When skeptics, writers, and fans all look back at Doug Armstrong’s management career with the St. Louis Blues, there will likely be a few moves made by Armstrong that will stick out: the trade for Ryan O’Reilly, trading a struggling highly drafted prospect for a first rounder that turned into Vladimir Tarasenko, bringing back David Perron time and time again, etc. But there is one move Doug Armstrong made that probably will not appear on his best career moves list yet seems to pay dividends every single game. It is the trade he made on Draft Day in 2017 and no, it is not the trade he made that day for Brayden Schenn. It is the second trade Armstrong made that day that sent Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick (Zachary Lauzon) to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round pick (Klim Kostin).
The Penguins were looking to add an enforcer and tough guy to their locker room, and Pens GM Jim Rutherford vastly overpaid for one. The first-round pick was the original highlight of the trade for the Blues, and the addition of Oskar Sundqvist seemed to just be a throw in to sweeten the deal for Doug Armstrong to part ways with a fan favorite. Sundqvist had been drafted 81st overall back in 2012 and was struggling to stay in the lineup at the NHL level, appearing in only 28 total games for the Penguins across the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.
Then after the Blues acquired Sundqvist, he played for the team for half of the 2017-18 season, a season in which the Blues struggled and ultimately missed the playoffs. Sundqvist again struggled to gain his footing in the NHL, tallying just one goal and four assists during 42 games. At this point in his career, Sundqvist had scored just two goals in 70 games. But despite his struggles, a former teammate of Sundqvist’s held faith and knew what Sundqvist could bring. That would of course be Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who voiced displeasure at the time when Sundqvist was dealt away. This is what #87 told former teammate and current Blues radio analyst Joe Vitale about Sundqvist in the winter of 2018 when Sundqvist was showing vast improvement in his game: “I told him, I think he’s doing okay. They aren’t really sure what he is yet or what he isn’t, I think they are going to slot him into the fourth line for a while. Joe, we never should have gotten rid of this kid. This kid is unbelievable, wait until you see what this kid can do.”
And oh, was Crosby right. Sundqvist made an incredible jump as a player both offensively and defensively in the 2018-19 season, recording 31 points (14G, 17A) in 74 games and served as one of the Blues’ best penalty killing forwards throughout the season and into the playoffs. Sundqvist entered the 2019 playoffs on the fourth line with Ivan Barbashev and veteran winger Alexander Steen. This line was of course a catalyst for the Blues, as they were typically paired against opposing teams’ best lines because they were able to shut down any and every line that they matched up against. But not only did the line contribute defensively, but the line generated a great deal of offense for a fourth line as the line combined for 20 points and nine goals overall in 26 games as the Blues won their first ever Stanley Cup.
The following offseason, Sundqvist was awarded with a four-year/$11 million ($2.75M AAV) contract extension to keep him with the Blues through the 2022-23 season. Sundqvist has proved again thus far to be a driving force for the Blues and is a big reason the defending Stanley Cup champions are still in first place in the Western Conference with under 20 games left to play this season. Sundqvist has unfortunately been riddled with injuries this season, missing stretches of several games two different times this season as he has played in 49 of 63 games for the Blues this season. Sundqvist has 12 goals and 11 assists this season and is just three goals from surpassing his total from last season and nine points away from eclipsing his total from the 2018-19 season. But even if Sundqvist plays in all final 19 games for the Blues this season, he will be at 68 games played with potentially better stats than last season where he played in 74 games.
Sundqvist has been big for the Blues on the penalty kill once again this season, averaging the third most average time on ice by a Blues forward during the penalty kill and is 7th in blocked shots by Blues forwards with 25. Sundqvist has also been huge for the team in terms of their transition game five on five when he is on the ice, as he averages the 7th most average time on ice five on five for Blues forwards and is 5th best in takeaways by the forward group with 32.
But perhaps the most compelling stat for Sundqvist and the Blues is their record without him. The Blues are 5-7-2 when Sundqvist is not in the lineup. The Blues have been hit with the injury bug hard this season, yet when you look at their record without an individual player in terms of man games lost, they are still winning team. This means when you look at their record this season when an individual player like Vladimir Tarasenko, Sammy Blais, Alexander Steen, etc. are not in the lineup, the team still has a winning record. Sundqvist is the only Blues player with at least five games missed this season where the team does not have a winning record in his absence. But when Sundqvist is in the lineup, the Blues are just a different machine. When he is in the lineup, the Blues are 31-10-8, . Similarly, when Sundqvist is producing offensively, the Blues are usually humming as a result as they are 13-1-4 when Sunny records at least one point.
The term “utility player” is typically only used in baseball, where a player can play multiple positions and provide value in several different ways for a ball club. But Oskar Sundqvist is as much a “utility player” as you can get in the NHL. He can play winger or center on any line, is an elite penalty killer, and can score goals with his heavy wrist shot backed by his incredible forechecking ability and effort. Need a five on five goal? Throw Oskar out there. Need a penalty killed? Throw Oskar out there. Need an opposing teams top line locked down? Throw Oskar out there. The guy can literally do it all on both sides of the ice against any team. A player who was once thought as just a trade sweetener and then who was considered one of the biggest disappointments of the 2017-18 Blues team is now one of their most valuable players and they struggle when they do not have him. Props to you Oskar, Sidney Crosby was right after all.