Blues geared up for challenge of being defending champions

Sports

St. Louis Blues’ Jordan Binnington (50) is congratulated by teammate Alex Pietrangelo (27) after their 5-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in an NHL preseason hockey game, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

Jordan Binnington still doesn’t look nervous.

For the first time in his career, he is going into a season as a starting NHL goaltender and for the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. No big deal.

“It’s the same game though, right?” Binnington said. “It’s a new opportunity. Obviously it’s a different situation. We’re at the top right now. (Opponents are) going to come at us every game. It doesn’t really change.”

Everything has changed for the Blues, who went from last in the league Jan. 3 to the first championship in franchise history. The roster is virtually unchanged, Binnington and coach Craig Berube get to be around for a full season and expectations are now through the roof for St. Louis, which must now deal with the challenge of defending the Cup.

“It’s going to be very different,” playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly said. “We’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins showed in 2017 that back-to-back isn’t a pipe dream. They also had a young goalie early in his professional career but did so with star talent in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

O’Reilly looks to be growing into that kind of game-changing player after winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward and taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP while gutting through a cracked rib. Winger Vladimir Tarasenko has star power, too, but the Blues won — and are expected to continue to win — as a team full of strong contributors committed to a structured system.

Any notion that they’re going to abandon that or play differently as defending champs is dashed with one look at Berube, who was rewarded with a three-year contract extension. Players have taken on the no-nonsense demeanor of their coach and seem to have perfected that approach facing a new obstacle.

“Our team’s just trying to look at it as another season,” forward Zach Sanford said. “We’re just trying to put the pieces together and get back together as a group and get back on top of our game.”

There’s no way to duplicate the adversity that sparked St. Louis’ worst to first run or the red-hot play that lasted from early January to mid-June. But O’Reilly believes the Blues learned a lot from the playoffs they can channel into this regular season, and those lessons are fresh in the minds of his teammates.

“I think we realized you don’t stop,” Binnington said. “To play at this level, you have to compete every day and you have to keep getting better. It comes together, right? You just have to worry about what you can control and let the rest take care of itself.”

O’Reilly still gets plenty of handshakes and congratulations back home and in St. Louis for winning the Cup and wants to hold on to that joy as much as possible. The 28-year-old on top of the hockey world wants nothing more than to keep this high going into next summer.

“You want to get better, and you want to do it again,” he said.

WHO’S HERE

The biggest additions came on the bench and in the front office. Longtime NHL forward Marc Savard joined Berube’s coaching staff as an assistant and will run the power play, and 2011 Cup winning Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli signed on as an adviser under Doug Armstrong.More importantly, the Blues re-upped Binnington for two years and $8.8 million and fellow restricted free agents Sanford, Robby Fabbri, Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, Sammy Blais and Joel Edmundson. Potential unrestricted free agent defensemen Carl Gunnarsson and Jay Bouwmeester are back, too.

WHO’S NOT

St. Louis native Patrick Maroon, who went home to play in front of his son and the rest of his family, signed a $900,000, one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Maroon scored the winning goal in double overtime of Game 7 against Dallas in the second round and will forever be a local hero.

KEY PLAYERS

Captain Alex Pietrangelo should be next up for a new contract. Everything on the ice with the Blues starts with Pietrangelo, an all-around No. 1 defenseman who can shut down opponents’ top players, move the puck up ice on breakouts and contribute on offense. St. Louis is strong down the middle from Binnington out to the defense and at center with O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn and Tyler Bozak. Like Pietrangelo, Schenn is in a contract year and seems to be a perfect fit with the Blues.

OUTLOOK

Nothing is certain in a competitive Central Division where the Dallas Stars added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, the Nashville Predators signed Matt Duchene and the Chicago Blackhawks could return to the land of contenders. Still, the Blues were legitimate contenders a year ago before a rough start and have the talent to be among the NHL’s best yet again.

PREDICTION

The Blues know how small the margin of error is in the playoffs, and the Washington Capitals showed that playing a lot of hockey can take its toll. St. Louis will be a top three seed in the Central and make some noise in the playoffs before fatigue catches up.

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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