The clock at TD Garden showed all zeroes on Wednesday night when the St. Louis Blues stormed off their bench to swarm rookie sensation Jordan Binnington and celebrate the organization’s first Stanley Cup, a feat 51 seasons in the making. Following the stream of white jerseys and making their way onto a rink littered with sticks and gloves was the Blues management staff, including San Antonio Rampage General Manager Kevin McDonald.
In the first year of San Antonio’s affiliation with the Blues, McDonald was charged with overseeing a Rampage roster that produced key pieces for the Blues’ Stanley Cup. Binnington and forward Sammy Blais played big roles at the AT&T Center and even bigger roles in St. Louis, and several veterans who raised the Cup as part of St. Louis’ extended playoff roster were critical pieces in San Antonio.
No Rampage player left a greater mark on Blues history, and no player’s journey has been better documented, than Binnington. An AHL All-Star entering his first season with the Rampage in October, and a player ranked fourth on the Blues’ organizational goaltending depth chart and hoping to fight for playing time, Binnington seized the crease and never looked back. Binnington was twice the NHL’s Rookie of the Month, placed second in Conn Smythe voting for playoff MVP, and may earn more hardware next week as a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
“You talk about a 25-year-old goalie who had zero career starts in January and walks onto a last place team, and becomes the first rookie goaltender in the history of a game that spans over 100 years to have 16 wins in the postseason, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said McDonald. “I’m so happy for Jordan after the long journey he had that started in [ECHL] Kalamazoo to get there. He stepped up and was a difference-maker for six straight months, which was unbelievable and a testament to his level of play.”
At no point was Binnington’s talent more obvious than in the first period of the most important game of his life, a sparkling start to Game 7 against the Boston Bruins when he kept the Blues alive with several acrobatic saves showing the sprawling agility that Rampage fans saw for 16 games this season.
“He was the best player on the ice. That first period, when the ice was tilted and the Blues were opportunistic in scoring two goals, it was Jordan that gave the Blues the two-goal lead.”
Sammy Blais was also a physical presence in Head Coach Craig Berube’s bottom-six after being inserted in the lineup for Game 6 of St. Louis’ second-round series against the Dallas Stars. Blais never came out of the lineup, posting three points in 15 playoff games.
Blais led San Antonio in points per game in 2017-18 and, despite constant shuttling between San Antonio and St. Louis this season, he put up another 18 points in 26 contests.
“With Sammy, there was such a high trust factor. Sammy had 26 goals playing for Craig when they were in Chicago together and Craig was the head coach in the American League. He knew all the positive attributes that he brought,” said McDonald.
“That’s a credit to Sammy that he doesn’t need to score to be effective. He can play aggressive, finish hits, and make plays. I think one of the things Craig really liked about him was that he had faith the big moments weren’t going to bother him, that he could get the job done and he wasn’t going to be affected by playing in the second round or third round or all the way through. He was just going to go out and play his game.”
When Berube brought Blais into the lineup in the playoffs, he saw significant time with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron. When he decided to bring another Rampage alumnus into the lineup, Zach Sanford, he gave Perron and O’Reilly the assignment again. Sanford, who grew up in Salem, Massachusetts a Bruins fan, was a force in the final with a goal and four points in five games and the dagger tally that made it 4-0 Blues in Game 7.
“With Zach, it’s a crazy emotional story. He almost lost his chance to compete for the Blues in training camp because his dad unexpectedly passes away,” said McDonald. “[Jordan] Kyrou, Blais, and Robert Thomas, every other young kid in camp is having a great camp. He comes down to San Antonio just to get back in game shape and get ready to go play.”
Sanford tallied four goals and six points in seven games with the Rampage this season after spending 20 games with the Rampage the prior season.
“He went into the scoring lines, the lines that had to make a difference for the Blues to win, and he delivered big time.”
Berube received praise throughout the playoffs for pushing the right buttons, with Blais and Sanford two of the best examples. But his feel for the group, a team that stormed to the Final after sitting in last place in the NHL standings on January 3rd, was also partially thanks to his time working in the American Hockey League.
A veteran of over 1,000 NHL games who has served as a head coach and an assistant coach in the NHL and AHL since 2004, Berube was the bench boss in AHL Chicago, then the Blues’ affiliate, during the 2016-17 season. Before serving as an assistant with the Blues last year, Berube already had firsthand knowledge of Blais, Sanford, Binnington, Ivan Barbashev, and Vince Dunn in a head coaching capacity.
“I think that was a really important factor. There were a lot of guys that I think it’s important to have seen them at their best but also to know their personalities, the ins and outs and who is affected by pressure,” said McDonald. “Know who can dig in and play with the game and series on the line. I think Craig relied on that a lot in knowing these players.”
“Don’t forget, even before he took over in November, he worked at the NHL level for a season with these guys too. He had tremendous knowledge of almost every player in that room and obviously, he pushed every button and made every right decision every step of the way.”
Though they didn’t see action in the playoffs, several other Rampage leaders were thrilled to be part of the Cup celebration. Rampage captain and St. Louis native Chris Butler lifted a Cup in front of friends and family, and Jordan Nolan was part of his third Stanley Cup championship team. Chris Thorburn, a veteran of 800 NHL games, was the fourth Blues player to receive the Cup after it was handed to him by Alexander Steen.
“That’s what brings tears to your eyes,” said McDonald. “I sat next to Butler and Thoburn almost every game or spoke between intermissions. I somewhat understood how much it would mean to them and certainly, it was sweeter when it happened. To watch those guys who played in San Antonio take a picture with the Stanley Cup, moments don’t get much better than that.”
And for younger players like Mitch Reinke and Ville Husso, players who hope this will be their first of many runs into mid-June, they will take more from this experience than just photos and a ring.
“They got to see what it takes to win. I think both players understood that,” said McDonald.
“I talked to Mitch and I know he would have rather been on the ice, but I know he learned a ton watching them play. I think to watch those players and watch how Ryan O’Reilly prepares for a game and how Alex Pietrangelo executes on the ice and everything from conditioning and nutrition to rest, that’s an important step for these guys. They want to be there next year and now they’ve seen the highest of the highs. It’s become a reachable goal for those guys.”
McDonald, also a Massachusetts native, raised his second Stanley Cup almost 25 years to the day since he raised his first with the NY Rangers in 1994. Some members of the management staff had waited longer, like Blues VP of Hockey Operations Dave Taylor, who had been in the NHL as a player or executive since 1977 and won his first championship.
“It was almost my 20th year with the Blues so in the end, it was just about winning the final game,” said McDonald of winning a Cup back home. “[Senior Advisor] Larry Pleau grew up eight miles from the Boston Garden and he’s still with us, and [Blues Assistant General Manager] Bill Armstrong lived a long time in Rhode Island. It’s great for everybody from this [Boston] area, but it could have been Mars and I’d be every bit as happy.”
For several special Stanley Cup champions, the journey started in San Antonio, peaked in Boston, and will end with a parade on Saturday in St. Louis.
Everyone in the organization will be on Cloud 9 for quite a while after that.