The St. Louis Blues made their first major offseason move hours before the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, trading Sammy Blais and a second-round pick to the New York Rangers for Pavel Buchnevich. Then, they helped build their future by selecting four draft picks, headlined by first-round pick Zachary Bolduc. Now, as free agency approaches on Wednesday, general manager Doug Armstrong has several questions he needs to answer, and quickly. Let’s look at his priorities.
1) Vladimir Tarasenko Clarity
The situation between the Blues and Vladimir Tarasenko has turned ugly, and the Russian winger has officially requested a trade. Though teams are not bound to honor such requests, it’s rare that such a bitter dispute becomes public without a divorce coming shortly thereafter. But the Blues are in a tough situation: Tarasenko’s high salary cap hit (he has two years left at an average annual value of $7.5 million) and higher base salary next season (the team he plays for will owe him $9.5 million) are deterrents, especially after a subpar return to action from two consecutive serious shoulder surgeries.
Recently, Armstrong hinted that Tarasenko should prepare as if he’ll be a Blue next season. But that still seems like a very unlikely outcome. Other teams clearly have interest, with the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers among those looking for scoring help. But the Blues may have to make sacrifices in the process, and can’t expect a very lucrative return. Either way, this is Armstrong’s next offseason priority. He’d much rather resolve this situation before free agency, so he knows what percentage of Tarasenko’s $7.5 million in cap space he has to work with.
2) Future of Schwartz, Hoffman, Bozak
The Blues also have three major unrestricted free agents (UFAs) to worry about. Jaden Schwartz has been with the team since Armstrong drafted him in 2010, two picks before he drafted Tarasenko. But he’s always been plagued by injury and last season was arguably his worst on-ice performance to date. If he returns to the Blues, Armstrong will want to do it for third-liner salary, and that seems like a pill Schwartz probably won’t want to swallow. The Seattle Kraken were rumored to have interest in Schwartz, even considering signing him and taking him during the expansion draft last week, but that didn’t materialize. They are still likely to be among the teams interested if the Blues don’t re-sign him.
Mike Hoffman’s situation is more complicated. The forward signed a one-year, $4 million contract in the dying days of last offseason, joining the Blues for training camp on a professional tryout (PTO). Shortly after the season began, it became clear that head coach Craig Berube would struggle to utilize Hoffman properly. It seemed certain the team would trade him before the trade deadline, but a late winning streak prevented that, and he shined in the team’s final playoff push. The question now is, can Armstrong be certain Berube will continue to use Hoffman well, and can the two camps find a price that works for both sides.
Tyler Bozak (35) is a depth forward and veteran presence at this point in his career, but he still wins faceoffs at a high rate and is an important defensive presence. He will also come considerably cheaper than either of the Blues’ other UFAs. He’s the most likely to return by far, but judging by Armstrong’s recent comments that it may be time to turn the team over to a different group of players, it’s very possible that none of the three will be returning.
3) More Goal Scoring Help
The acquisition of Buchnevich, who scored at a 30-goal pace for a full season last season, will be a major boost to a team that finished last in high danger chances at 5-on-5. But if all of Schwartz, Hoffman, and Tarasenko are indeed walking out the door, they will need significantly more help. Rumors link the Blues to Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has scored more than 20 goals seven of the last eight seasons. But that marriage is still a longshot, even despite the appealing relationship between Landeskog and Blues’ captain Ryan O’Reilly. There are plenty of other free agents who could meet the Blues’ needs though.
Alternatively, Armstrong could make further trades, especially given the minimal price he paid for Buchnevich. Of course, there are the rumors linking the Blues to hometown player Matthew Tkachuk, who may want a trade away from the Calgary Flames. If that trade happens, it’s much more likely to happen next offseason than this one, though. For now, Blues fans shouldn’t get their hopes up.
Whatever direction the Blues go, though, they certainly need more scoring depth. Increased roles for youngsters like Jordan Kyrou, Klim Kostin, and Robert Thomas can help, but they cannot be the only solution. The Blues should try to acquire one, probably two forwards via trade or free agency if they want to be truly competitive next season.
4) Answers on Defense
The Blues’ defensive situation may be the trickiest of all, as we’ve written in the past. The team doesn’t just need an addition on the blueline, they need an identity, and that might require more maneuvering than a signing or a trade can accomplish. Ryan Suter’s unexpected availability isea welcome surprise, and certainly of interest to St. Louis, but he has many suitors and the Blues are not likely to rise above all the others. If the Blues hoped to land Jamie Oleksiak, that window closed when he signed with the Kraken. Seattle also took Vince Dunn during the expansion draft, limiting the team’s options on the left side. Many pundits and analysts say the Blues need help on defense, but the solutions aren’t apparent. Armstrong will need to get creative here.
5) A Goaltending Decision
Most believe this is a foregone conclusion, but it may not be. Backup goaltender Ville Husso did not have a strong season, and though it may seem harsh, the Blues might not have time to let him develop into an NHL option. Husso makes just $750,000 against the salary cap this season, which is also the first season on Jordan Binnington’s six-year contract extension. The argument for giving Husso another shot is cost, and if the team plans to spend to the cap, as owner Tom Stillman has expressed they will, saving money on their backup could give them the financial flexibility to add another player at a position of greater need. But signing a free agent goaltender with some experience could make a major difference in the team’s win-loss record this season, and though it isn’t much discussed, it might be an option Armstrong considers this week.
Armstrong’s Busy Week Ahead
The Blues should be one of the busiest teams in the week ahead. The Buchnevich trade is an opening salvo in what ought to be a very busy offseason. The team needs to either re-sign or lose three significant free agents, and if those players do leave, they’ll need to replace them. They need a clearer defensive picture, and a major star wants to leave the team. Armstrong needs to manage all these situations without making his owner, who publicly stated the team’s Stanley Cup window was still open, look like a fool. It’s a difficult highwire act, but if anyone can make it work, Armstrong can.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.