It’s no secret: after the eventful offseason the St. Louis Blues have had, should they struggle to make the playoffs this season, it’s likely the responsibility of goaltender Jake Allen. Allen’s inconsistencies last season, and at various points throughout his career, have left the netminder as the major remaining question mark entering the season.
Blues fans certainly hope that Allen has found answers in what has been a very busy offseason for him; however, the Blues need to have fail-safes in place should Allen struggle. Here is a look at some options, ranked from most likely to least, that the Blues could turn to in that event.
1) Chad Johnson
The obvious immediate solution if Allen struggles is to replace him with newly acquired backup goaltender Chad Johnson. Last year, when Allen broke down in the middle of the season, Carter Hutton stepped into the crease and took the NHL by storm, finishing the season ranked atop the league in both save percentage and goals against average.
Unfortunately for the Blues, Hutton’s performance earned him an opportunity as a starter with the Buffalo Sabres, a move which freed Chad Johnson to sign in St. Louis. Johnson’s numbers last year were less than great; in fact, they were worse than Allen’s final numbers. But the Blues have had success in recent years with rehabilitating or perfecting backup goaltenders (before Hutton, there was Brian Elliott), and Johnson has had much better seasons than 2017-18 in years past.
Certainly, if Allen struggles, it will be Johnson who will get the first crack at stopping the bleeding. Still, with his struggles last season, there’s no doubt that Blues fans will be just as nervous about Johnson as they are about Allen, until he gives them a reason to feel otherwise.
2) Ville Husso
Next up in the Blues’ organization is top goaltending prospect Ville Husso. Husso is young, just 23, but he is probably close to NHL-ready. In his first season in the AHL last year, Husso posted a 2.42 GAA and a .922 SV%. For that performance, Husso earned the honor of being the goaltender selected to the AHL All-Rookie team.
The question with Husso is not about his skill. It’s about whether the Blues’ front office is ready to call him into regular NHL action. He’s still young and he’s a prized asset in the Blues’ system. They may not be willing to use Husso in an emergency relief capacity if Allen falls apart, as they might fear such unexpected exposure could inhibit his development. But it’s possible the front office feels Husso is readier than some might expect. In that case, Blues’ fans could be seeing a lot of him this season.
3) Calvin Pickard/Curtis McElhinney
There are several goaltenders in Toronto who could provide support in the event that Allen stumbles, and they might be available to the Blues via trade. With Toronto goalie prospect Garret Sparks likely ready to take over the NHL backup role, both Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney will be relegated to an AHL role, where neither goalie particularly belongs.
Both Pickard and McElhinney have NHL experience to their credit. McElhinney, 35, is a career NHL backup, but has shown some good performances in his career, particularly last year. In 18 games with the Leafs, he posted a .934 SV% and a 2.14 GAA, a performance that earned him a selection to Team Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Championship. Pickard, just 26, played last year in the AHL, but spent 2016-17 as a regular starter for the Avalanche. There, he posted a .904 SV% and a 2.98 GAA, despite playing for a team that finished dead-last in the NHL with just 48 points.
Given that the Maple Leafs seem set at the NHL level and AHL goaltending is something of an unnecessary luxury, either of these goaltenders could probably be acquired by the Blues at a reasonable price. Neither would necessarily be a long-term solution, but they could hold down the fort until Allen got back on his feet.
4) Cam Talbot
Now we’re dipping further into the world of fantasy, but not impossibility. Cam Talbot has been a very fine goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers ever since they acquired him from the New York Rangers back in 2015. In 196 games for the Oilers, Talbot has posted a .914 SV% and a 2.65 GAA, collecting 11 shutouts along the way. Talbot has been one of the more quietly consistent goaltenders in the entire league during his stint in Alberta.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) September 19, 2018
But Talbot is now 31 and is in the final year of his contract with the Oilers. 31 isn’t old for a goaltender, and it’s very possible the Oilers will want him back; however, that may depend somewhat on how the season proceeds. Last year, the Oilers were unexpectedly bad and finished well out of playoff contention. If they find themselves on that trajectory again, they may have different opinions about their future, particularly because they have recently reloaded their stable of goalkeepers. If the Oilers are out of it by the trade deadline and Allen is struggling, it may be a match made in heaven that allows the Blues to trade for Talbot as they push for the playoffs.
5) Sergei Bobrovsky
There is growing unrest in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets’ two biggest stars, forward Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, are in the final years of their contracts. Recently, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he couldn’t commit to either player even being with the team at the start of the season. While a trade before October remains unlikely, it’s a telling sign of a possible dystopian future for the Blue Jackets.
Should Bobrovsky become available, there are few teams in the league who could afford not to be interested, as Bobrovsky is among the league’s elite goaltenders. He has won two Vezina Trophies, most recently for his 2016-17 season, and has a phenomenal .923 SV% and 2.37 GAA in his six seasons in Columbus. With all this success, he’s still only just turning 30 later this week, so he probably has a long career ahead of him.
The difficulty with Bobrovsky is whether the Blues could acquire him. With all their offseason moves, they are pressed right up against the cap and could not easily afford Bobrovsky’s $7.425 million AAV. This maneuvering would become easier closer to the deadline, however. But would the Blues be willing to trade for Bobrovsky and clearly signal the end of the Jake Allen era in St. Louis?
That is where familiarity with the Blue Jackets’ organization may come into play. Kekalainen was the Blues’ scouting director when the team drafted Allen, and may still be a big believer in his talents. If that is indeed the case, perhaps the Blue Jackets could be enticed to relieve their own goaltending situation by trading one year of Bobrovsky for three years of Jake Allen. Obviously, the Blues would need to include more than that to get a goaltender of Bobrovsky’s caliber, but it might be a nice way for each organization to cure their goaltending woes in one fell swoop, if the financial details could be resolved.
Best Case Scenario
Some of these answers are obvious, some of them are speculative, some of them are wishful thinking. All of them could be unnecessary in the best-case scenario. The best-case scenario is that Jake Allen has conquered whatever issues have plagued him in the past and is ready to take the NHL world by storm.
It’s not impossible that he might do so. When Mike Yeo took over the team in 2017, Allen almost immediately transformed into one of the best goalies in the league. After the All-Star break that season, he posted an absurd .935 SV% with a 1.93 GAA. He rode that regular-season momentum into the playoffs, where he all but single-handedly carried the Blues past the Minnesota Wild and into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If the Jake Allen that appeared in the second half of the 2016-17 season reappears this year and stays around for the duration, all of the above emergency scenarios go by the wayside. That’s the best case scenario for the Blues: that Jake Allen, their oft-proclaimed “goalie of the future” actually materializes as their goalie of the future.
But it will take a lot to convince Blues’ fans that Jake Allen can be a steadily great NHL goaltender. And one more breakdown like last season and the season before will permanently shake the confidence of the fans and probably the front office as well. In that case, the team had better have some fail-safes in mind, and they’d better be prepared to enact them at the first sign of trouble.
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.