BOSTON – High draft picks for sure. Big money sometimes. That's a generally accepted recipe for successfully building your team in the NHL.
The combatants in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final here Wednesday night in TD Garden don't follow that formula at all. The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are the composite results of a good deal of luck, but are also the works of shrewd moves by their respective front offices.
There's not a single Top 10 draft pick on the Boston Cup final roster. Not one. The only one the Blues have is captain Alex Pietrangelo, taken No. 4 in 2008 behind Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and current Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Boston has 10 free agents, but we're not talking July 1 Stupid Season signees either. Four were simply undrafted adds to the organization like the Sabres did last year with Swedish defenseman Lawrence Pilut. And names like Torey Krug, Connor Clifton, Noel Acciari and Karson Kuhlman have all contributed in this series.
There are five trade acquisitions, including the deadline additions in February of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson.
There are nine draft picks on the Boston roster, three from round one. Stud defenseman Charlie McAvoy, taken No. 14 at the 2016 draft in Buffalo, came six spots after the Sabres took Alexander Nylander (ouch) in a year when most observers felt they needed help on defense. Jake DeBrusk was No. 14 in 2015 and David Pastrnak was No. 25 in 2014.
The Blues, meanwhile, have 12 draft picks. They have 2018 free agents Pat Maroon, David Perron and Tyler Bozak, and they have eight trade acquisitions. They are highlighted by the 2017 fleecing of Philadelphia for Brayden Schenn and the 2018 trade with the Sabres that brought Ryan O'Reilly in what might rate as the best 1-for-5 deal in NHL history.
The genesis of Boston's decadelong run of dominance really goes back to a one-week span in the summer of 2006.
The Sabres were coming off their Game 7 loss at Carolina in the Eastern Conference final while the Bruins were coming off a last-place finish in the Northeast Division. It was a 74-point season that rates as Boston's lowest since 2000.
On June 24 of that year, the Bruins drafted Phil Kessel (No. 5), Milan Lucic (50) and Brad Marchand (71), and hoodwinked the Toronto Maple Leafs by trading goaltender Andrew Raycroft for an unknown Finn named Tuukka Rask whom the Leafs had taken in the first round the previous year. Seven days later, Boston hit free agency and signed defenseman Zdeno Chara and center Marc Savard.
Look at the consistency it's all produced.
The Bruins have finished with at least 93 points in 11 straight full seasons and projected to 106 points during the 2013 lockout season. They've made the playoffs in eight of the last 10 years.
"This is a tough city. You've got to keep up with the Joneses in this city and you realize that the expectations, the pressure as a player, you certainly welcome that," Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said as the series began. "As a manager sometimes it's challenging. You're trying to balance things and you just want to win, but the needle moves a little slower at times. But then you get real good players that are invested, you get a good coach that's invested with his staff, and you cross your fingers that you have pieces and that they come together and we're fortunate."
The Bruins have a rock-solid core, with captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask all part of the team that won Game 7 in Vancouver in 2011, and Torey Krug coming on board in 2013 as Boston got to Game 6 of the final before losing to Chicago.
"We're always trying to establish our identity at every point of the season, being hard to play against," Krejci said. "We had a tough couple years of not making the playoffs (in 2015 and 2016) but we were in it to the last game because of that identity. We believe we're in the season until the last game. That's how we grow stronger and in the playoffs we know how to handle tough situations."
At 21, McAvoy is partnered with the 42-year-old Chara and looks like he's on the way to be the Bruins' No. 1 blueliner for many years.
"He just keeps getting better," Chara said of McAvoy here Tuesday after the Bruins' final practice of the season. "He's always such a positive player. His ability to skate. Just a long stride to help him get out of situations. He sees the ice very well and makes great plays."
"He’s at a high level," coach Bruce Cassidy said of McAvoy. "There’s a lot of guys like that. Usually the best ones are. They see the game in real time and off they go. We give them tendencies, but some of those players are better off not being overly structured. ... Charlie’s that guy we try not to constrain. We’ll tell him part of the video, but for him, if you see a play you think you can make, we’re giving him the green light to make it."
This particular Boston season started nine months and thousands of miles ago, with a September preseason trip to China. Marchand rode piggyback on Pastrnak's shoulders on the Great Wall, in a signature moment of the trip.
“The big thing is just we've been through so much together this year that we just rely on one another in uncomfortable situations," Marchand said. "We rely on uncomfortable situations within our group and our leadership group. When we get through it, we get through it together."
St. Louis' season, of course, has been well-documented with its rise from last overall on Jan. 3 to the cusp of its first Cup thanks in large part to the call-up of goalie Jordan Binnington from the minor leagues. The Blues have been one of the NHL's most successful franchises over the years to not win the ultimate prize and this suddenly became their best chance.
"We were getting to the point is this group going to be split up? Are changes going to happen? There was a lot of emotion," O'Reilly said earlier in the series. "It was pretty miserable at times. Guys were frustrated and couldn't seem to figure it out. I think having gone through that, getting into playoffs, going through the ups and downs of situations and the ups and downs of it, we do a great job responding of coming back each next game and playing a much better game. That emotion we went through helps us."
The Blues are appearing in their first Cup final since 1970 but once had a streak of 25 straight years in the playoffs from 1980-2004. They've made the postseason eight of the last nine years, falling short only last season when the had 94 points and were knocked out in a wild-card showdown with Colorado on the season's last day.
While the NHL has morphed into a speed game, two "heavy" teams remain. St. Louis is particularly interesting because of its huge defensive corps, led by five players who are 6 feet, 3 inches or taller. The biggest is 6-foot-6-inch, 230-pound Colton Parayko.
"We believe in big defense," GM Doug Armstrong said. "We have had a lot of big defensemen over a number of years. It's probably not as physical of a game as it was those guys but they're like seaweed, they're tough to get through back there. Like going through a car wash sometimes when you got (Jay) Bouwmeester and Parayko up there. I think you have to have a good balance."
Armstrong's theory on defense applies to team building, too. It's not all just the draft, despite what you've heard swirling around the Sabres the last five years. But it's not all just free agency either. It's quite the balancing act. The Bruins and Blues prove it.