The St. Louis Blues once again overshadowed an impressive regular season with another early playoff exit, which leaves everyone from the front office out wondering exactly what moves need to be made to finally get close to the coveted end prize, the illusive Stanley Cup. Here we look at the best and worst case scenario for the on-ice personnel heading into the summer of 2015.
First we’ll take a look at the players who will almost positively be back in Blue next season, regardless of which end scenario plays out. Here you’ll find budding superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz alongside perennial Blues like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. These players will be the new core moving forward (although Pietrangelo was part of the old core as well), and could be just what the doctor ordered for ‘sick’ fans around the Midwest.
Besides the obvious Tarasenko signing (RFA) that looms large over GM Doug Armstrong this summer, he does already have a very talented, fresh core to take place of the current one (Backes, Oshie, Steen, Jackman, Berglund). Players like the aforementioned Schwartz and Lehtera who compliment the semi-vet core of Pietro and Shatty are already in place, but others will surely return based on contracts if nothing else, which could cause some mixed reactions from area fans.
Those players include the crafty, play-making, hometown veteran Paul Stastny (3 years left on his 4 year, 7M/year deal), perennial tough guy and grinder Ryan Reaves (3 years left on his 4 year, 1.125M/year deal), and the less skilled, overly enthusiastic tough guy Steve Ott (1 year left on his 2 year, 2.6M/year deal). Ott may be used in a multi-deal trade, but most teams will look to avoid his contract unless they really need to fill a role on bottom lines. Rounding out the returning Blues will likely be the newest mainstay from the organizational depth chart this summer, Dmitrij Jaskin (1 year left on his 3 year/.7725M entry level deal) who showed his promise, especially when paired with players like Stastny who help him create time and space using his big frame to do work in the offensive zone. Lastly, both goalies will be mainstays on the roster unless Brian Elliott gets a true starting job elsewhere in the near future. If this happens Allen will have some growing pains as fans saw for brief moments in this year’s playoffs, but should be great for the Note overall in the short and long runs.
On Their Way Out
Now that we’ve looked at the new core that should be in place next year, the good and the ‘not-so-good’ pieces of it, here’s who will likely be on their way out of the St. Louis area over this summer. Unfortunately a lot of trade deadline “rentals” will be on their way out just as Ryan Miller was last season, as they simply didn’t have the desired effect to the team, though some were barely even given a look. These players include international play-maker Olli Jokinen, face-off expert Marcel Goc, and offensive-defenseman Chris Butler (another St. Louis native) who are all UFAs this summer. These moves will likely be made to aid the Blues future depth moving forward, as many prospects show they are close to NHL-ready, already.
Hard Decisions to Make
Here’s where things get sticky for the Blues front office, and especially for Doug Armstrong. As has already been documented around the area, some of the old core has to go, regardless of their bonds with many area fans and businesses, or how sad it will be to see them move on. Public Enemy (or friend depending on the view you take) number-1 on this list is TJ Oshie. Unfortunately the skilled power-forward will likely be the first of the core to pack his bags due to his consistent lackluster play in the postseason, and the absence of a no-trade clause from his contract (2 years left on his 5 year, 4.175M/year deal), mixed with his high-market value. From there the focus shifts to another long time Blue, Patrik Berglund. He will likely go in a package deal somewhere, or may stay a 3rd line-Blue if his stout contract cannot be unloaded (2 years left on his 3 year, 3.7M/year deal), but he will be heavily shopped by the Note. Barret Jackman will also be wondering his fate throughout the summer as he is a UFA this year, and the team can sign him for short term depth, or could use him in a deal for some future considerations.
Following suit will likely be up-and-comer Ty Rattie (RFA with 1 year left on his 3 year, .7725M/year entry level deal) to create space for Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev, and quick-up defenseman Carl Gunnarsson who showed too many inconsistencies throughout the season and in the playoffs. The only way Gunnarsson comes back next season is if the organization decides to go a different route with stalwart, shot-blocker Zbynek Michalek (who again is a UFA this summer), but he and Bortuzzo seem to be a much needed breath of fresh air to the shrinking (height/weight-wise) St. Louis blue-line. However, Big-Z may still be the odd man out with another fresh-faced D-man, Petteri Lindbohm, showing real signs of promise this past season. Unfortunately beloved Blue Chris Porter (UFA) may be packing his bags as well, depending on how much of the core is moved and how much extra room is needed for the up-and-coming prospects like Fabbri and Barbashev among others. Lastly, Magnus Paajarvi (remember him?, RFA) will likely be resigned in the AHL or moved for those future considerations in a deal this summer, either way he may have played his last game with the Note. Lastly, don’t be too surprised if you end up seeing either David Backes or Alexander Steen moved this summer, depending on the marketplace and the possible return. Is this scenario likely, no, but the market will dictate the summer and Tom Stillman wants a Cup badly, so time will tell.
Most Likely Unpacking
Here’s a look at the rest of the Blues roster that should return next season, barring that really great deal coming around this summer. This group includes players like the previously mentioned David Backes, Alexander Steen, and Zbynek Michalek all who are UFAs when their respective contracts expire (1 year, 2 years, and this summer). Steen is the most likely choice to return from this group as he is the quarterback on the PP and has had the most notable success in the playoffs (timely goals). However he and Backes both only average about .45 points per game in the postseason, a true sore spot for the Blues as top-line players who have the most ice time and chances to score (just for comparison Toews and Kane average .885 and 1.01 playoff points per game respectively).
As previously hinted at, if the Blues feel that Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev are NHL-ready next September the organization will find a way to start getting them into games next season. That means other moves will need to be made over the summer or early in the year like one involving Rattie. Rounding out those staying in the ‘Lou will be 2 defensemen who want a strong showing throughout next season to become those next perennial Blues. Jay Bouwmeester (an almost perennial already) and Robert Bortuzzo will both likely return to man the Note’s back-end, however they’ll have different driving forces behind their play. Bouwmeester will look to make up for his “off” year that saw him miss his career 30-40 point plateau by a wide margin (only amassed 13 points last season, but did miss 10 games due to injury) while Bortuzzo will look to continue to make a name for himself as a heavy-hitting, hard-nosed team defenseman in the Gateway to the West.
Best & Worst Case Scenario for Next Season
There’s the layout, and as summer unfolds and the Blues make moves next season’s roster will become more clear. Depending on who the Blues decide will man the bench as the head coach will cause some differences, but again, we are looking at on-ice personnel.
Best Case Scenario
The good news comes first, as the best case scenario for the St. Louis Blues will be a seamless transition from Captain David Backes to either Schwartz or Stastny donning the ‘C’. The new core will take over and show that the work ethic that goes into the regular season doesn’t just stop in the playoffs but gets more intense, and the team will find ways to make plays by keeping their feet moving fast and the puck moving faster to create havoc in opposing team’s zones. This style of play should be led by a version of the STL line (Stastny or Schwartz) with balanced scoring coming from at least 3 of the 4 lines. The depth will come through in the regular season, and beyond, as roster gaps are filled with proven postseason performers.
The defense will tighten up as Bortuzzo and Michalek get settled into their new roles and will be able to help the goalies backstop the team past tough playoff competition like Chicago, LA, Winnepeg, and Minnesota come spring. They will use all 3 zones to create time and space and piggyback off Tarasenko’s scoring prowess leading them deep into the playoffs, learning from and building off of the previous 3 season’s mishaps in a constructive manner.
Worst Case Scenario
The bad news would be another season just as the previous 3. Regardless of playoff seeding the Blues should still make the big dance, but if they don’t make the necessary moves this summer and some of the old leadership stays as a part of the new core, things could transfer from one core group to the next, as may have been the case across the Blues history. This could lead to inconsistent play, no heart, miss-development of prospects, and more lax play in the postseason that could see the Blues take a plunge in the standings the year after a 4th straight early playoff exit. This would certainly spell a disastrous scenario for the team, all of its personnel on and off the ice, and the city; all of which no one wants. So let’s stay positive and see what summer holds, and what next year’s transitioning team can do in the tough Western Conference.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.