After a relatively quiet beginning to the 2017 NHL Draft, the St. Louis Blues would wind up being the team that stole the show. General manager Doug Armstrong made two trades that may change the identity of the club moving forward. Separate trades included forward Jori Lehtera and enforcer Ryan Reaves.
“I think today was another significant day in what we started a year ago, in trying to transition into a younger group,” Armstrong said following the Draft. “I think this is very much in tune with that game plan. This has been an active day for the St. Louis Blues.”
Calm Before the Storm
This year’s draft lacked superstar prospects like an Auston Matthews or a Connor McDavid but did have consensus number one and two picks in Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick who went to New Jersey and Philadelphia respectively.
Las Vegas had three picks in the first 15 and made Cody Glass the franchise’s first ever draft choice. They selected Nick Suzuki with the 13th pick and Erik Brannstrom with the 15th pick.
The Los Angeles Kings were able to somehow grab Gabriel Vilardi, who was considered to be one of the best players in the entire draft class, at number 11.
Blues Take Thomas at Number 20
After the first 19 picks came and went, Blues fans were complaining that Armstrong was too conservative and that an opportunity to use their two first round draft picks to move up in the draft went to waste.
Some speculated that the Blues may take Ryan Poehling from St. Cloud State University to fit their desire for good two-way forwards. However, Armstrong and the Blues opted to go with Robert Thomas from the London Knights of the OHL. Thomas is compared to Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks. The 17-year-old averaged a point per game with London this season, scoring 16 goals and 66 points in 66 games.
“I’d say I’m a smart, two-way playmaking center,” Thomas told stlouisblues.com when asked to describe his game. “I think I’m very responsible defensively and also very creative offensively.” St. Louis hopes that Thomas will be a top six forward of the future.
Blues fans may have been directing boos towards Armstrong at the television set as loud as Blackhawks fans booed Thomas when he was on stage at the United Center, but little did they know the fun was just about to begin.
Blues say Goodbye to Lehtera
After Hischier and Patrick went off the board as the first and second overall selections the excitement died down. That was until Armstrong and the Blues made a draft night trade that sent their 27th pick that they possessed from Washington (Kevin Shattenkirk trade), forward Jori Lehtera and a conditional pick in 2018 to the Philadelphia Flyers for center Brayden Schenn.
The deal addressed the Blues immediate need for goal scoring after they struggled to put the puck in the net down the stretch in the postseason. The Blues finished 12th in the NHL in goals during the regular season with 233 but only scored 22 goals in their 11 postseason games, averaging two goals per game, which was the worst for any team that made the second round.
A highly disappointing 2016-17 campaign and almost non-existent postseason led to the decision to move on from Lehtera. The 29-year-old Finn had a breakout campaign in 2014-15, scoring 14 goals and dishing 30 helpers for 44 points. His natural chemistry with Vladimir Tarasenko led to a three-year extension worth $14.1 million.
Every season since the Blues inked Lehtera production decreased and his $4.7 million hit against the 2017 cap made Blues fans believe that they were stuck with him until the conclusion of the deal in 2019. Cue the Flyers and general manager Ron Hextall.
Following the deal, BluesTV caught up with Hextall to get his comments on the move. Oddly enough, Hextall had nothing but good things to say about the player they gave up and had some comments that were not exactly flattering about the guy they got in return.
“Part of the deal, you get picks and then use the salary cap we both have, so you’re trying to manage that and balance that,” Hextall said. “We like Jori and his 200-foot game, I think there’s some things that he can get better at. We know he didn’t have a great year, but we expect him to bounce back and be better for it.”
So why would the Flyers want to give up Schenn? Surely the picks are a big part of it, but if you look at the stat sheet alone you’d probably be scratching your head.
The real reason may be concerning for Blues fans. It’s known as the “Brayden Schenn Problem.” The 25-year-old excels on the power play and finds the twine often with a man advantage but he struggles during five-on-five hockey. He was shuffled around the Flyers lineup all season long and was described as being a “liability” when on the ice at even strength.
Schenn struggled in terms of play-driving situations and his scoring rates dipped into fourth liner territory by the end of the season. While Schenn still scored 25 goals last year his shooting percentage dipped from 11.97% in 2015-16 to 4.76%. He didn’t do his teammates any favors either as fellow Flyers saw their Corsi For drop by 4.1 percentage points when skating with Schenn.
The Blues may look into the possibility of moving Schenn back to wing. His lack of defensive prowess makes him problematic on the back end and wings have fewer responsibilities defensively. Whatever the case may be, the Blues are welcoming Schenn with open arms and will ensure they put the Canadian-born power play specialist in a position to succeed. Schenn’s 55 points from last season alone adds up to only 15 points less than Lehtera’s 70 point total from 2014-2017.
The 55 points from Brayden Schenn in 79 games last season is just 15 pts less than Jori Lehtera had in his 3 years(218 gms) with #stlblues.
— Dan Buffa (@buffa82) June 24, 2017
Not Done Yet
Just when everyone thought the Blues were done, Armstrong pulled the trigger on another deal that sent the enforcer Ryan Reaves and the Blues 51st pick to the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Oskar Sundqvist and the 31st overall pick.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) June 24, 2017
“Trading Lehtera and then trading Reaves was kind of like the definition of a hockey fan getting sucker punched,” Dan Buffa of KDSN News in St. Louis said Saturday on the Coach and Cole Show. “Now you find out that all of this was a master plan, they were protecting him because both of these deals were kind of in place for at least a week or so.”
The move hit Blues fans in the heart as Reaves was a St. Louis fan favorite. The fan base was ecstatic when Armstrong decided to protect him over guys like Lehtera and Perron less than a week ago and now it all makes sense.
On paper, Reaves, a fourth line wing for a first round pick and a prospect seems like a no-brainer, but what you don’t see on a stat sheet or box score is how important the longest-tenured Blue is to the locker room.
“That was a real difficult deal for myself and the organization,” Armstrong said. “Ryan is a leader and someone that everyone really respected. He is a real good player and we’re certainly going to miss what he brings to the team. But he’s going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. But it was the ability to get a first-round pick, walk out of this draft with two first-round picks and a player that we have on our roster next year.”
On the other side of this deal Penguins’ nation was not too thrilled with the thought of giving up a first rounder for Reaves. Pensburgh.com called it “a move that drove a schism into the fanbase.”
Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford wanted a guy to protect their superstar Sidney Crosby and they definitely have the man for the job.
“When you want to get the guy that’s the best at doing what he does, then you have to pay a price,” Rutherford said. “Regardless of what we paid, we’re very happy to have him.”
Rutherford is also on record saying that he felt the Penguins star players were treated unfairly during the postseason. Head Coach Mike Sullivan echoed his feelings by saying, “I felt like one of the tactics teams try to deploy to play against us is they try to be physical, they try to bang us, they try to slow us down,” Sullivan said. “That’s one aspect that we noticed a little bit more this year. I think Ryan can help us with a little bit of pushback in that regard.”
Kostin, the Steal of the Draft
With the 31st pick the Blues got in return for Reaves they proceeded to select the NHL’s Central Scouting No. 1-rated European skater, Klim Kostin. Many believed the 18-year-old would be off the board at that stage in the draft and the Blues were ecstatic to see him at 31. Armstrong compared the Russian to Vladimir Tarasenko and the uncertainty surrounding him coming out of the KHL.
Kostin’s draft stock fell after an injury to his shoulder only allowed him to compete in eight games this past season. He is as near NHL ready as any other first-rounder in this year’s draft according to multiple scouting outlets.
“Kostin’s upside is that of a dynamic, top-line scoring winger who can take over games by himself. They are few in his age range that can match the overall skill he brings,” Mark Scheig of The Hockey Writers said in Kostin’s prospect profile.
Kostin’s agent, Dan Milstein has announced that Kostin will only play in North America next season, meaning it will either be with the Blues’ current AHL partner Chicago or with the Blues. Kostin will be in St. Louis next Tuesday to sign his entry-level contract and terminate his current KHL deal with Dynamo Moskva.
Day Two and Beyond
On day two of the NHL Entry Draft, the Blues selected Alexey Toropchenko with the 113th pick. The second generation draft pick (father was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1993) had 19 goals and 12 assists in 49 games last season with MVD Balashikha 2 of the Russia Junior League.
The Blues selected three defensemen to finish the draft. Taking David Noel with the 130th pick, Trenton Bourque at 175, and Anton Andersson of Sweeden with pick 206.
There’s no doubt that St. Louis won the first night of the NHL draft. Armstrong addressed their needs and made rational decisions that could benefit the club for years to come.
Thomas and Kostin may not secure a roster spot on the NHL squad right away but don’t be surprised if both players ascend to big leagues quickly. Schenn will give the Blues a major scoring boost and Sundqvist is already the forgotten man in the scenario but could pay dividends for St. Louis next season.
“We see him as NHL-ready now. He’s coming out of his entry-level contract. He signed a three-year deal,” Armstrong said. “The first year, he went back to play in Sweden and the last two years he’s been in the NHL. Getting NHL games both years, he’s a big, strong centerman, 6’3″, somewhere around 215-220, (plays) a very detail-oriented game.”
The buzz surrounding St. Louis is that Armstrong and the Blues aren’t done yet. First, they will look to sign their restricted free agents, most importantly Colton Parayko who just finished up a two-year, $1.85 million contract. The Blues are currently $10.9 million under the cap, which gives them the flexibility to re-sign their rising star defenseman and possibly bring in a high-profile player before the summer ends.