When the Blues’ 2017-18 season ended, forward Oskar Sundqvist sat down with coach Mike Yeo and general manager Doug Armstrong for the traditional end-of-season meeting.
Everyone agreed: It wasn’t a very good season for Sundqvist.
The center, whom the Blues had gotten in the Ryan Reaves trade on draft day in 2017, had finished the season with one goal and four assists in 42 games. He spent long stretches of the season as a healthy scratch, not quite good enough to make the lineup on many nights.
“We were on the same page,” Sundqvist said. “We had high expectations and it wasn’t the season I was hoping for.”
So Sundqvist packed his bags, went home to Skelleftea, in the northern reaches of Sweden (about 150 miles from the border with Finland at the northern tip of the Gulf of Bothnia), and went to work on making himself into the player he wanted to be.
It has worked. Sundqvist’s short-handed goal Thursday against Montreal was his eighth of the season, and he has long since passed the point of comparing what he’s done this season to what he’s done in the other three seasons, two of them spent partially in the minors, of his NHL career. He is tied for fifth on the team in scoring, behind Ryan O’Reilly (16 goals), David Perron (15), Vladimir Tarasenko (12) and Brayden Schenn (nine). At some point in their NHL careers, each of those four have scored at least 28 goals in a season, so their presence isn’t unexpected. Sundqvist’s is. He is on pace for 16 goals, which may make what he did this summer a template for future summers.
“I took a couple weeks off,” he said Friday, “and started my journey to be a regular player for the Blues and to play every game.”
When he resumed his training, he took the plan given him by Blues strength coach Eric Renaghan, combined it with a program with his trainer in Sweden, and went to work. A lot. The routines he did weren’t that different, but the amount of them was.
“I didn’t have a lot of days off,” he said. “I went to the gym almost every day and I’m happy that it paid off. Usually I’d done it five times a week, now it was six, seven times a week. Almost every day I went to the gym and it paid off.”
The other thing he changed was his diet. He cut back on junk food and starches.
“More eating chicken and vegetables, meat and vegetables,” he said. “Never having potatoes and stuff like that. Just sticking to protein and vegetables.
“I like all the junk food, mostly when I eat it. It’s not because I really want it, I just want to eat something different. It wasn’t hard to get rid of it.”
It didn’t take long for Sundqvist to feel like a new man.
“I felt a big difference,” he said. “As soon as we stepped on the ice at the end of summer, I felt it right away. This was working out really good for me.”
The Blues had a long list of candidates for their fourth line at the start of camp, and based on the season before, Sundqvist seemed an outsider. His chances got slimmer when he was leveled by Washington’s Tom Wilson in the final preseason game and started the season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, a concussion and facial cuts. He missed the first eight games of the season, but when he was ready to go, Yeo put him in the lineup. In his second game, Sundqvist had an assist and in his third game, he got just what he needed most: a goal. He then took it one further: He got a second goal.
“I knew I had to be faster and stronger and my thought was to get a couple of goals early to get the confidence going, too, and get it rolling and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “It worked out really well. I’ve been riding on that wave I got from the Vegas game with the two goals. It’s been working out real good.”
Sundqvist became a regular on the fourth line, playing with Ivan Barbashev and a rotating cast of characters. (Nine Blues have been the third member of that line.) Sundqvist’s level of play rose to the point where, on Monday in Philadelphia, he was put on the power play and then on Thursday against Montreal, he was moved up to the third line, a big jump in expectations. With an abundance of penalties in the Montreal game, Sundqvist, playing on both special teams and with Robert Thomas’ injury, played 19 minutes, 2 seconds, a career high and more than seven minutes over what he was averaging coming into the game.
“When I’ve got bumped up to the third line,” he said, “you just have to keep doing what you’ve been doing. You can’t change anything, because that’s not why you got a bigger role. You got a bigger role because of what you’ve been doing. You just have to keep doing that.”
“He’s done a great job,” interim coach Craig Berube said. “He’s showing that he can play in all situations for us right now and we used him.”
Just past the halfway mark of the season, the bubble doesn’t seem to be bursting for Sundqvist.
“It’s been really good,” he said. “It’s been better than I hoped for. I’ve been putting a lot of time to be prepared during the summer and it’s been paying off.”