It’s safe to say a lot has happened since I wrote an optimistic playoff-preview article on April 12.
Shouldn’t I, a Blues fan, know better than to write a positive article in April?
I certainly should have. Another promising regular season campaign where the team showed growth in every area ended in miserable fashion. Another handshake line watched through tears of fury and another May and June spent too upset to even have deep thoughts about this team.
But, once again, here I am. Like Blues fans have been doing since ’67, here I am coming back for more.
There’s just something so inherently maddening about this franchise that forces you to come back for more.
So… where are we now?
It has been ten days since free agency opened and a little more than a week since the Blues locked up Tarasenko long term. There’s a lot to discuss regarding this team’s roster make-up this year and, even more so, looking into the following year.
But first, let’s start with what has recently happened.
Let’s begin with the departures. The first announced departure was veteran defenseman Barret Jackman. Early in the offseason the Blues announced they wouldn’t be looking to re-sign him as they looked to open up room for a slew of young defensemen. (Note the word “young.” You’re going to be seeing this often.) The veteran signed a two year deal with Nashville when free agency opened up for $2 million. I’m happy for Jackman; Nashville’s close proximity to St. Louis may even mean he doesn’t have to uproot his family as he nears the end of his career. Nashville needed a veteran depth defenseman and that’s exactly what they got. It’s a shame Jackman couldn’t end his career where it started, but the Blues simply couldn’t retain him in this tough salary-cap sport.
Although rumors circulated regarding the Blues and a blockbuster with the Flyers, T.J. Oshie was eventually shipped to Washington for Troy Brouwer, a third round pick, and goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley. This sent shock waves through St. Louis even though Oshie trade rumors had been circulating for quite some time. Many fans were outraged as they expected more back for their franchise pretty-boy; however, after some time many fans were happy with the trade as Oshie was quite simply an underachiever while wearing the Note on his chest. Brouwer can’t be overlooked in this trade. The 6’3″ 29 year old right winger won a Cup with Chicago and has 255 career points in 9 seasons. He’s not going to wow anyone, but he’s going to quietly do his job while working in the dirty areas of the ice. Copley will also fill a need for the Blues as he could very well become their third goal tender who would see time if Allen/Elliott go down with an injury.
Other departures include Marcel Goc, Chris Porter, and Zbynek Michalek. Michalek went back to Arizona with his former ‘Yotes teammate Vermette. The loss of Porter shouldn’t be taken too lightly as he was always a hard-working professional for the Blues throughout the years, often in times where he wasn’t given the greatest opportunities.
Who did the Blues lock up?
The first signing came in late May when the ownership group decided to give coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Doug Armstrong at least one more chance. This came with a fair share of criticism, but I like the move. Historically the Blues are well known for giving up on coaches too early; I like to see this ownership group learn from the skeletons in the closet.
There are far too many player signings to discuss each one specifically, but I see the most important ones as follows.
First and foremost, the Blues locked up their franchise cornerstone. Vladimir Tarsenko signed an eight year, $60 million contract just six days after getting married in Russia. (
Got a pre-nup? Congrats!) I could write an article on just this, but I’m sure you’ve already seen plenty of those. Like this one in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or this one by NHL.com or this one by Grantland. The most interesting part of the deal to me is how the salary is broken down over the years. “The breakdown of the deal is: $8 million in 2015-16, $8 million in ’16-17, $7 million in ’17-18, $7 million in ’18-19, $9.5 million in ’19-20, $5.5 million in ’20-21, $9.5 million in ’21-22 and $5.5 million in ’22-23, at which time he will be 31 years old.” (Jeremy Rutherford, St. Louis Post-Dispatch) As you can see, the contract starts out with some money up front the first two years ($8 million being $0.5 m over the $7.5 m AAV). But then it gets kicked down just to sky-rocket to $9.5 million, all the way down to $5.5m, back up to $9.5m, and then end up at $5.5. I would imagine the front office hoped this set up would give the Blues space to add complimentary pieces in the low-priced years while giving them time to plan for the high-priced years.
The next biggest move, in my opinion, was Jake Allen‘s new deal that will give him $4.7 million over the next two years. I’ve been buying in on the budding star in net for a while now; his fantastic performance in this year’s playoffs (4 QS with a 2.20GAA even with no help in front) backs that hype up. Personally I’d like to see something done with Brian Elliott as I believe Allen needs to be the unquestioned every day starter. Unfortunately the goalie market has been a finicky one this year and I don’t think a trade of Ells is in the cards. More on that later.
A move that many will overlook is Dmitrij Jaskin‘s one year extension on top of the final year he still has remaining on his entry-level deal. I really like Jaskin’s size and the skill that he can bring to the table with it. With some fine-tuning and more time with consistent NHL starts I think he could turn into a truly dynamic second line winger. I also believe more training with a guy like David Backes, who may be moving back to wing himself, and playing time with a world-class center like Paul Stastny will do a world of good for this young man with so much potential.
To compliment the franchise cornerstone that is Tarasenko, the Blues locked up Jori Lehtera a few days before inking Tarasenko. Lehtera’s deal is larger than most fans realize: 3 years worth a total of $14.1 million. It’s obvious Lehtera works well with Tarasenko (their chemistry is what threw the Stastny-Tarasenko dream pairing out the window last year); however, Lehtera struggled with the NHL’s long season and back-to-back format. It’s also unknown how productive he can be when centering wingers not named Tarasenko. There are definite question marks with this deal, but the plus side is quite high if he can compliment the man making $60 million.
The Blues also finalized defensemen six and seven as St. Louis native Chris Butler was given another one year contract and Robert Bortuzzo received a two year deal. I imagine Butler will serve as the seventh defenseman while Bortuzzo steps in to the third pairing where he will work with Petteri Lindbohm. Lindbohm and Bortuzzo should be an interesting pairing to watch as they have size (6’3″ & 6’4″ respectively) while still giving Hitch the quick puck movement that he desires on the back end. Both guys have been promising in their limited time for the Blues; I’m excited to see what they can do together in a stretch of ten consecutive games.
Smaller signings that may have a big impact include Kyle Brodziak and Magnus Paajarvi. Brodziak will most likely center the fourth line between Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves. This was an unexpected move that I quite like. The 6’2″ right hander will bring speed to the fourth line and maybe even a little offensive ability to a spot that hasn’t seen much over the years. Paajarvi, the young forward acquired in the David Perron trade, signed his deal after originally filing for salary arbitration. The 24 year old forward never quite fit in with the Blues, but had great success with the Wolves after being sent down last season. A former first round pick, Paajarvi isn’t making great money and may be a piece to move in the future. However, he may also be a surprise who wins out a spot this fall.
Depth moves include re-signing Cody Beach and bringing in veteran forward Jordan Caron and veteran defenseman Peter Harrold, among others. We shouldn’t see these names this season unless something dramatic happens.
With the Blues’ Prospect Camp this week I would also like to discuss the nice core of young players the Blues have to work with.
The first name that comes up when discussing the Blues’ prospects is always Robby Fabbri. The 2014 first round pick has done nothing but impress since dawning the Blue note. His OHL numbers are fantastic and he impressed the coaching staff in last summer’s prospect and pro camps that there was talk of him making the roster last season. Blues fans came out in large numbers this summer to see the young center impress in his second prospect camp with the team. Several STL media members wrote he played so well that he looked as though he didn’t belong on the ice with the other prospects. I’m excited to see what he brings to the pro camp this fall. Fabbri either has to make the NHL team or go back to juniors; he is not allowed to play with Chicago. I also don’t see the Blues leaving him on the pro roster just to play fourth line/bench minutes. If he makes the team it’s because the coaching staff believes he’s a top 6 NHL forward right now at age 19. The exciting part is that it is possible.
The other prospect most Blues fans know of is Ty Rattie. A second round pick in 2011, Rattie has received much attention as he worked his way through the minor league ranks. Although he has had limited success in his short stints with the Blues, one would have to figure his chance at an every day job has to be coming soon. It’s hard to know what a kid like this has until he has a consistent opportunity.
Ivan Barbashev is another forward who may be knocking at the door this season. He’s a winger built for a fast-paced game who has been described as someone with dynamic talent.
Another prospect camp stand out was defenseman Colton Parayko. At 6’5″, Parayko towers over many of his teammates on the ice. He was a 2012 draft pick. Vince Dunn, the Blues second round pick this year, also had a good camp. Although he’s several years away from seeing the Scottrade Center, Dunn is an undersized, puck-moving defenseman. Another defenseman to watch is Jordan Schmaltz. The University of North Dakota product was the Blues’ first round pick in 2012.
There are plenty of true difference-making prospects coming up in the Blues’ organization. These guys will be necessary as the organization will need cheaper talent in a few years when Tarasenko’s contract peaks at $9.5 million.
So what does the team look like now?
Here’s how I would build the lines (with all of my years of hockey coaching experience
on NHL videogames):
Jaden Schwartz – Jori Lehtera – Vladamir Tarasenko
David Backes** – Paul Stastny* – Dmitrij Jaskin
Alexander Steen* – Robby Fabbri*** – Troy Brouwer
Steve Ott – Kyle Brodziak – Ryan Reaves
Robert Bortuzzo – Petteri Lindbohm
Bench: Magnus Paajarvi, Ivan Barbashev [later in year], Chris Butler, Ty Rattie***
*Alternate captains: The Blues lost alternate captains Oshie and Jackman. Petro and Steener will keep their position. I believe Stastny, the veteran hometown guy making $7 million per year, should step up. Remember, he wore an “A” in the last game of the season when Backes and Jackman were scratched. Shattenkirk is the type of stand-up guy every team needs as a leader and I think he would be great to wear the fourth “A.” Some speculate Tarasenko, who mentioned wanting a leadership role with his new contract, will get an A; however, I think the young Russian still has some maturing to do himself and until that he should not be given the honor.
**Captain: Backes will remain captain as he has done so well over the years. Any question of his leadership on or off the ice is an over reaction. The interesting question is who would be in line for the “C” if the Blues decided to let his contract expire and not renew as he heads into free agency next summer. My guess would be Pietrangelo. More on that later too.
***Fabbri/Rattie: I have Fabbri centering the third line because he has shown the most in pro camps so far. If he heads to juniors then move Backes back to center and put Rattie in that open wing spot. Just make sure Brouwer and Backes are kept on separate lines as their styles are similar.
What still needs to be done?
Armstrong insists any further trades would strictly be ‘apple-for-apple’ trades where the team can get something equal in return. What do I hope gets done?
Any Blues fan with a mindful eye will notice a certain omission from my lines; it’s a pretty big hint to what I think needs to be done. First, a slight disclaimer: I try to stay level-headed and use statistics to check myself when I feel strongly about something. However, no matter what I do I can’t convince myself that Patrik Berglund is helping this team. He’s part of the remainder of the core built during the rebuilding period in the early 2000s. Since then the Swede has done nothing but disappoint and shows absolutely nothing except for two or three three-game hot streaks each season. Yes, his size is great and his defense can be valuable, but a player like this simply isn’t what the Blues need anymore. This franchise has a new core (Schwartz, Lehtera, Steen, & Stastny) built around the new cornerstone Tarasenko. I simply can’t understand why he was re-signed for $3.7 million per year when he only has 118 goals in seven seasons and only 6 goals in 29 playoff games. The Capitals signed Justin Williams, who owns a Stanley Cup winning goal, for LESS than what the Blues are paying Berglund. That’s right, the Blues could theoretically have a playoff-performing guy like Williams if Berglund wasn’t re-signed. (not that the Blues need guys who preform in the playoffs or anything..) I suspect this could be a Hitch, defensive-first idea that is keeping this guy around. At this point I don’t care if the Blues only get a pick back. For goodness sakes, save the salary cap room and open up a spot for one of these young guys to play. We’ve seen Berglund’s potential and we don’t need it.
I stated my opinion on the goaltender situation earlier. Allen needs to be given the starting job without any question that it is his permanently. Nobody can be sure how Elliott will handle a situation like this. He has always been a professional, but it may be hard for the franchise’s leader in saves to be pushed aside to 10 starts a year. Due to his salary the market may not allow a move to unload him where the Blues could receive a serviceable back up in return. The situation can definitely stay as is, but Armstrong needs to consider what will happen in 2016-2017 when Elliott’s contract expires.
Many will ask about the defense. Gunnarsson had an up and down first year in St. Louis as he battled injuries and saw the pairings get mixed up near the end. Bouwmeester has caught a lot of flack lately as he took a huge step back last season and is still making elite money. I believe both players will be fine in the end. Gunnarsson just needs to stay healthy; he played some great hockey in the middle of the season when at full strength. I believe Bouwmeester will be okay too because he battled his first major injury of his career last year. The man wasn’t sure how to come back from it. When he’s healthy he and Pietrangelo are an elite pair. So good, in fact, that the best team in the world (Team Canada) had them paired together a few years ago. I think patience is needed.
While there’s still a lot to be decided for this upcoming season I at least have to mention where the Blues will be a year from today. Will Hitch and Army still be here? Will the Blues let the captain walk out the door? Ott and Elliott will be coming off the books. More of these young prospects will be ready to play and the new core will be in full control of this team. There’s a lot to think about.
But for now this offseason isn’t even over yet. All of the things mentioned could still be modified. Until then I’ll keep running scenarios through my head.
90 days and counting until the puck is dropped as the Blues open their season against Edmonton and
Wayne Gretzky Connor McDavid.