One-hundred and eighty-nine. No, that’s not how many days it has been since the St. Louis Blues last chased an opposing goalie (it has probably been longer than that). That is the number of man games the Blues have lost to injury this season.
The team played 52 games before the All-Star break and can boast 64 points, good for third in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
To be completely honest, there was nothing remarkable about the first half of the season for the St. Louis Blues. This is why it is surprising to see them enter the break with the fourth most points in the entire league.
Never winning more than four games in a row, the Blues didn’t blow other teams away with impressive streaks. What they did do was never slide too far the other way either, never losing in regulation more than two games in a row.
What else has happened to this point? For one, we’ve had large groups of fans call for Hitchcock’s firing (yes, more than usual). Oddly we’ve also heard NBC Sports analysts put Hitchcock in the Jack Adams conversation. Mostly what we’ve seen so far is excuses. Lots and lots and lots of excuses.
It all comes back to the 189 games of injuries. This sum is good for fifth most in the entire league. The Blues only trail three bad teams (EDM, BUF, & NJ) and Detroit. Meanwhile the conference-leading teams, Chicago and Washington, are 29th and 28th in man games lost, respectively. It’s hard to complain too much about the Blues being six points behind Chicago (with a game in hand) after all of that adversity.
If a Blackhawks fan were to read this they may say, “Well what does it matter how many total man games were lost when Steve Ott has contributed to much of these missed games?”
I would introduce this person to IIT metrics. This statistic is used to measure man games lost adjusted for the quality of the players who missed the games. Thanks to lengthy absences from Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues also rank fifth when the games lost are weighted for quality. The Blues rank first in man games missed relative to Corsi, more than sixty points ahead of the next closest team.
This helps me work back to my point. The Blues have not only dealt with many injuries, but they have dealt with injuries to key components of the team.
Writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jeremy Rutherford discovered that the Blues have used 40 different lineups in the 52 games they have played so far this season.
How did the Blues have so much success this far?
Jake Allen did much of the heavy lifting early on. While his team struggled to find their identity in front of him, Allen stepped up big the first month of the season. This performance earned him the lion’s share of starts. Tarasenko’s hot start to the season also propelled the team, especially as Jake began to cool off between the pipes. Eventually both players began to come back down to earth and some of the team’s issues were revealed.
Struggling to hold onto leads was one of the issues to arise. The team suffered through an especially bad stretch of this at the end of last year and the very beginning of 2016. This stretch featured blown leads of two-plus goals in three of eight games and blown leads of any type in four consecutive games and six of eight games overall. It felt like every game was the same. An early lead was seemingly always followed by the slow, painful disappointment of a loss.
Okay, I’m tired of complaining. Let’s change the focus to the future.
Most important to this team’s second half will be Jaden Schwartz’s return from injury. He began skating with the team about a week before the break. Since his arrival in the NHL, Schwartz has been a key part of the Blues. The team boasts 54.6 percent of even-strength shot attempts with him on the ice. He’s a top six forward that the Blues desperately need to deepen their lines.
The Blues will also benefit from having fresh legs in the lineup as they head down the stretch. Young skaters like Fabbri, Parayko and Edmundson haven’t endured an NHL schedule and are likely to slow down.
Another important step for the remainder of the regular season will be having Jake Allen recover from his knee injury and return to form. Brian Elliott stepped up big time when Allen went down, but I would rather not see the veteran carry the bacon from here out. This is especially true after Allen proved he can be a true starter in the first half of this season.
What to expect
when if the Blues have all of their players back? The lines could look something like this:
Schwartz – Stastny – Tarasenko
Steen – Backes – Berglund
Fabbri – Lehtera – Brouwer
Ott – Brodziak – Reaves
Bouwmeester – Pietrangelo
Gunnarsson – Shattenkirk
Edmundson – Parayko
Jaskin, Bortuzzo, Paajarvi*, Rattie*, Upshall**
*Assuming Hitch doesn’t feed them to the Wolves again.
**Assuming the Blues have salary cap to keep him when the injured money returns to the books.
Speaking of salary cap, the Blues are going to have a difficult time fitting under it the next two years if they want to keep the players they currently have. The topic is worthy of a post all of its own, but let’s look at how the issue will affect the remainder of this season.
At the end of the season David Backes will be an unrestricted free agent and Jaden Schwartz will be a restricted free agent. At the end of next season (summer of 2017) Kevin Shattenkirk and Alexander Steen will both be unrestricted free agents.
You probably see the problem here.
Each of these skaters are going to ask for big money. There’s no doubt about that. Luckily the Blues have some security knowing they have Tarasenko locked up long term, but how do they want to build around him? A decision may actually have to be made this season if the Blues want to make sure they don’t lose these talented players without at least some compensation.
Yes, the Blues may decide to trade away a very good player as they try to win the Stanley Cup. How is that done logically? I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be done, but I could see the logic behind flipping a player before their contract ends when you know you won’t be able to afford them in the future. It’s the Oakland Athletics – Billy Beane strategy–honestly a strategy not known for winning championships.
Last week Rutherford wrote a piece about the Blues trying to extend Backes. Currently making $4.5 million, the captain turned down a three-year deal worth around $5.5 million per year, JR said. Let’s assume Backes wants $6.5 million per year.
Now let’s take a look at what is coming off of the books. Let’s assume Brouwer ($3.75M), Gunnarsson ($3.45M), Ott ($2.6M), Brodziak ($0.9M), Paajarvi ($0.7M) and Upshall ($0.7M) aren’t given new contracts. That would clear around $12.1 million from the books depending on how much of a raise Edmundson receives.
$12.1 million free – $6.5 million for Backes means the Blues would only have $5.6 million available for Schwartz. The young winger will ask for more than that. One option would be to use a back-loaded contract so the Blues could fit him under the cap the next two or so years before kicking up his salary in the future. (It can be done; Chicago will pay Toews and Kane $13.8 each next season. Don’t believe me?)
Obviously, it would also mean that none of those other six players would return. Of course the Blues could call up cheap, young players to fill some of these holes, but no NHL team has five or six NHL-ready players sitting in their minors. Ivan Barbashev and Ty Rattie may be ready for permanent promotions, but there’s not much beyond them at the moment.
To be clear: This is very basic math used to simplify the situation. There are other factors like potential back-loaded contracts, tiered contracts, and salary cap increases to consider.
Let’s say Backes and Schwartz both sign back-loaded contracts and the Blues somehow manage to fit both of them under the cap while filling the other holes in the roster. After next season the contracts for both Steen and Shattenkirk’s will expire. Both of these players may also ask for around $7 million per year.
Berglund, Jaskin, Bortuzzo, Elliott and Allen will have their contracts expire after the 2016-17 season. Yes, that means more money will open up; however, it also means the Blues will have more roster spots to fill with less money.
Even the most optimistic fan will have a hard time looking at these numbers and deciding that it will be possible to keep Backes, Schwartz, Shattenkirk and Steen long-term. It’s the unfortunate truth. So what do the Blues do this season to start solving this problem before it arrives?
Now you see where the trade comes in.
Legitimate power forwards like Backes are rare in today’s NHL; however, true offensive defensemen that can hold their own defensively may be even more valuable. If the Blues were to trade Shattenkirk with one year left on his deal they would clear up $4.3 million this season and $5.2 million next season. This would be enough space to sign both Backes and Schwartz, but there would still be some tough decisions when it comes to signing depth players for the next two years.
Similarly, trading Backes would allow cap room to give Schwartz a new contract this summer, and it would put the Blues in a better position to sign both Steen and Shattenkirk in the summer of 2017. However, it would mean that the team would have traded their captain and longest tenured player in the stretch run of a season in which they want to win their first championship. Not ideal. Nearly unprecedented.
As you can see, the decisions won’t be easy. The Blues are going to lose a good player and will be forced to spend less on depth forwards–sorry Berglund & Brouwer, no more making $3.7 million to produce very little. The fact is, that’s the reality of the salary cap.
It can be done. Chicago had major cap issues after last season, made some big moves, lost some important players, and now may actually be a better team after it all. Do I trust Doug Armstrong as much as I trust John Mozeliak as a Cardinals fan or as much as Blackhawks fans trust Stan Bowman? No. Armstrong hasn’t earned that trust yet. This will be his big opportunity to step up and probably a pivotal point in his career with this franchise.
If the Blues do make a trade, what type of player should the team acquire?
Looking at the lines I laid out earlier, where do you see a weakness? This is where the debate begins. I think the Blues could really use another Top 6 forward. A winger would be preferred, but acquiring a center would allow Backes to move back to wing.
Why a winger? Fabbri will most likely slow as the long season continues to move forward. It’s also important to remember that Fabbri is a natural center, and you would expect him to move back to the middle in the next few years. Another reason to acquire a winger is the lack of production from Brouwer and Berglund. Both of the wingers will occasionally go through a hot streak, but they then disappear for a large period of time.
Not to ignore the 500 pound gorilla in the room, the Blues may have interest in Jonathon Drouin. A very skilled young player, Drouin has yet to prove too much at the NHL level and has also had his share of issues off of the ice. Unfortunately I don’t see Tampa taking on the salary of Backes or Shattenkirk when they may be trying to give Steven Stamkos a massive contract in the near future.
Some rumors have said the Blues would trade Fabbri for Drouin, but that makes very little sense. Why would the Blues trade one talented young player who has produced in the NHL (Fabbri) for another young player who MAY be more talented, but has problems off of the ice and hasn’t proven anything yet? Plus, trading Fabbri wouldn’t help the salary cap problems either. We do know that Blues’ scouts have been frequently sighted at Tampa Bay games, so maybe there is a deal of some sort in the works.
Earlier this week there were rumblings that the Edmonton Oilers were ready to trade a winger for a first pair defenseman. Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are supposedly on the trading block, but the rumors have linked Edmonton to the New York Islanders or possibly the Anaheim Ducks. The problem is that both Eberle and RNH are making $6 million. If the Blues were to trade for one of them the cap issues would not be solved.
There is no easy answer, but (again) that’s the challenge the salary cap presents. Maybe the Blues will be able to navigate through the challenge and make themselves into a better team.
The Blues return from the break on the Tuesday after the All-Star game. When they drop the puck in Nashville they will be playing their first game in nine days–nine days to relax and give the injured players an opportunity to work towards a return.
I think (and hope) we haven’t seen this team play its best hockey yet this year. With Schwartz and Allen back and playing well, this team should be able to put together a more significant winning streak than they have to this point this year. We just have to hope the Blues avoid any more significant injuries this season.
My expectations have been raised. Now it’s time to sit back and see what happens both on and off the ice.
Until next time…
Featured image by Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports