There are many terms that could describe the Blues’ 2013 season.
Unpredictable. Exciting. Depressing. Uplifting. Gut-wrenching.
But there is one word that can describe many players on the roster: inconsistent.
Brian Elliott, the NHL’s second star of April and the Blues’ workhorse in the playoffs, has been accused of inconsistency this season. He started the season 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage in his first 10 games, warranting a reconditioning stint with the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL in mid-March. He returned with a vengeance, posting an 11-2-0 record with a 1.28 goals-against average, .948 save percentage and three shutouts in 13 games to end the regular season. His 1.90 GAA and .919 save percentage were the sole reason that the Blues had any chance to defeat the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs.
While some may call it inconsistent, I call it clutch. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for some players who will see their contracts expire this summer.
General Manager Doug Armstrong will have plenty of difficult decisions to mull over during the remainder of the NHL playoffs. After seeing his club finish with a 29-17-2 record, good enough for 60 points and the fourth seed in the Western Conference, Armstrong has the better part of his team’s core without contracts.
This group includes restricted free agent forwards Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart, along with RFA defensemen Kris Russell, Ian Cole, Kevin Shattenkirk and top minute-eater Alex Pietrangelo. The unrestricted free-agent list includes forwards Andy McDonald, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol along with one of the two defensemen acquired at the trade deadline, Jordan Leopold.
After a bitter end to a successful, shortened season, how does Armstrong approach the off-season? Who stays and who goes?
Patrick Berglund (RFA)
Making $2.40 million last season on one of Armstrong’s patented “show me what you can do” contracts, Berglund will be due for a raise on his next deal. In 2012-13, the 24-year old Swede had 17 points (14G-3A) in his first 26 games played; he followed that up with just 8 points (4G-4A) in the last 22 games of the season.
Inconsistency has played a major factor in Berglund’s inability to land a long-term deal. He has gone from being a top-six forward to Head Coach Ken Hitchcock’s doghouse many times the past two seasons, seeing some time on the fourth line.
Verdict: Berglund was one of the faces of the Blues’ rebuild, coming up the same time as fan-favorite T.J. Oshie. He possesses one of the best sets of hands on the team, but his ineffectiveness to thrive in mid-season play warrants many question marks in regards to desire and motivation. Armstrong will likely offer Berglund a mid-term deal for about the same that he made in his last deal (2 years, $4.50 million). The verdict is out on whether Berglund feels he deserves the same.
Ian Cole (RFA)
The first of three defensemen coming off an entry-level deal, Ian Cole has had many stints with the Blues in his three-year professional career. After Armstrong could not strike a deal with a veteran defenseman last summer, the team turned to Cole to fill the sixth defenseman void. He showed signs of youth throughout the season, encouraging the acquisitions of Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester, forcing Cole out of the lineup for the remainder of the season.
Verdict: Cole has proven to be a steady defenseman on the AHL level. Maybe with another year in development, he will be able to step up to the NHL level on a consistent basis. He still has an extreme upside that the NHL team hopes they will see in the very near future.
Alex Pietrangelo (RFA)
Pietrangelo was marked as the team’s top defenseman after Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer were moved during the 2010-11 season. He followed that honor up with a Norris-caliber season in 2011-12 in just his second NHL season.
In 48 games in 2013, Pietrangelo did not impress as he did the season prior. After posting a plus-16 in 2011-12, Pietrangelo finished 2012-13 with an even plus/minus along with a few unmemorable defensive gaffes to go along with it. Still, Pietrangelo was the Blues’ undisputed #1 defenseman after leading the team with 25:06 average time-on-ice.
Verdict: Pietrangelo is a top-priority for this team in the off-season. His defensive prowess and quick stick will earn him quite the raise from his current entry-level contract. The Blues will need to act fast as teams will be lining up to sign him to an offer sheet. Just ask the Nashville Predators how that goes.
Kris Russell (RFA)
Already a veteran of six NHL seasons, the 26-year old Russell was one of the few veterans on the blue line heading into last season. But with the acquisitions of Bouwmeester and Leopold, Russell was forced out of the lineup and moved to the seventh defenseman role. With Leopold’s future uncertain, Russell expects the chance to earn his spot back next season.
Verdict: Despite losing his spot, Russell was a solid puck-moving defenseman for both seasons as a Blue. He possesses quick feet and a great work ethic. You could do a lot worse than having Russell as your #7 defenseman. Expect Armstrong to re-up Russell at a low price.
Kevin Shattenkirk (RFA)
Like Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk will be a priority for the Blues heading into this postseason. He is always amongst the team leaders in assists and plus/minus. His ability to get the puck out of his zone is one of the tops in the league.
Verdict: Sign him. At the age of 24, Shattenkirk seems to only get more comfortable as each season goes along. The maximum contract allowed to re-sign players under the current CBA is eight years; he should receive whatever Owner Tom Stillman is willing to part with.
Chris Stewart (RFA)
The 25-year old power forward has been an enigma for Coach Hitchcock. When the coach arrived on the scene and implemented a defense-first mentality in 2011-12, Stewart was not as effective at any position on the ice. He finished the season with 14 goals and 14 assists, which were numbers that were far less than expected. Like Berglund, Stewart found time either riding the bench or playing fourth line minutes.
His play picked up in 2013, after spending time playing in Europe during the lockout and getting in better shape during the off-season. He ended the 2012-13 season leading the team with 18 goals and 36 points in 48 games played. He was leading the Blues’ offensive charge into the playoffs but posted just one assist in six games. He even posted just 10 shots in the first four games of the series.
Verdict: Stewart has posted just two goals and one assist in 13 playoff games with the Blues… numbers that definitely leave more to be desired. Even after a solid season, I do not expect Armstrong to make Stewart a priority for the club. Expect Armstrong to qualify Stewart, which keeps his RFA status and keeps his rights with the Blues. This could lead to another GM signing Stewart to an offer sheet. Depending on the dollar amount of the deal, the compensation heading back to the Blues could be a slew of draft picks that could prove to be valuable.
Jamie Langenbrunner (UFA)
The most decorated player on the roster was brought back to a one-year contract last summer but played in just four games this season. He had to face hip surgery in February and needed the rest of the season to rehabilitate.
Verdict: Langenbrunner added a lot of veteran know-how to the roster two seasons ago and even contributed some big goals down the stretch. He has stated that he plans to return to the NHL in 2013-14; unfortunately, I do not see Langenbrunner fitting in the Blues’ plans next season.
Jordan Leopold (UFA)
Leopold, acquired on March 30 from the Buffalo Sabres, played in 21 games for the Blues (regular season and playoffs), accumulating two assists and a minus-4 in that time. Mostly paired with Shattenkirk, Leopold showed some offensive instincts that generated scoring chances against the Kings but never could solve Jonathan Quick (much like the rest of the team).
Verdict: The Blues’ decision on whether to bring back Leopold will rest solely on price. He was used in all situations, including special teams and tight-game situations. He earned $3.00 million last season and if he can agree to about the same pay on a short-term basis, he will likely return to the Blues’ lineup.
Andy McDonald (UFA)
Acquired during the 2007-08 season, McDonald has been a staple in the Blues’ offense for the past six seasons. Going through linemates such as Brad Boyes, Keith Tkachuk and Alex Steen, McDonald was a big contributor to the Blues’ return to the postseason.
Verdict: Even though McDonald has been the face of the team offense for the past few seasons, he has not been the dynamic player he once was. Like Stewart, McDonald was a non-factor in the playoffs with zero points and 10 shots. McDonald’s career with the Blues was a memorable one, but all good things have to come to an end at some point.
Scott Nichol (UFA)
A reliable fourth-line center, Nichol was taken out of the lineup with a lower-body injury in early April and did not return the rest of the season. This was not entirely due to his injury; instead, Nichol had been replaced by Chris Porter on the fourth line, rounding out a solid line with Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves.
Verdict: Although Nichol is still considered a top faceoff man league-wide, he will likely be left unsigned. Porter seemed more than capable to take over the 38-year old’s position.