The St. Louis Blues closed the first day of free agency ahead of the 2021-22 season as one of only two teams that made no additions on the open market (sharing the honor with the New York Islanders). In the process, they watched longtime franchise centerpiece Jaden Schwartz sign with the Seattle Kraken, while one-season fill-in Mike Hoffman departed for the Montreal Canadiens. Despite the addition and extension of Pavel Buchnevich days earlier, the Blues are inarguably weaker entering the second day of free agency than they were the day before.
Understandably, Blues fans are growing impatient, wanting to see their general manager’s plans to improve the team after back-to-back disappointing playoff performances coming off a Stanley Cup Championship. The core of the 2019 Stanley Cup team is largely decimated, and fans are entitled to want a clear road forward. But over a decade-plus career with the Blues, general manager Doug Armstrong has earned some patience from his fan base. Clearly, he still has several balls in the air.
Tarasenko Trade Still Coming
There is every reason to believe that Armstrong will still trade his star winger, Vladimir Tarasenko, who requested a move earlier in the offseason. Despite comments indicating that the Russian should prepare to return as a Blue next season, NHL teams rarely hold onto players that are clearly unhappy in their current home. And Armstrong certainly doesn’t want distractions in his locker room as he attempts to reshape the team.
On paper, trading Tarasenko might look like yet another negative for the team, as many speculate the return will be weak, given his injury history and costly contract, combined with Armstrong’s lack of leverage. But by waiting until the free agent dust has settled, Armstrong may have put himself in a much stronger position. Now, teams that swung and missed in free agency might take a much closer and more charitable look at adding Tarasenko. Gabriel Landeskog’s decision to re-sign with the Colorado Avalanche likely only helps Armstrong’s cause, as it limits the number of potential game-changers on the market. But one source told The Athletic that waiting hasn’t helped St. Louis.
Even despite the source’s protestations, in this section of the hockey calendar, situations can change in a matter of hours. With the Islanders entirely quiet on free agent day, perhaps they might take a closer look at Tarasenko, a player they’ve been rumored to have interest in. The Philadelphia Flyers could also circle back now that they’ve reshaped their defense. Typically, as time passes in the NHL offseason, desperation increases, and by holding his ground, Armstrong might have turned a negative into a positive if the right team overreaches for Tarasenko.
Saad Still Available
Typically, the Blues run a tight ship with few leaks about their intentions reaching the public. But the team is certainly interested in free agent Brandon Saad. The 28-year-old, drafted by the archrival Chicago Blackhawks, has surpassed the 20-goal mark in five of his last seven seasons, and would certainly provide a much-needed addition on the wing for Armstrong’s club.
Of course, everything working for Armstrong in the Tarasenko negotiations is working against him in his pursuit of Saad, and if he wants to sign the hotly-pursued free agent, who scored 15 goals in 44 games with the Avalanche last season, he’ll likely have to stretch beyond his comfort zone. But a marriage between the Blues and Saad still makes plenty of sense, and would certainly improve the team considerably, provided the contract details don’t become too astronomical.
Armstrong Works in Secret
The biggest credit to Armstrong entering day two of free agency is his tendency to keep his cards close to the vest. Fans shouldn’t expect to know all his plans, as they never have before. Even last week, the team’s interest in Buchnevich was only quietly whispered before details of the trade dropped on draft day. Though most fans knew the Blues were talking to the Buffalo Sabres in 2018, rumors suggested negotiations had stalled before St. Louis acquired Ryan O’Reilly, their future captain and Conn Smythe winner, in what is inarguably the greatest trade of Armstrong’s career. Even the signing of Torey Krug came entirely out of left field last offseason, as Alex Pietrangelo occupied the focus of fans and media alike.
Armstrong may have missed on some moves he wanted in free agency. Blues beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford confirmed they pursued Hoffman before Montreal swooped in with a better offer. But St. Louis fans shouldn’t assume their general manager has been taken off guard by how the offseason is unfolding. The team has been mentioned in two of the biggest possible trades of the offseason, as an outside contender for Jack Eichel, and the foremost team linked to Matthew Tkachuk (though that deal, if it happens at all, isn’t expected until next summer). If the Blues circle back and make one of those blockbusters happen, it won’t happen with a lot of warning for the team’s Twitter faithful.
Armstrong recently explained that his biggest concern over the next two weeks would be avoiding mistakes rather than adding every ounce he could to the roster through the open market. On a day when NHL teams spent hundreds of millions of dollars on high-priced free agents, the Blues seemed content to rest and wait for the right opportunities. It might not be the most exciting approach, but fans should recognize Armstrong’s long track record of making the right move at the right time. The team needs significant improvement, but the verdict on this offseason shouldn’t come down before Armstrong gets to make his case.
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.