Blues Rebuild Is Not a Quick Fix

The St. Louis Blues have started tearing down a roster they expected to be a playoff conteder this season. By trading Vladimir Tarasenko to the New York Rangers, then dealing captain Ryan O’Reilly to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they have clearly lit the match on a significant rebuilding process. But quotes from general manager Doug Armstrong, plus rumors that link the Blues to top trade targets Timo Meier and Jakob Chychrun, there are some in St. Louis who believe this turnaround can be done extremely quickly. While Armstrong may want to move faster than some slow rebuilding processes (like those seen with the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils), the reality is that the Blues need too many pieces to fall into place for this rebuild to unfold quickly.

Armstrong Wants an LA Rebuild

During his press conference following the O’Reilly trade, Armstrong had some pointed words about the kind of rebuild he wants: “The team that I look to and would like to emulate right now, or even be quicker, is LA. I saw the way Detroit, New Jersey, and Buffalo did it. That’s five, six, seven years. LA did it very quickly, and I’d like to do it very quickly.”

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

Referring to the process as a “retrench,” rather than the word “rebuild” (which he has seemed to abhor all season), Armstrong also explained his preference to acquire young players that can grow with this core. “We need to retrench with players in their… 25, 26 [year old seasons] and under that have term on their contracts so they can grow with that next core of players that we have.” Both Meier and Chychrun would certainly fit in that description. Because of these comments, many believe that Armstrong’s ambition is to turn the team around in a few weeks rather than a few seasons. But if Armstrong believes that is possible, he might be naive about the status of his roster.

Blues Have Too Many Bad Contracts

The Blues have a number of bad contracts that aren’t just going away. Individually, none of these contracts are crippling, but together, these five contracts represent a $32 million chunk of the team’s salary cap that will be locked in through 2026-27 (when the first of these contracts falls off). All five of the contracts we’re about to discuss carry no-trade clauses as well, meaning that moving them, even in theory, will be harder than just sorting out who might want the contract.

Brayden Schenn ($6.5 million per season through 2027-28)

Brayden Schenn might be the least objectionable of these contracts, but history indicates that it will become a problem over time. He’s still a contributing player, but his metrics are already trending lower, and he’s 31. By the time he’s 34, 35, and 36 towards the end of this contract, $6.5 million is likely to be a significant overpay for his services.

Jordan Binnington ($6 million per season through 2026-27)

Jordan Binnington has been a subpar goaltender for two seasons now. He still has his defenders, who look to blame the defensive unit for the team’s struggles to prevent goals against. There is truth to that (and the next three contracts we discuss will be on defense), but Binnington simply hasn’t done enough. Great goalies overcome bad defenses. Good goalies keep their team in the game despite bad defense. Binnington has done neither this season, and the team is committed to him for four more.

Justin Faulk ($6.5 million per season through 2026-27)

Of the three defensemen we’re about to discuss, Justin Faulk has been the most consistent contributor to the team. But his metrics have been abysmal this season, and he has not been good enough to be a first-pairing defenseman. That puts him on an even plain with his peers, but it’s a concern given what the Blues are still committed to him for.

Justin Faulk St. Louis Blues
Justin Faulk, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),

Faulk shined last season. He was the best defenseman on the team by far. He might still be the best defenseman on the team, but that’s not saying all that much. Faulk might be the contract that the team is most willing to keep. But he is still overpaid and for too long, and he’s part of this complex picture.

Torey Krug

When Armstrong chose to sign Torey Krug to replace the departing Alex Pietrangelo, he may have believed he was taking a major step in moving the team to a faster-paced, transition-style game. But Krug has never quite fit in St. Louis. He hasn’t been as poor as some fans believe, but he has struggled to remain as impactful as he once was for the Boston Bruins.

Related: Blues 2021-22 Report Cards: Torey Krug

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Krug has not ever been a fit for the Blues, and even now there are rumors of his imminent departure. Moving his contract would be a major step towards accelerating a rebuild. But if he stays, he will be a costly anchor on any supposed “retrench” Armstrong hopes to pursue.

Colton Parayko

Now we move to the most interesting name on the list. By all appearances, the eight-year, $52 million contract Colton Parayko began this season would be the hardest to move. But rumors are swirling ahead of the trade deadline that the towering blueliner could move to a city like Ottawa or elsewhere. Of course, like all five of these players, Parayko will have to approve any such move. But if he views the Blues as a sinking ship, he might see it as the best next step for his career.

Talent Gap in St. Louis

Those five contracts will make a quick retrench very difficult for Armstrong. But if rumors are true that there is trade interest in several of those players, that could potentially accelerate the process — if it wasn’t for the fact that the Blues now have a serious talent gap they need to fill. It isn’t as simple as moving out contracts. No matter how much money he moves out, Armstrong will be left to retool the team he’s left with. And that could prove a major issue based on three factors.

Struggling Goaltending

Binnington’s numbers haven’t been good enough for two seasons. But for an incredible performance in last year’s playoffs, there would be very little reason to believe he is a viable option going forward. Even with that stretch, though, there are major questions about whether he can really carry the torch for the Blues going forward. Unfortunately, there is no clear alternative available.

Jordan Binnington St. Louis Blues
Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

American Hockey League (AHL) goaltender Joel Hofer recently signed a one-way contract for the next two seasons, suggesting he is the Blues’ backup of the future. At 22, the former World Junior Championship star might have what it takes to be the team’s long-term answer in net, but he is not the short-term solution. The best Armstrong can hope for is that Hofer fits in quickly and increasingly takes over duties from Binnington, meaning that between the two, he will have a relatively cost-effective goaltending solution until Binnington’s contract falls off. But that is taking a lot on faith. Unfortunately, unless he can unload his veteran netminder’s contract, that is the best solution he is left with. The goalie situation will be a major factor in any rebuild, and not one that is easy to solve.

Defense in Shambles

We’ve already focused on the three biggest issues on defense. Behind them, both Nick Leddy and Marco Scandella are overpaid and underperforming (though the latter just came back from a lengthy injury and only has one season remaining on his contract). Thereis no reason to belabor the point: the Blues defense is completely broken, extremely overpaid, and totally nonfunctional. But as much as Armstrong might want to tear it down to the studs, clearly, no team can function without a solid defense. And the Blues have no clear answers on that front. They have no defensive prospects on the rise nor any answers on who would comprise the top four if any or several of Krug, Faulk, and Parayko moved. It’s a tough puzzle, and not one that can likely be worked out in a few weeks or months.

Top Heavy Offense

The biggest reason for hope that the Blues could have a quick turnaround is their extremely talented and young forward group. The trio of Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, and Pavel Buchnevich can match up against most of the best lines in the league and should continue to improve as Thomas and Kyrou age. But behind them, the team’s offense is severely short-staffed.

In the last eight months or so, the Blues have lost three key forwards in O’Reilly, Tarasenko, and David Perron. Though the team could look to bring back O’Reilly this summer, they would still be significantly short of impact players down the lineup, with Ivan Barbashev potentially departing as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Schenn and fellow veteran Brandon Saad are solid pieces, but there is very little behind them. It might only require a couple key additions to restock the team with a potent offense — especially with youngsters like Jake Neighbours, Zachary Bolduc, and the breakout NCAA star Jimmy Snuggerud waiting to make an impact soon — but those are still additions that have to be made thoughtfully. Meier could indeed compliment this squad significantly, but they would still want three competitive lines to make a deep playoff run, and they are not close at present.

Armstrong Has His Work Cut Out for Him

In the balance, talking about a quick “retrench” is nice. It keeps fans and ownership happy, thinking that the painful days they’re experiencing might be shortlived. And for a general manager, it’s simply old-fashioned job security. To offer the prospect of a quick rebuild is to minimize the problems you’ve created that you now have to dig out of. It’s clear why tat would be Armstrong’s preferred path forward.

But the question remains how realistic that path forward is. To accomplish it, Armstrong will need to add key pieces to his forward core, completely rebuild a defense while moving out multiple costly contracts, and find a solution in net with an expensive, fan-favorite goaltender who hasn’t been getting the job done that will be hard to move. It’s not impossible, and Armstrong has been one of the most effective GMs of the last decade. If anyone can do it, it could be him. But as he told the players in his harshly-worded press conference on Friday, “the next decade starts today.” The process of rebuilding the St. Louis Blues is a long-term procedure with long-term ramifications. It can’t be rushed, and it won’t be a quick fix.

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