Blues Defense Must Find Identity

Anyone who has been familiar with the St. Louis Blues under general manager Doug Armstrong’s leadership associates one word with the team before any other: defense. The Blues planned to build their franchise around Erik Johnson, and even after trading him, they had Alex Pietrangelo as a cornerstone. Armstrong brought in Jay Bouwmeester with the intention of forming a formidable top pair partnership for many seasons, and he was successful. Along the way, he’s drafted defensive standouts like Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, and Vince Dunn.

But now, for the first time in many seasons, the Blues’ defense seems to lack a strong identity. Pietrangelo departed in free agency and Torey Krug arrived during the season, Parayko and veteran Carl Gunnarsson have missed extensive time with injury, as has top defensive prospect Scott Perunovich. Even when fully healthy, though, it feels very much like a defense in transition. And finding a defensive identity again could mean taking drastic action in the upcoming offseason.

Faulk, Krug, Dunn, and Perunovich Are a Different Breed

Over the past two seasons, Armstrong has made two major additions to his blueline in trading for and then extending Justin Faulk and in signing Krug as a free agent. Those moves corresponded with the departure of Edmundson (as part of the trade) and Pietrangelo. But neither Faulk nor Krug represents the shutdown, stay-at-home defensemen that the Blues typically prized. Both are power play quarterbacks and puck possession experts, better at putting pressure on the opposition in their own zone rather than neutralizing threats in their own zone.

Meanwhile, the Blues have promising young defensemen on the left side who are clearly from the same mold. In fact, Krug, Dunn, and Perunovich are all virtual copies of one another: undersized left-handed defensemen with elite vision who are stronger on offense than on defense. We have spoken in the past about how there ought to be space for both Dunn and Perunovich in St. Louis, but head coach Craig Berube may have different ideas. He has made a habit of deriding Dunn, keeping him on the third pairing and frequently scratching him, and some fans fear that Perunovich might receive the same treatment.

That remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the Blues’ defense is transitioning. It seems stuck between two eras: veteran shutdown defenders like Parayko, Gunnarsson, Marco Scandella, and Robert Bortuzzo, and puck-moving offensive defensemen like Faulk, Krug, Dunn, and, eventually, Perunovich. Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman have filled in fantastically as youngsters in limited roles, but whether they have a long-term place remains to be seen.

What is Parayko’s Future?

The Blues have thought of Parayko very highly for many years since they essentially hid him from the competition in order to draft him in the third round in 2012. That investment has paid off handsomely for St. Louis and reached its apex when Parayko formed the team’s shutdown defensive pairing with Bouwmeester in the 2019 Stanley Cup run. But since Bouwmeester left, Parayko hasn’t quite looked like the same player. He did not immediately shoulder the load left behind by the departing Pietrangelo, and he has unfortunately been injured much of the 2020-21 season.

Colton Parayko St. Louis Blues
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Complicating matters is the reality that Parayko is a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) after the 2022-23 season. There’s no questioning his value as a top-end second-pairing defenseman and first-pairing option; however, with two long, costly contracts already on the blueline in Faulk and Krug, is Armstrong willing to commit to a third? He wasn’t willing to stretch himself to meet Pietrangelo’s demands, will he do so for Parayko?

Armstrong would be well-served to make that decision quickly. If he doesn’t think Parayko will factor into the team’s long-term future, he might be wise to explore the trade market sooner than later. The team likely could get a king’s ransom for the right-handed defenseman with two very affordable seasons left on his deal (Parayko carries a $5.5 million salary cap hit). Plus, if they were to trade him early in the offseason, that would leave them with one fewer defenseman to protect in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. It’s unlikely that Armstrong will pursue that course, but if he wants to make a strong statement in setting the identity of his defense, he certainly could make one by trading Parayko.

Are Berube and Armstrong In Synch?

The biggest question for the Blues going forward, particularly on defense, is whether Armstrong and Berube are in synch. If Armstrong is trying to transition to a more modern-day, puck-moving, smaller defensive core, he likely would be doing it against the wishes of his head coach. Berube’s teams play an old school, heavy, grinding style, but the Blues’ personnel don’t meet those needs.

Berube will show the necessary respect to veterans like Faulk and Krug, but youngsters like Dunn and Perunovich will likely be given short shrift in his system in perpetuity. This coach has obviously done a lot for the franchise and it’s not likely that he’ll see the door soon, but in searching for an identity for his transforming defense, Armstrong will need to make sure his coach is on board. Otherwise, the defense, which has historically been the backbone of Armstrong’s teams, will continue to look mismatched and disorganized.