Blues Should Be Cautious to Keep or Extend O’Reilly & Tarasenko

The coming offseason will be among the most influential the team has experienced in recent memory. With pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) like team captain Ryan O’Reilly and forward Vladimir Tarasenko, as well as complimentary pieces like Noel Acciari, Ivan Barbashev, and Nikko Mikkola, the Blues find themselves at a crossroads. St. Louis Blues broadcaster Darren Pang took to the airwaves on Tuesday morning with 101 ESPN and the Opening Drive crew of Randy Karraker and Carey Davis. Early in the discussion, Davis asked Pang about the upcoming trade deadline and his thoughts on whether O’Reilly and Tarasenko would be with the team.

“All I can say is that I go back to the history of (Blues general manager) Doug Armstrong. I think if he believes that this hockey team is in it come (middle) to late February, I’ll just go back to his history because that’s what he did with Paul Stastny when Stastny was gonna become an unrestricted free agent. The Blues were only a point or two points out of the playoffs. They’d lost like six in a row and they lost without a fight. There was no fighting for one another. There was no spirit for one another. And I think Doug Armstrong said at that point, ‘You guys don’t want to play for one another? Then I’ll move guys that are gonna be unrestricted and get my assets for them.’

“So all I’ll say is if this team shows the promise, of what we’ve seen on certain nights, and that is a team that can beat any team in NHL and possibly win. I don’t see “Army” moving players like that just because they’re unrestricted free agents. I see Doug Armstrong keeping players, whether it’s Vladdy (Tarasenko) or Ryan or Ivan Barbashev’s an unrestricted free agent, Nikko Mikkola’s is unrestricted. We’ve got a lot of players here.

“I think if “Army” believes and “Chief” (Blues head coach Craig Berube) believes that this team can win and they put together some real good hockey as they’ve done lately, I don’t see a move just to make a move because they’re UFA’s. I see them as great rentals down the stretch and then possibly get players re-signed. Or, maybe we get surprised. Maybe in the new year here early, maybe Army’s got a deal up his sleeve and they’ve been negotiating on the side with a lot of discretion, which is very typical of “Army” and agents that he deals with. He doesn’t want any of the agencies to talk to an awful lot. He doesn’t want anything being leaked, and that’s the way he works.”

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With the stress of the slowly rising salary cap due to COVID-19, and player performances fluctuating, the Blues find themselves in an interesting situation with two of their cornerstone pieces. They have been the recipients of judgment based on the contracts issued to Brayden Schenn, Jordan Binnington, Marco Scandella, and Colton Parayko. Should they offer and come to a long-term contract extension for either player, the franchise could find itself in a world of trouble finding the cap space to field a talented and competitive lineup each night.

Blues Financial Difficulties

The organization has too many talented veterans with high-paying salaries to not push for a playoff spot each year but is also showing severe signs of weakness to tank for a high draft pick. The part that makes this puzzle even trickier is the salary cap space.

St. Louis Blues Doug Armstrong
St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Roberson)

With the salary cap expected to raise by roughly $1 million to $83.5 million, this leaves the front office in a tough position. Pang was correct in his line of thinking, believing that Armstrong could very likely keep his veterans beyond the trade deadline to help make a playoff push once more with this core. Fans have seen this type of behavior in the past with players like Alex Pietrangelo and David Backes in the hopes of coming to an agreement after the season. The decision ultimately cost the Blues as they lost out on both of these players as they chose to sign with other organizations, leaving the team to gain zero assets in return. As the team currently has 12 of 23 rostered players signed next season and roughly $13.5 million to work with, retaining both O’Reilly and Tarasenko will be a difficult task for even the best of general managers.

Player Performance Making Decision Difficult

Losing two key pieces to the Blues organization is a difficult idea to swallow. Looking over the team’s depth chart, the loss of either Tarasenko or O’Reilly would create massive holes in the team’s overall dynamic that could ultimately force the franchise into a few years of re-tooling, leaving players like Schenn, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, and Pavel Buchnevich to lead the forward group, along with Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Parayko, and Binnington to shoulder the defense and goaltending. However, that could have been the plan all along based on the contracts that were signed over the past few years.

Ryan O'Reilly St. Louis Blues
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season, both Tarasenko and O’Reilly are struggling to produce in their own ways offensively. The Blues captain is a far cry from his 0.87 point-per-game pace he scored at over his first four seasons in St. Louis. This year is on pace for 23 goals and 37 points over an 82-game season. The right-wing forward, Tarasenko, who has been scoring over 30 goals consistently over his career is on pace to drop to 24 goals and 70 points. Both players have found ways to contribute to their team but in a manner not traditional to what fans have become accustomed to.

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The Blues franchise would look and feel different without the two players in the lineup moving forward. The organizational depth does not appear deep enough to withstand the loss of either player without a return of some kind. Tarasenko has proven that he can still be a dynamic playmaker and his injury concerns may be a thing of the past. While O’Reilly may be losing his status as a top-line Center in the NHL, he still provides valuable top-six depth to the Blues in one of the most critical positions on the ice. If Armstrong decides to stay the course and not trade either player at the March 3 trade deadline and is unable to re-sign either in the offseason, his decision could prove detrimental to the club for years to come.

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