Playoffs or a high draft pick? The 2009 Blues on what’s more beneficial in 2024

In 2008-09, former St. Louis Blues captain David Backes was in his second NHL season and considered himself friendly with Ryan Kesler. Then, in his first-career playoff series, Backes matched up against the sturdy Vancouver Canucks forward.

“He was downright ruthless in that series,” Backes remembers. “I’m like, ‘Alright, this is for keeps, this is no BS, and you know what — if you’ve got to lose friends over winning a playoff series, that’s fine when the stakes are this high.’ That was Game 1 when I learned that lesson, and that’s just Round 1. It only goes up from there.”

The Blues were swept by Vancouver in four games and didn’t qualify for the playoffs the next two seasons. But that experience against the Canucks stuck with Backes when they returned to the postseason in 2012 — the first of seven trips in eight years, culminating with the Stanley Cup in 2019.

Backes, of course, wasn’t around for the Cup, but a few others — Alexander Steen and David Perron (gone and returned) — were. You may not be able to connect the dots between that series and the team on the ice a decade later because of the significant roster turnover, but it would be fair to say that it set in motion the foundation for the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals in 2016 and eventually a championship.

“I certainly think so,” Backes says. “If everyone recalls, you had management saying, ‘This isn’t our time quite yet, and we’re going to continue to build this slowly instead of trying to take jumps at the trade deadline and acquire more players.’

“We were a hard-nosed team that, when guys did get shuffled in, it took a year or two to see what the culture is and for them to buy in, until they go, ‘This is worth it.’ Then you get back in the playoffs, it all starts to click and things are looking up.”

The current Blues similarly appear years away from competing for the Cup, but as they enter the final stretch of 2023-24, there’s been a debate about what would be more beneficial: making the playoffs or falling out of the race and securing a higher draft pick.

To analyze that question, The Athletic took a look back at the positives from that playoff trip 15 years ago — as well as its cost in the draft.

It may help you decide which way you’d like to see the rest of the season unfold.

In 2008-09, the Blues went 25-9-7 in the second half of the season, which was the best mark in the NHL.

But because the current Blues have 13 regular-season games left, beginning Thursday in Ottawa, let’s look at the final 13 games in 2008-09. The Blues went 9-2-2, finishing with 92 points and the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

So before the Blues would find out what the playoffs were all about, they were benefitting from playing meaningful games in March and April.

“Do you realize the difference in your mindset when you go to the rink for a game or practice when you’re in the mix compared to when you’re not? It’s night and day,” former Blues enforcer Cam Janssen says. “When you have young guys on a team like that, the thought of, ‘We need this game,’ it’s so healthy. It’s just a completely different mindset, like, ‘We’ve still got this! Let’s go!’ It brings the best out of everybody.”

Among the reasons for the Blues’ run to the playoffs was 22-year-old rookie T.J. Oshie, who had 14 goals and 39 points in 57 regular-season games. In the final 20 games, he had five goals and 16 points, including four multi-point games.

“This is when Osh became gigantic in town,” Janssen says. “I remember when he was dominating in that stretch, they’re chanting his name and he’s becoming an absolute superstar. The Blues were saying, ‘Come grow with us,’ and we were like, ‘Nah. You know what? We can squeak in.’ And a lot of those young guys really stepped up to the plate.”

The last thing the players were thinking about, understandably, was where the Blues would be drafting.

“We didn’t care about the pick,” Blues defenseman Barret Jackman says. “That stretch was probably one of the more memorable ones I had playing for the Blues. It just felt like every game we went into, we were in a dogfight. We just felt if we could hang around, we were going to win the game. It wasn’t about making the playoffs. It was just having a good stretch run and building toward the next year.”

On the final day of the regular season, the Blues blanked the Colorado Avalanche 1-0 on a 28-save shutout by Chris Mason, pulling into a tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets at 92 points and jumping to the sixth seed because they owned the tiebreaker.

While the Blues avoided a first-round matchup with the San Jose Sharks, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with 117 points, though a 100-point Canucks team was no slouch, as they’d prove in the ensuing sweep, though three games were decided by one goal, including 3-2 in overtime in Game 4.

“Along with Kesler, it’s (Roberto) Luongo and (Daniel and Henrik Sedin),” Backes says. “I mean, the firepower that they had. They weren’t blowouts, but it was four games and you were out of it. I remember it being like, ‘Hey, you guys made the playoffs and it was a nice stepping stone, but you’re not ready to play with the big boys and there’s still a lot of work to be done.’”

Backes, who was 24, had one goal and three points in the four games. Perron, 20, had two points. Oshie and Berglund, 20, had none.

“That took Osh and Perron and all of those guys, it took their mindset to a different level,” Janssen says. “Your maturity level goes from one level to another because now it’s the best of the best. They’re going to smack you in the face, and it’s going to be a wake-up call.

“It brings the team together in such a way that it helps the younger kids understand what it takes. In the playoffs, you’re pale, you’re skinny, you’re dehydrated and you’re miserable, but you become a man. The next year, you’re like, ‘Now I get it.’”

There were lessons for the veterans, too, such as Jackman, who was 27 at the time and in his third postseason.

“Just how to be a leader through a rebuilding process, and the inexperience of rookies, and how to pass on knowledge,” Jackman says. “Also, just how hard it is to get to the playoffs, let alone win. It shows you how every game matters, especially the first half of the year, so you’re not grinding at the end just to get in and wear yourself out.

“The next year, seeing what everybody could give from within, it was more valuable than missing the playoffs by a few points and wondering what we could’ve done better. It was a good taste for all those guys that got the taste.”

So what did that sip of the playoffs cost the Blues in the draft? There’s no scientific way to know, but we can go back and look at what could have happened.

On March 16, 2009, the Blues were 10th in the West with 72 points — two points out of the eighth playoff spot. What if they had posted a .500 points percentage over the final 13 games instead of .769 (9-2-2)?

If the Blues had gone, say, 5-5-3 for 13 points, they would have finished at 85 points instead of 92, tying Edmonton for 11th place. As a result of making the playoffs and dropping in the draft, the Blues received the 17th pick and selected Swedish defenseman David Rundblad.

What if the Blues had instead picked 10th?

That’s where the Oilers ended up, using the pick on forward Magnus Paajarvi. After Paajarvi and before Rundblad at No. 17, the draft went as follows: Ryan Ellis, Calvin de Haan, Zack Kassian, Dmitri Kulikov, Peter Holland and Nick Leddy.

So the Blues could’ve had Ellis or Leddy and wound up with Rundblad. On the surface, that might seem like a negative for having made the playoffs. But as it turned out, that wasn’t all bad.

A year later, the team drafted Jaden Schwartz at No. 14, then traded Rundblad to the Ottawa Senators for No. 16, using that pick on Vladimir Tarasenko, who after playing 11 seasons with the Blues, ranks No. 5 all-time in franchise goals (262) and points (553).

Rundblad played 113 games in a five-year NHL career with the Senators, then-Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks.

It just goes to show the randomness of draft success, especially in that range. Studies by everyone from Carolina Hurricanes assistant general manager Eric Tulsky to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn have shown that beyond the top five or six picks, average values flatten, in large part because the results from year to year are so up and down.

There is, of course, potential that the Blues could get a better player higher up in this year’s draft than they might have in 2009, but the way it played out 15 years ago illustrates that it’s a crapshoot.

“There are obviously diamonds in the rough and drafts that are super deep, but unless you’re a top-three pick, or maybe top-five, those aren’t sure things and they’re not always franchise-type players,” Backes says. “So the idea that you’re going to go from a playoff hunt this time of year to a top 10 pick is probably a fallacy.”

That’s why the players on that roster believe it’s more important to get the playoff experience.

“People are like, ‘Let’s tank!’” Janssen says. “No! Try to get in. Like, God, try as hard as you can, get in. You don’t think about the draft picks. You know who’s thinking about draft picks? Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim. Those picks are going to be meaningful. But you’re still going to get a pick later, and you never know who you’re picking.

“This fanbase deserves it. It’s been two years now that the team hasn’t been great, and they’re still coming to support you. You get this city pumped up and you never know what’s going to happen. You owe it to them and the ownership group that spends up to the cap. And the young kids on this team need to feel the playoff pressure.”

Jackman couldn’t agree more.

“It would be huge,” he says. “Having (Jake) Neighbours battling in front of the net in high-pressure situations, and (Matthew) Kessel the same way. Having those young guys get a taste, and just seeing how much every shift and every possession of the puck matters in the playoffs, those guys will be able to draw on that. Good, young guys learn from that and elevate.

“And (Blues general manager) Doug Armstrong will get a good taste, too, of what he has and what kind of roles those guys can actually play on a championship team. I think it’s good for everybody.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top