I love to win as much as the next guy, believe me, but sometimes a team simply has to sacrifice the present to secure a more successful future. This is one of those scenarios as the Blues, coming off of an appearance in the conference finals, are again in position to make a significant playoff run with a winning team.

However, the Blues are not a young, up and coming team that can realistically expect to be building their way towards a Stanley Cup. This is a team that looks to be right in their window of opportunity, and either needs to maximize that window, or start building towards the future.

Top line center Paul Stastny is 31 years old and 2017-18 is the final year on his contract. Top pairing defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is 33 and not getting any younger. Depth players such as Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak are both in their mid-30’s, Alexander Steen is 32 as well and top players such as Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and David Perron are all in their primes.

The Blues definitely do have young talent such as Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko, and even Vladimir Tarasenko, still just a young 25 years old, but the team itself cannot reasonably be considered ‘young’.

With that in mind, the Blues’ window is closing for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, I just named 9 players off the top of my head that are either in or past their primes, including 5 of those players that are on the wrong side of 30 years old.

Secondly, the Blues have very little money to spend and room to navigate with their payroll. The NHL salary cap is currently set at $73 million, and the Blues are sitting at roughly $71.9 million, which – if my math is correct – gives them $1.1 million to work with. Or, in hockey terms, the Blues have two Ty Rattie’s worth of salary cap space.

So, aside from the fact that I don’t believe he’s interested in re-signing in St. Louis, the Blues have virtually no chance of meeting Kevin Shattenkirk’s projected $7 million per year demand. And, like I said earlier, the Blues cannot let Shattenkirk simply walk away in free agency without anything to show for him.

Now, the most reasonable thing for the Blues to do right now would be to wait right up until the February 28th trade deadline, and then trade Shattenkirk then. However, the title of this article was not ‘The Blues Should Trade Kevin Shattenkirk on February 28th’, it was ‘The Blues Should Trade Kevin Shattenkirk Right Now’.

According to TSN insider Darren Dreger, the trade market for defensemen is hot right now, and Shattenkirk would presumably go straight to the front of the line. Dreger mentioned the New York Rangers as a particular team looking for defense help in a “tough market, with so many teams after the same thing.”

When I heard Dreger say as much on the first intermission report during NBCSN’s intermission report last night, my interest was immediately piqued.

Why? Well, Shattenkirk is from New York and has pointed out his interest in playing for the Rangers or Islanders in his hometown. The Rangers are looking for a defenseman, and Shattenkirk just so happens to be a defenseman, so this works out quite nicely, eh?

So why should Doug Armstrong trade Shattenkirk now instead of waiting until the end of February and getting a better handle on his team’s ability to compete for a Stanley Cup? Because the Rangers are interested now, and the Blues can take advantage of that for an overpay.

By openly making Shattenkirk available right now, the Blues could beat all other teams to the market and spark a bidding war, considering that “so many teams” are after a defenseman.

Will the Blues be able to contend better in 2017 without Shattenkirk? No, and there’s no argument to be made that the Blues will be better off this season without Shattenkirk. In that light, it’s tough to look at the current state of the Blues and decide that making a trade right now that will make the team worse is the thing to do.

But Doug Armstrong must look towards the future, and in the future his greatest commodity is about set to walk away from the team. The Blues need to swallow their pride with Shattenkirk, deal him now while the market is hot, and get what they can for him before it’s too late.

The Time is Now for the Blues to Trade Kevin Shattenkirk

Winter Classic 2017: A Star is Showcased and Optimism is Born

What a way to start 2017, eh?

After slogging through a 2016 that included the Rams bolting for LA, no baseball postseason for the first time in 6 years, and another Blues season ending without a Stanley Cup, the city of St. Louis is clearly in need of a successful 2017 among the two professional teams.

And how about that for a start.

After uncertainty about weather rose over the past few days – the beginning of the game was unofficially delayed nearly 30 minutes because of a rainstorm this morning – the skies held off for St. Louis’ first outdoor game. And just like the name would have you believe, this game truly was a classic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, beating the Chicago Blackhawks is one of the greatest thing in the world just by itself. But in the Winter Classic? In front of a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium? On national television? By a hefty and dominant score line of 4-1?

It just doesn’t get much better.

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Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera celebrate the Blues’ 3rd goal. Photo by J.B. Forbes for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After giving up a bizarre goal just 62 seconds into the game, the Blues settled in and dominated the Blackhawks in front of 46,556 fans, mostly wearing blue – the first time blue has ever significantly outnumbered red at Busch Stadium.

Out-shooting the ‘Hawks 35-22, controlling 64% of the face-offs, and scoring three late goals, the Blues left no doubt about who the better team was today. If it weren’t for a strange bounce on a Michael Kempny shot, Chicago would have been held off the board.

Aside from winning one of the biggest and most important games in franchise history, the Blues played as well today as they have in a long, long time.

This was the first time since December 9th that the Blues have held an opponent under 2 goals, and only the fifth time all season. Jake Allen, badly in need of a good performance, stopped 22 of 23 Chicago shots and looked absolutely fantastic all day. Allen made important saves when he needed to, including a wild glove save on a shot that had deflected up and resembled a pop fly, and never once seemed to be the shaky, uncertain goaltender he has been for the first half of this season.

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Jake Allen makes one of his 22 saves on a Vinnie Hinestroza (#48) shot. Photo by J.B. Forbes for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Blues defense was steady and solid all day, allowing only 22 shots, including just 4 shots on Chicago’s 4 power plays, and holding the dynamic Chicago trio of Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to just 5 combined shots. And, while Chicago’s superstars were mostly invisible, St. Louis’ star shone brightest.

Vladimir Tarasenko was the best player on the ice all day long, and it wasn’t even close.

Aside from scoring two 3rd period goals, including the game winner, Tarasenko registered a game high 9 shots in 15:49 of ice time, and was a consistently dominant presence. Every time #91 had the puck on his stick, he was moving forward towards the Chicago net and looking to score.

But, for two periods, he was held off the scoresheet in frustrating fashion. Tarasenko was stopped by Corey Crawford on a 2nd period breakaway, and later rang a shot off the short side goal post. But his persistence was rewarded with two third period goals, and St. Louis star was awarded the game’s first star.

In the words of NBC’s Eddie Olczyk, “Every time Tarasenko touches the puck, this crowd get to the edge of their seats.” That’s not remotely exaggerated, and is a solid representation of the type of player Tarasenko is.

But, up until recently, St. Louis has been the only place able to truly recognize the transcendent talent that our #91 is. We’ve seen him score 40 goals, register 70 points in back to back season, and torment the Blackhawks with 9 goals and 13 points in his last 8 games against Chicago, including scoring 6 goals against the Hawks in the teams’ first round playoff series last year. However, among all of those accomplishments has never been a signature moment; one moment that can be looked back upon as the essence of Vladimir Tarasenko. At least, there hasn’t been a moment that occurred on a big stage.

Until now.

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Vladimir Tarasenko celebrates his 2nd goal of the game. Photo by Christian Gooden for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aside from being a spectacle for the city, this game was made for Vladimir Tarasenko. St. Louis’ first outdoor game at Busch Stadium and a division rivalry against the hated Blackhawks on national television, the stage was set for Tarasenko to have his signature moment and ascend into the ranks of the hockey elite.

Scoring the winning goals in the Winter Classic is a pretty special ‘moment’, so consider Tarasenko’s status as a superstar officially validated. He has arrived, and the Blues have arrived with him.

Aside from proving himself as one of the game’s elite players, Vladimir Tarasenko helped provide the Blues and the city of St. Louis with the much needed optimism that I mentioned earlier in this article.

Having played inconsistently up to this point, the Blues finished 2016 on a particularly sour note, getting shut out for the first time this season at the hands of Nashville in an ugly 4-0 home loss. Just three days later, the Blues have utterly dominated the team holding the top spot in the entire western conference, and suddenly things feel different.

I hate to use this cliche, but the Blues haven’t lost yet in 2017, and that feels important for a team and a city coming off a rough year. The Blues had an opportunity to start off their 2017 year on a bright note, and they capitalized on it in an extreme way.

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The Blues salute the home crowd after defeating the Blackhawks 4-1 in the 2017 Winter Classic. Photo by J.B. Forbed for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

This win feels like a launching pad for the Blues, putting their 2016 defensive woes behind them, fully embracing a winning brand of hockey, and maybe finally making that long awaited deep playoff run into June.

The Winter Classic was designed to be a spectacle that would bring the city together and showcase our passion and love for the Blues. What we got a was a dominant division win, a superstar showcase party for Vladimir Tarasenko, and renewed sense of optimism for the year to come.

Let’s just hope the Blues keep it rolling.

Winter Classic 2017: A Star is Showcased and Optimism is Born

Ryan Rants: Ronda Rousey

Think about ever great fall from grace that you have ever seen in sports. A few that come to mind are Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson and Michael Vick. And the thing that each of those falls had in common was that the infamous incidents which led to each respective athlete’s ‘demise’ occurred off of the playing field in some capacity.

Tiger Woods had a cheating scandal. O.J. had a double murder trial. Michael Vick had a dogfighting ring. Lance Armstrong got busted for steroid usage. Never has there ever been a fall from grace as dramatic as these that did not include ‘outside the lines’ influences as the primary source of demise.

At least not until now.

It has taken all of 6 minutes and 47 seconds for Ronda Rousey to transform from the most dominant athlete in the world to a washed up has-been; and the primary factors for her fall from grace did not occur outside the lines.

In just two fights – a second round knockout to Holly Holm that took 5 minutes, 59 seconds and a first round knockout to Amanda Nunes that took 48 seconds – the fighter that Joe Rogan once called, “a once ever in human history fighter” is now done. No, she hasn’t officially retired yet, but Ronda Rousey is done.

What I mean by that is that, no matter what she does from here forward, the image of Ronda Rousey has been forever shattered and is done. The unbreakable, unstoppable, “once ever” woman that transcended fighting and had a legitimate case for greatest athlete of all time is done. What we have now is a shell of that woman who simply wants to be left alone.

Before I really get into this article, I just want to put this warning out there.

I respect Ronda Rousey. I respect all of the work that it takes to reach such a high level. I respect how she has changed the fight game forever and all of the women she has impacted. However, I do not like Ronda Rousey, and that will very clearly shine through here. So if you’re here to read a positive view of Ronda, look elsewhere.

I want to start this by staying within the octagon, because that is something that I can at least somewhat factually analyze without too much speculation and subjectivity.

Within the octagon, Rousey has always had significant holes in her game. Her biggest calling card has always been her Olympic level judo game. She used her excellence in the clinch and thunderous takedowns to physically dominate opponents, take them to the ground, and transition into her patented arm bar. Her gameplay was foolproof through 12 fights and nobody had even come remotely close to beating her.

Then, she got exposed.

She tried to strike with three-weight-class world boxing champion Holly Holm and to say it didn’t go well is a vast understatement. Rousey got absolutely destroyed, needing plastic surgery after the fight to keep herself recognizable. And on Friday night, in her grand return fight against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207, Rousey got thoroughly mauled again.

If we’re being completely honest here, Ronda Rousey is not a good fighter. She is worse than poor on the feet and does not have a strong jiu-jitsu game. As I said earlier, her one calling card has always been an extremely high level judo game, which she uses to take an opponent down and transition into her one submission. Honestly, it’s amazing that it took 12 fights for someone to figure out how to beat Ronda Rousey.

Rousey’s game is comparable to that of a baseball player who’s only skill is stealing bases. Once they get on the base paths, they are extremely dominant and dangerous, but combating that skill is simple; just don’t let that player get on base. Easier said than done, but still simple. 

As Holly Holm showed last November, if you stuff Ronda Rousey’s initial takedown, she is useless and can be easily picked apart. In both the fight against Holm and Amanda Nunes, Rousey looked like an underprepared and untrained athlete attempting to get in the cage with seasoned strikers.

After her initial run of dominance, the fight game caught up with Ronda Rousey. She had no answer and was unable to adapt or adjust her game to match up with the game that had caught up with her. Great fighters make adjustments, and Ronda simply continued to stubbornly work her past game plan, and she paid the price for it.

One dimensional and too stubborn to make adjustments, Ronda Rousey was never a truly great fighter. After 14 fights, we now realize that.

Now, I’ve made my case why Rousey isn’t a good fighter, but I’m gonna take it one step further here. Ronda Rousey is not a great athlete.

Whoah whoah whoah, hold on a second. How can I say that an Olympic bronze medalist who dominated women’s MMA for over 4 years isn’t a great athlete? I can say it because all truly great athletes know how to deal with adversity.

Ronda Rousey let one loss break her.

If I’m supposed to believe everything that I’ve ever heard from people trying to motivate me, how you deal with success is not what makes you great; it’s how you deal with failure that separates the average from the great. And when Ronda Rousey faced the greatest failure of her entire life, she let it break her in humiliating fashion.

She spent a year away from fighting, cooped up in Idaho with just her boyfriend, Travis Browne, there to keep her company. She avoided all media except for a hefty paycheck from Ellen DeGeneres and talked about how she had contemplated suicide after her loss to Holly Holm.

Suicide?! Are you kidding me?! Please, tell me any other great athletes that have admitted to contemplating suicide following a big loss. Can’t think of any? It’s because every truly great athlete that has ever lived knows how to deal with failure. Ronda Rousey chose to sit and pout in Idaho for nearly a full year before deciding to make a comeback.

Now, the story of Ronda Rousey could be far from over. She could prove all of my words wrong and humble herself by coming back to the UFC, accepting a non-title fight against an opponent of far less significant stature, and try to pick up the pieces of her career. This could be just the beginning of a comeback story.

But she won’t.

Instead, Ronda Rousey will choose to quit. She’ll let two failures define her and she will quit mixed martial arts.

Now, I can understand quitting because you don’t have anything left to give. Miesha Tate quit the sport because she said she, “doesn’t care enough anymore.” That’s completely understandable. But, if I’m supposed to believe everything that I hear, Ronda Rousey is going to quit martial arts because she cares too much.

In a statement released by Rousey’s mother following Amanda Nunes’ destructive performance at UFC 207, the general public who criticizes Ronda Rousey for not being able to shrug off a defeat, “doesn’t understand that what made Ronda so successful is that she cares DEEPLY about winning to an extent that I don’t believe the average person can wrap his/her head around.”

My goodness, there’s a lot to unpack about that statement.

Firstly, as an “average person” myself, I believe I can speak on behalf of the people that Ronda’s dear mother is belittling in this statement. Yes, we get it, your daughter cares about her sport. Yes, we also understand that losing is hard – everyone has lost and knows the feeling. Yes, I can understand that I, an “average person” may not be able to understand just how deeply Ronda cares about mixed martial arts. But really? Am I really supposed to believe this?

Let’s look at some examples.

On the very same UFC 207 card, Dominick Cruz lost his bantamweight title to Cody Garbrandt in a hard fought, 5 round decision. This was Cruz’s first MMA loss in nearly 10 years. Afterwords, he congratulated Garbrandt, was gracious with the media, and vowed to come back stronger. The defining quote from Cruz’s sparkling press conference – seriously, go watch it, it’s incredible – was this: “This wasn’t a tough loss. Loss is part of life. If you don’t have loss, you don’t grow. This wasn’t tough, this was life.”

Now, are you gonna tell me that Dominick Cruz enjoys losing? Am I supposed to believe that anyone who can, “shrug off a loss” enjoys losing and can’t “wrap their head around” the extent to which a professional athlete cares about his profession?

Give me a break.

Let’s take another fighter for example; Jose Aldo.

In December of 2015, Aldo suffered the ultimate humiliation at the hands of Conor McGregor. For months leading up to the fight, McGregor belittled and taunted Jose to the point where Aldo seemed legitimately infuriated, yet Aldo remained quiet and insisted that he would let his fighting do the talking.

Then, on fight night, McGregor knocked him out in 13 seconds, took Aldo’s featherweight belt, and handed Jose his first loss in over 10 years.

Also was clearly devastated. He went into hiding for several months, yet collected himself and vowed revenge. He didn’t hide away and wallow in his sadness, avoiding all media. He sought out another fight to prove his greatness and swore that he would get his retribution someday.

Aldo’s comeback culminated with a convincing win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 to reclaim his featherweight belt, and while he continues to wait for his next chance at McGregor, Aldo has reminded the world of his greatness and proved that one night in December of 2015 was just an outlier.

But, if I’m supposed to believe Ronda Rousey’s mother, those two men’s ability to not be so totally and completely broken by their losses equates to them not caring about mixed martial arts to the extent of Ronda Rousey, and I just plain refuse to believe that. 

Ronda Rousey never won with grace, and she doesn’t lose with grace either.

Which extends into my last and final point, the fact that Ronda Rousey is no longer a role model that I want my future daughters to look up to.

What she has done for women’s MMA and women all over the world is undeniable. She broke barriers, stereotypes, and paved a way for women in combat sports; and I barely even scratched the surface of her global impact. In that right, her legacy is secure.

However, role models that I want my future daughters looking up to know how to deal with and fight through failure. The women in this world with true strength and true grit have been knocked down one million times and have gotten up one million and one times.

Ronda Rousey has been knocked down twice now, and instead of getting up, she’s curled up in a ball and told us to leave her alone.

Is that really the model we want our daughters looking up to? “Hey kids, remember that the most effective method of dealing with failure is to seclude yourself from society, seek sympathy and tell everyone to leave you alone so you can wallow in your sadness.”

It’s a powerful and poignant example of how not to deal with failure.

And, one last thing. Yes, I’m a clueless member of the media who is criticizing an athlete with a job much tougher than I could ever dream of, and I know that this will simply infuriate LeBron James and Jon Jones and Kobe Bryant, among all of the other athletes who can empathize with Ronda and encourage her to keep fighting and get back up.

But that’s what Ronda gets when she hides from the media. We get to make up our own storylines and narratives.

The queen is dead, and she’s not rising.

Ryan Rants: Ronda Rousey

Evaluating a Potential Carlos Martinez Extension

The St. Louis Cardinals have a long tradition of outstanding starting pitching. It extends all the way back to the inception of the franchise and has continued to present day.

This tradition is highlighted by names such as Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang teams of the 1930’s, Bob Gibson – the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, John Tudor – the best Cardinals pitcher of a golden era, and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Without fail, every single time one Cardinal ace begins to slip down the aging curve and lose his touch, the torch is passed onto a younger pitcher to become the ace of the staff. Most recently, when Chris Carpenter was in the twilight of his career he passed the metaphorical torch on to Adam Wainwright after the 2011 season, symbolizing the franchise’s full commitment to Waino as the ace of the staff.

Adam Wainwright is now 35 years old and coming off a 2016 season in which he posted career highs in ERA and FIP (4.62 and 3.93) while posting a career low in strikeouts. Not to really emphasize his age because Waino could come back and have a tremendous season in 2017, but at 35 years old, it’s hard to realistically see Wainwright re-discovering his peak form that lasted from 2009-2014.

And what a peak form it was, might I add.

But, getting back to the point, Wainwright’s time as the ace of the Cardinal staff is coming to a close. We are in the twilight years of his time holding the metaphorical torch, and it’s time to pass it on. It’s time for the Cardinals to designate a new torch-bearer.

And I can’t think of a better player to both fulfill this metaphor and become the next Cardinal ace than 25-year-old fireballer, Carlos Martinez.

In 2016, his second year on full-time starting pitcher duty, Martinez threw a career high 195.1 innings, while posting an ERA of 3.04, xFIP of 3.28, and a new career high in bWAR at 5.4.

Now, Martinez is entering his first year of arbitration this offseason, and will be predictably due a fairly hefty sum due to his excellent performance as a starter over these past two seasons. But, the Cardinals shouldn’t even allow him to reach arbitration and sign him to an extension as soon as possible, cutting all of the deadlock and riffraff that comes with arbitration hearings and negotiations.

In signing Martinez to an extension, the Cardinals are pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table and betting on El Gallo, thus passing the torch on to him from Adam Wainwright.

Before we get into what a Martinez extension would potentially look like, I want to quickly review why Martinez deserves this extension and the moniker of ‘Cardinal Ace’.

Taking a quick glance at his first two seasons, it’s a very impressive performance from a young pitcher, but it isn’t quite what you want to see from a guy that you’re gambling the franchise on. The numbers are good, but they don’t necessarily scream ‘ACE’.

Over his first two seasons as a starter, Martinez has posted a cumulative ERA of 3.02, FIP of 3.36, K/9 of 8.5, bWAR of 9.5 and 87 RAR – this is a stat that is like WAR, but measures how many runs above replacement level a pitcher is.

Among starters during that span, Martinez ranks 9th in all of baseball in bWAR, is tied for 10th in ERA, 21st in FIP, 20th in xFIP and 21st in K/9. So, judging solely off of these numbers, Carlos Martinez is a good pitcher who is teetering on the verge of becoming elite.

And, might I remind you, he is entering his age 25 season.

But, the most interesting thing about Martinez’s peripherals so far that points towards him really taking the reigns as the ace of the St. Louis staff came when I compared his career numbers to those of incumbent Cardinal ace, Adam Wainwright.

Like Martinez, Wainwright began his career as a reliever, exceeding his rookie limits during the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series run as the closer. Like Martinez, Wainwright spent the first two seasons of his career as a very good reliever for the Cardinals, having a cumulative FIP during his 2005 and 2006 seasons as a reliever of 2.91. And, like Martinez, Wainwright then transitioned into a starting pitcher role, having mild success.

During his first two years as a starter, Wainwright posted an ERA+ of 119 in 2007 and 132 in 2008. During his first two years as a starter, Martinez posted an ERA+ of 130 in 2015 and 135 in 2016.

Anyone else starting to see this parallel?

Wainwright then exploded into his prime years during the 2009 season, during which he posted a 2.63 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 155 ERA+ and 7.2 bWAR in 233 innings. Wainwright’s respective ERA+’s over the 4 seasons during which he was a starter after 2008: 155, 160, 147 and 153.

Again, Carlos Martinez is 25 years old, his career nearly mirrors Adam Wainwright’s, and Martinez’s first two seasons as a starter were better than Wainwright’s. Do you see why this gets me excited, now?

But, the question of this article was not, ‘Should Carlos Martinez get an extension?’

The question of this article was, ‘What would a Carlos Martinez extension look like?’

The crux of figuring out what a potential Carlos Martinez extensions will look like is all based off of Martinez’s projected WAR, and the market value for a win. Currently, market dollar value for one win is $8.0 million. Meaning that a player with 1.0 WAR would be worth – in a perfect world – $8 million.

Trying to project out Martinez’s WAR in the future can be a tricky exercise because, first off, his 2017 projections have not been released yet. Alas, trying to figure out how much Carlos Martinez will be worth through future seasons is very rough around the edges.

So what I did do is take an unofficial Fangraphs aging chart for pitchers and attempt to make Martinez’s career mirror this graph as closely as possible while adding on a 5% inflation to the market dollar value of a win every year.

pitcher-age-graph

So, roughly judging this graph, the total WAR for pitchers in their age 24 season – which Martinez was during 2016 – was 850. That number then roughly jumped to 1,000 during the age 25 season, 117.6% increase.

Applying this same math to Martinez bWAR, his 2017 value will be 6.35 WAR according to Ryan’s rough projections. If we also take into account the Adam Wainwright career trajectory that Martinez appears to be mirroring, this 6.3 WAR appears even more reasonable, as Wainwright posted a 6.2 WAR in his 3rd season as a starter.

Now, going back to the graph, the jump in collective WAR from age 25 seasons to age 26 seasons is approximately 107.5% – roughly 1,000 WAR to roughly 1,075 WAR. Increasing Martinez’s Ryan projected 2017 bWAR of 6.35 by 107.5% yields a Ryan-projected 2018 bWAR of 6.82.

As we can see in the graph above, the bWAR line peaks at the age-26 season and then begins to decline down towards zero. From age-26 to age-27, the decline is approximately 3.3%. From age-27 to age-28, the decline is approximately 6.8%. The age-28 to age-29 decline is approximately 15.5%, and the age-29 to age-30 decline is approximately 8.6%.

I’m stopping at the age-30 season on this graph because my ideal extension length for Carlos Martinez – both for team and player – is 6 years. This would buy out all three of his arbitration years as well as three free agent years while paying him during his prime years, thus maximizing his value.

So, applying this unofficial pitcher age chart graph thing as well as my super unofficial percentages, Carlos Martinez’s Ryan-projected WAR during the 6 potential seasons of this extension would be as follows.

2017: 6.35

2018: 6.82

2019: 6.66

2020: 6.20

2021: 5.24

2022: 4.79

Overall, during the 6 years on this potential extension, Martinez would deliver – according to my extremely rough projections – a total of 36.06 WAR. That is absolutely astounding value.

So, how would this look when calculating Martinez’s Ryan-projected WAR in combination with the dollar market value for a win?

As I mentioned earlier, the current market value for one win is $8 million. For the sake of this exercise, I will add on a 5% inflation to that $8 million number every year. Martinez’s value comes out as follows.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-1-08-54-am

So, according to the market value for wins and my rough projections, the Cardinals should offer Carlos Martinez a 6 year extension somewhere in the range of $320 million to match his value.

Is that realistic? Absolutely not. As much as I love Martinez, $320 million over 6 years is insane and should not even be considered by the Cardinals.

Market value is absolutely outrageous these days, and I knew that this exercise would yield an incredibly high answer to the question, “What is Carlos Martinez’s projected value?” So how do we try to figure out what his potential extension should look like?

Martinez is a unique case. He is a pitcher that has hit arbitration at the ripe age of 25, having two full and very productive seasons of being a starting pitcher under his belt. At 25, it’s both reasonable and viable to expect his value to only increase over the next few years as he ages into his peak years.

Right now, his value is high enough to reasonably warrant a pricy extension on its own, but when you consider that he should only get better? His value only increases. Thus, it’s basically impossible to find another player in the history of baseball that was in this situation and then compare the contract that nonexistent player signed and point to that as the blueprint for what Martinez should be extended for.

So bear with me here because this could be a bit of a stretch, but I have found a player that seems comparable to Martinez in the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka.

When signed in the winter of 2014, Tanaka was entering his age 25 season, like Martinez. The only difference between the two is that Tanaka had been pitching in the Japanese professional league since his age-18 season in 2007, giving him a much longer track record.

Anyway, the contract that the Yankees signed Tanaka to was a 7 year, $155 million deal; an average annual value of $22 million complete with a full no trade clause and an opt-out after the 2017 season.

Applying this AAV down to the ideal 6 year extension that I have in mind for Martinez, the potential extension total comes to 6 years and $132 million. And let’s throw the full no-trade clause and opt-out after the 4th year into the deal as well just for the sake of mirroring Tanaka’s deal.

To the naked eye, this seems a bit steep to pay Martinez. But when you project out his value, he could – according to my numbers – out-perform the value of this contract by nearly $200 million. So you tell me if it’s a good or bad deal.

Personally, I really like the framework of a 6 year, $132 million extension with full no-trade and an opt out. I believe this deal checks all of the boxes.

Fully committing to Martinez as the future ace? Check, this would be the biggest deal in Cardinals history both from an AAV and total dollar value standpoint.

Allowing Martinez stability and some control? Check, the full no-trade guarantees that he’ll be in St. Louis for the duration of the deal while the opt-out gives him the option of going back onto the free agent market after his age-28 season in 2020.

Not over-committing with too many years? Check, the 6 years all come during the supposed prime of Martinez’s career, which maximizes his value while not paying him too much during the downturn that his early to mid-30’s could potentially be.

All of these numbers are extremely raw and very rough around the edges so please don’t take them as fact or guarantee, but this has still been a worthwhile exercise in attempting to define and project Carlos Martinez’s value going forward.

Both sides are supposedly interested in an extension, the entirety of the Cardinal fan base is interested in an extension, so what’s not to love?

Go make it happen, Mo.

Evaluating a Potential Carlos Martinez Extension

Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1

The beginning of any sports season is a unique and fun time. Regardless of what happened during the prior season, there is a renewed and genuine sense of optimism and hope that this could be our year, that this season is going to be one to remember.

Here in St. Louis, we’ve been saying those adages for 50 years now, without fail, every October when a new hockey season rolls around for our beloved Blues. For 50 years we have hoped and yearned and cheered, and for 50 years we have had our hopes dashed, in often extremely painful ways.

But that doesn’t stop us from hoping, and it certainly won’t stop us here in 2016.

Coming off of an appearance in the Western Conference Finals that finally gave Blues fans at least some sort of a taste of playoff glory, however minor and quickly extinguished it may have been and felt. If the world were a perfect place, the Blues would be able to learn from and improve from their deep playoff run, and the 2016-17 season would be dripping with optimism and potential.

But, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the 2016 election, the world is not a perfect place. And, thus, while there is still a sense of optimism about these 2016-17 Blues, we St. Louisans have watched too many seasons of these Blues and become too conditioned to letdowns and failure to buy in too fully.

Is that sad? Yeah, it really is, but that doesn’t mean we will root any less hard or bleed any color other than Blue this winter. To say the least, the Blues look…..different this season.

Gone is the longest tenured Blue and team captain of the last 6 years, David Backes.

Gone is playoff hero and fan favorite Troy Brouwer.

Gone is Brian Elliott, the man who saved the 2015-16 season and delivered year after year of incredible goalkeeping, as underrated and underused as he frustratingly was during his time in St. Louis.

Gone is the poster boy of the ‘grittier’ Blues teams of the past few years, Steve Ott.

Ken Hitchcock, the man behind the bench for the past 5 seasons, is in his last year as coach of the Blues before giving way to Mike Yeo in 2017-18.

In are David Perron, Nail Yakupov, and a much smaller, faster version of the big and bruising Blues that we have become so accustomed to. The Blues, in their own words, will rely on “tempo and tenacity” in hopes of rekindling and improving upon the playoff success they experienced last season.

The Blues are younger, they are faster, they will play an up-tempo game that will focus on dominating possession and getting quick rushed up the ice. It’s new, it’s different, but will it be better?

That’s the question…

……….

WELL THAT WAS FUN, WASN’T IT?!!!!!

blues
Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski for USA Today

The Blues just beat the Chicago Blackhawks, at the United Center, 5-2; and for at least one night at the very outset of the season, all of our hope and optimism has been rewarded with a wonderfully satisfying win.

Despite giving up the opening goal to a Blackhawks power play unit that looked incredibly dangerous all night long, the Blues battled back to notch two equalizers and eventually pull away in a dominating third period.

Don’t let that 5-2 scoreline fool you, this game was tight and wonderful to watch.

Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Kevin Shattenkirk all tallied 3 points for the Blues, while Richard Panik and rookie Ryan Hartman scored the Blackhawks goals.

……….

As entertaining as this game was, it was actually a very strange contest to watch. Blues-Blackhawks games in the past have made their living by using a recipe that includes a lot of heavy hits, relentlessly physical forechecks, countless post-whistle scrums, gritty net-front battles, and just a general level of physicality and competition that is unmatched by any other rivalry in hockey.

This game was almost a complete about-face from the traditional style of play that is seen in a Chicago-St. Louis game. Both teams mostly lacked the relentless physicality that this rivalry has instead been known for, and this game was all about tempo, pace, and puck possession.

Instead of seeing David Backes and Andrew Shaw brutally battling for position in front of the net, a typical sequence tonight included tight neutral zone passing, a maze of poke checks from aggressive defensemen, and both teams looking to stretch each other horizontally. It was definitely different, and the Blues certainly seemed like the more effective team while implementing this new style.

St. Louis out-shot Chicago 34-19, won 60% of the faceoffs, and tended to dominate possession at times – the possession stats have not been made available from the game yet.

So, while both St. Louis and Chicago had a much different vibe and style to them, St. Louis’ play felt like a good different, while the Blackhawks looked like a shell of their formerly dominant selves.

……….

In my eyes, tonight was about as good as St. Louis could have hoped to look.

For a team that’s trying to develop and adapt to a completely different playing style, the Blues sure looked sharp for long stretches of time. Right off the opening face-off, St. Louis made a clean entry into Chicago’s zone and kept the puck buried in the offensive third for a good minute to minute and a half of solid possession.

There were a lot of really positive things that St. Louis did tonight. So, in no particular order, here they are.

  • The Blues’ power play was spectacular tonight. Capitalizing for 3 goals on 5 Blackhawks’ penalties, St. Louis looked phenomenal tonight with a man advantage. My main gripe with the Blues’ power play in the past has been that the zone entries are inconsistent and that it relies too heavily on a point man to run everything. Tonight, the Blues’ pace and speed helped them create clean zone entries with puck possession and time, and the power play had a much clearer willingness to shoot the puck instead of passing it around incessantly. It was refreshing and effective.
  • Combined with an outstanding power play was the always effective St. Louis penalty kill. Chicago’s power play will suffer this season without the presence of Andrew Shaw causing trouble down in front of the net, but after scoring the opening goal on a power play, Chicago was shut out on the man advantage in their next 3. The St. Louis defense was incredibly effective in forcing Chicago to make rushed passes and causing turnovers, and when the puck was cleared out of the zone, the Blues’ were aggressive in chasing it down and keeping possession in order to kill more time. An always terrific St. Louis penalty kill held its reputation strong tonight.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko led the team in shots on goal! The most dangerous goal scorer wearing the blue note finally decided that he needs to shoot more often, and it resulted in two goals and a constantly threatening presence every single time he touched the puck. Blues fans have long clamored for Tarasenko to be more selfish, which doesn’t mean hog the puck and try to do everything himself, but just shoot more often when the chances arise. Tarasenko was more willing to pull the trigger tonight and look what happened. More of that please.
  • Did anyone else see how aggressive Colton Parayko was in the offensive third? Tarasenko led the Blues with 5 SOG, and Parayko – the Blues’ next great defensemen – was second on the team with 4 SOG. He led rushes, he was a Shea Weber-type threat on the power play, he was a force on the defensive end – making 5 hits and garnering 3 takeaways to only 1 giveaway – and has clearly separated himself into the upper echelon of the Blues’ defense corps. It doesn’t look like Parayko is interesting in suffering through a sophomore slump in his 2nd NHL season.
  • Nail Yakupov possesses the type of speed that can transform a game and I was very impressed with his raw tools tonight. The man can absolutely FLY, and his handles are impressive as well. He does appear to lack ideal finishing ability at the net, but the Blues can absolutely turn him into a weapon. As I said, his speed can transform a game and create chances on chances on chances for his line mates. The Blues have the defensive structure to be able to cover for his liabilities on that end of the ice, so just turn him loose and let him fly all over the offensive end. He’s not a complete player, but if he’s used properly this could add an offensive facet to the Blues that they have never had.

…………

The hockey fire of optimism was already burning brightly in St. Louis following the Cardinals’ absence from the MLB playoffs for the first time since 2010, and tonight’s opener against the Blackhawks did nothing to dim things in any way.

Marching into the home arena of the most hated Blues rival and coming away with a convincing 5-2 win on national television could not feel any better, and the Blues looked as sharp as they probably could have hoped tonight.

Let’s hope they carry that momentum into tomorrow night’s clash against the Minnesota Wild in the team’s home opener in front of a raucous crowd in St. Louis.

Hockey season is back. It’s lit.

Ryan Riffs: St. Louis Blues Game 1