Yesterday we covered and up-and-coming Stanley Cup contender in the Nashville Predators. Today, we look at a team that feels like they should be nearing the end of their contention window in the St. Louis Blues. Here to share some optimism is Brad Lee of St. Louis Game Time.
1. The Blues lost long-time captain David Backes to free agency, as well as playoff standout Troy Brouwer. How much will those two be missed? Will any offseason acquisitions help to make up for them?
David Backes was a Blues draft pick and 10-year NHL veteran. He had a huge impact on the team as captain and strong two-way forward, Troy Brouwer was in St. Louis one single season, arriving in exchange for T.J. Oshie. Yet the impact of both of them leaving is the same: size and experience. They both performed well during the playoffs. They both have size and know how to use it. They go to the net and play in traffic. They're booth good at corralling rebounds and deflecting shots. If you look at the roster for the Blues as it's built right now, they don't have a lot of size to play in front of the net. And when I say a lot, I say almost none.
Sure Patrik Berglund could suddenly learn to do that. And youngster Dimitrij Jaskin could try to play that way, but they haven't yet and it would be foolish to assume so. That's why Ken Hitchcock is already talking to reporters about how he has to rethink how the team plays with the puck and how he's picked the brain of new assistant coach/head coach to be Mike Yeo about how his Minnesota Wild played effectively with a smaller lineup.
Let's sum up. Two of the team's best playoff performers and the two key big body forwards are gone so the veteran coach in his mid-60s in his self-proclaimed final year in coaching has to go back to the drawing board to play a different way because of how the team has been built. Sounds like a winning formula to me.
When you ask about off-season acquisitions, I guess you mean David Perron, here for his second tour of duty. He could go to the net. He will score some goals Backes and Brouwer scored, but not all of them.
It all just adds to lots of questions about what their style will be this coming season. Questions like, what the hell is going on with Kevin Shattenkirk.
2. Are you surprised that Kevin Shattenkirk is still with the team? Do you think he will be traded, or will the Blues make one last Cup push with him solidifying their D corps?
The next four seasons, the salary cap number for Alex Pietrangelo is $6.5 million. For the next three seasons, the salary cap number for Jay Bouwmeester is $5.4 million The salary cap number for Shattenkirk this season will be $4.5 million. Here's the sales pitch for Shattenkirk and his agent when he becomes an unrestricted free agent: No. 22 is an offensively gifted right-handed defenseman (a scarcity in today's NHL). He can fix your power play overnight (the efficiency of the Blues' power play when he's healthy vs. when he's out is shocking). He can play a decent amount of minutes. And if you keep him on the right side, he can be responsible in his own end. And then his agent is going to ask for at least $6.5 million a year. Maybe $7 million. That's why the Blues dangled him at the draft with the hope of either nabbing a guy like Taylor Hall (even though the Blues are set on the LW and are desperate at RW) or a top 15 draft pick. But those salary demands combined with the idea that he wants to sign with an East Coast team resulted in zero trades.
Last trade deadline, the Blues could not trade Brouwer or Backes for picks or prospects with a straight face. GM Doug Armstrong has continued to say that he's trying to win the Cup every year, but while also protecting the future. I've said that means he's trying both strategies (win now, win later) and not committing 100 percent to either. If he keeps Shattenkirk for the season and lets him walk for nothing next summer, that would be a waste of an opportunity to make the team better. Shattenkirk is a different commodity. There's a demand for him. He's younger at 27. And there's little chance he will stay in St. Louis. The Blues are committed to giving Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester top-pairing minutes. It just doesn't make sense to keep him all season.
But what they can get for him? No clue. Hopefully a big forward who can score close to 30 goals. Sounds easy!
3. Brian Elliott never seemed trusted by the Blues, despite putting up great numbers his entire time with St. Louis. Do you think the Blues are ready to anoint Jake Allen their undisputed starter, or will they be quietly looking for someone else in case Allen stumbles early?
At every opportunity, the St. Louis Blues have chosen not Brian Elliott. To me, it's organizational memory. When he signed with the Blues in summer of 2011, he signed for the league minimum and on a two-way contract. Any of the 29 other teams if they had wanted him could have signed him for a pittance more. And none did. You don't sign a potential starting goaltender to a two-way contract. That's backup city. So when he played well paired with Jaroslav Halak and won a playoff series against San Jose when Halak was injured, it was a shocking turn of events. In 38 games, he stopped 94 percent of the shots he faced and had a goals-against average of 1.56. He was the starting goaltender again the next season and saw the Blues lose in the first round. Then shit got weird. The next season the Blues traded for Ryan Miller. GM Doug Armstrong was quoted as saying the deal was worth it if it improved the team's goaltending by 5 percent. Take the Blues, increase the goaltending by 5 percent and it equaled a second straight first-round loss. Two seasons ago, they chose Jake Allen to start in the playoffs. Last season Elliott started the season as the starter. By Halloween, he was on the bench for a week at a time. An injury late in the season to Allen ensured Elliott was the starter. And even during a fantastic run, Allen came in and relieved Elliott in the San Jose series.
Jake Allen was drafted to be the starting goaltender for the Blues. Elliott was signed to be a backup. And two all-star selections. the best save percentage and most shutouts in team history didn't change that. So I can totally understand if Elliott wasn't guaranteed the starting job this coming season how he would want a trade.
Allen has no safety net. There will be a youngster in the backup role. They've put all their eggs in his basket. If he breaks some eggs, there will be no easy fixes. Here's one thing to remember. At every level Allen has been a top goaltender. He was the starter for Canada at the World Juniors, but he bombed out in the championship game. He was an AHL all-star goaltender, but bombed out in the playoffs. He's been named to the NHL All Rookie Team TWICE (seriously, you can look it up), but he bombed out his first playoffs he was the starter. Some would say he has struggled in high-pressure situations. Others might say he was put into high-pressure situations before he was ready. Regardless, he better be ready in October.
If he falters, the Blues have young goalies probably not ready for prime time in Jordan Binnington and Pheonix (yes, that's how it's spelled) Copley and a 21-year-old coming to North America for the first time this season in Ville Husso. If the salary cap wasn't an issue, maybe they'd bring Ben Bishop back for one season. Otherwise, they may have to ride Allen. And until just now I forgot the Blues acquired Carter Hutton to be the backup and the goalie made available in next summer's expansion draft. Sorry, Mr. Hutton.
To sum up, Allen could be good. Or not. And then the Blues will have to come up with a Plan B because I don't think they have one. The end.