Has St. Louis done enough to surpass the Kings and Blackhawks?

St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner

St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner

While Los Angeles are the Champions and Chicago have been the darlings of the NHL of in the last four years, there are a crop of Western Conference teams that are hoping to catch up to them. Outside of the Kings and Blackhawks, only Vancouver, San Jose and Phoenix have competed in the Western Conference Finals since 2010 and both teams are going backwards. There is, however, only one other Western Conference team that is in the top five in close-score puck possession over the last five seasons, and that is the St. Louis Blues.

Even though this team does not seem quite old, there is a sense that this current edition has to win in the playoffs now, or they may never win it all until they have to rebuild and start from scratch again. This doesn’t help that these are the prospects for such a cursed franchise like St. Louis. This is the same franchise that gave Scotty Bowman his first coaching job, but everyone forgets that instead of the Flyers being the first non-original six team to make three straight Stanley Cup finals appearances, it was actually the Blues. Granted, this was at a time when all the expansion teams were put in the same division when the NHL went from six to twelve teams, but since the Blues never won the Cup, no one cares. Now, it has been 44 years since their last trip to the finals. In the early to mid-90s, the Blues should have won it all back when they had Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Scott Stevens, a young Rod Brind’Amour, Phil Housley, Jeff Brown and Curtis Joseph on the team. But like this current crop, the Blues were stuck in a tough division. It featured Jeremy Roenick’s Chicago Blackhawks, Steve Yzerman’s Detroit Red Wings, Mike Madano’s Minnesota/Dallas team and Doug Gilmour’s Maple Leafs. The fact that they made the playoffs every year was enough of an achievement, but they couldn’t get over the hump.

To put the cherry on top, the Blues would have Jacques Demers, Jacques Martin, Brian Sutter, Mike Keenan, Joel Quenneville coaching them within a 21-year span. Whatever your thought’s on anyone of them are, that list contains five of the 22 head coaches in NHL history to coach 1,000 regular season games. If you really want to add salt in this wound, let’s add the fact that Al Arbour’s first 107 games as an NHL head coach were with the Blues from 1970-1972. Fast forward eight years later, and Arbour would win the first of four straight Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. If you add in Bowman and current head coach Ken Hitchcock, you get eight out of the 22 head coaches in the 1,000-games club, including two of the best.

The last golden opportunity this franchise had was the 2001 season, when they easily lost to the Colorado Avalanche in five games in the Western Conference Finals. However, that team comprised of a 31-year old Pierre Turgeon, a 37-year old Al MacInnes, a 33-year old Scott Young and a 30-year old Roman Turek. Sure, this team had a young Chris Pronger and Pavol Demitra (R.I.P.), but outside of Jochen Hecht, there was no one on this team younger than 25 that put up 40 points or more that season. Surely, this team was due for a rebuild and that’s what happened to them in their first season after the 2005 lockout.

After that season, the team would have the number one overall pick, but instead of taking a forward in Jordan Staal, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel or Jonathan Toews, they took a defenseman in Erik Johnson. In hindsight, the approach to this pick did not make sense. Sure, the draft philosophy is mostly about picking the best player instead of the best fit for the team, but St. Louis was the only team in the league to score less than 200 goals in 2006. Their six leading scorers on the team were 38, 35, 34, 30, 32 and 33-years old respectively. To top it all off, do you know which other defenseman played more than 200 games in that 2006 draft class? They are Andrew MacDonald, Jamie McBain, Mike Weber and Jeff Petry and not a single one of them were a first round pick (in fact, none of the other eight defensemen taken in the first round have played more than 47 games). If that is not the worst defensemen draft class in recent memory, I don’t know what to tell you.

Despite playing 409 career games (14th amongst 2006 draftees), Johnson was a disaster for them and has never shown any signs of developing into one of the best defensemen in hockey. This would be among the many reasons why the Blues would miss the playoffs for four of the next five years. As if this team doesn’t need more proverbial lemon juice squirted on their proverbial eyeballs, Toews would go on to get drafted third overall by their rivals in Chicago and captain them to two Stanley Cups.

Four years later, out went long-time General Manager Larry Pleau and in came Doug Armstrong, who was General Manager of the Dallas Stars for five years and was a member of their front office from 1991 to 2007. Like his current Blues teams, the Stars would have three out of his five teams surpass the 100-point mark in the standings, but would never be able to get beyond the second round of the playoffs. Armstrong was able to draft solidly by bringing in James Neal, Loui Eriksson, Trevor Daley, Jaime Benn, Matt Niskanen, B.J. Crombeen and Nicklas Grossman, but none of his first round picks would go on to be good enough to be cornerstones of the franchise. Along with those picks not panning out to that level, Armstrong’s major trades never seemed to go in his favor. That is why he was fired despite having his teams make the playoffs every year.

When Armstrong first started his tenure, fans will remember him trading prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz to Montreal for goaltender Jaroslav Halak, but it was a trade with Ottawa that seems forgotten. That trade involved Armstrong giving up on a prized prospect in David Rundblad for a first round pick in the 2010 draft. Rundblad was St. Louis’ 2009 first round pick and was just coming off a year where he played for Sweden in his second World Junior Championships and played 92 career games in the Swedish Elite League. The next year, he would put up 50 points in 55 games as a defenseman before moving over to North America. However, that first round pick Armstrong picked up turned into Vladimir Tarasenko and Rundblad has been struggling for playing time at the NHL level since the trade.

Halfway through the 2010-11 season, Armstrong would trade the aforementioned Erik Johnson and other pieces for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk. Stewart brought the occasional pop on offense, but Shattenkirk has now been an offensive force on the blueline and a key piece to St. Louis’ core.

That set up all the foundations needed for the Blues to develop patiently and become a consistent playoff team. Once the team got to that level, Armstrong decided to make another move and traded for Jay Bouwmeester at the 2013 trade deadline. Since then, Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo have formed one of the best defenseman pairs in hockey.

However, lady luck looked like it decided to not work anymore for Armstrong last season when he traded Stewart and Halak to Buffalo for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. Miller is no longer on the team and Steve Ott kept doing Steve Ott things ( a.k.a. Things that don’t relate to winning hockey games).

Now the Blues are back at it after Armstrong acquired Paul Stastny and former 2008 draft pick Jori Lehtera, traded sheltered d-man Roman Polak to Toronto for Carl Gunnarsson and has allowed Brian Elliott and Jake Allen to compete for the starting goaltending job. Despite all this, one of the better defensive forwards in hockey in Vladimir Sobotka decided to leave for the KHL rather than see what he could get through arbitration while being a restricted free agent. As a result, Steve Ott had to be resigned after losing Sobotka. Peter Mueller and Joakim Lindstrom were brought over as low risk signings, as Mueller was away from hockey for a year recovering from concussion-like symptoms and the 30-year Lindstrom has only played 97 career NHL games despite scoring in bunches in Sweden. It is believed that these two serve as the bridge to whenever St. Louis feels like the time is right to promote Dmitrij Jaskin into the lineup, but the Blues need all the talent it can get in their forward lines to surpass the Blackhawks and Kings.

First, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko will be counted on even more to be top tier goalscorers this season. Some will argue that pairing them with Stastny will form the team’s best line, but putting them with captain David Backes has proven to be lethal from a possession standpoint. Instead, Stastny will partner with Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, last year’s top line wingers. The latter two lines will make all the difference this year as Patrik Berglund is the only one in that group to consistently show the pedigree of defensive play and good goalscoring numbers. The rest of the those line combinations will consist of Ott, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Lindstrom, Mueller, Jaskin, Lehtera and Maxim Lapierre. Another underrated player to watch out for is scrawny goal scorer Ty Rattie, another piece received from the Erik Johnson trade who put up 48 points in 72 games last year in the AHL last year in his first season of professional hockey.

According to Rob Vollman, both Lehtera and Lindstrom have what it takes to put up 40 points this season, depending on where Ken Hitchcock will put them in his line combinations. But will having Lehtera and Ott centering the the bottom two lines be enough to outmatch Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger of Chicago or Jared Stoll and Mike Richards of Los Angeles? Even if things are not settled, it does look like Hitchcock has options over their.

As for the defense, while the Pietrangelo-Bouwmeester partnership is set and Shattenkirk will be given huge amounts of offensive zone starts for his point production, uncertainty surrounds the rest of the group. Gunnarsson comes in to replace Polak because he was trusted on tougher assignments in Toronto, but that still doesn’t leave the fact that he was a below-average possession player and that Ian Cole, Barret Jackman and Jordan Leopold are not expected to do much better in that department. Chris Butler can come in as cover, but that is where the depth of this group comes to a halt. Two of their better prospects in that position in Jordan Schmaltz and Colton Parayko won’t join the team this year as they are plying their trade at the NCAA level and Armstrong has only drafted 11 blueliners in his five draft classes (two less than what is expected out of his 37 draft picks). Simply put, Chicago and LA have much better depth along the defensive corps than St. Louis does.

Issues regarding the bottom defensive pairs and forward lines could be changed at the trade deadline as the vast majority of those players are on the last years of their deals. Schwartz may have to face the facts that he will be given the same deal Derek Stepan and Nazem Kadri dealt with last year because the Blues only have less than $2.8 million in cap space. However, that removes all the flexibility Armstrong has to make his team better and that’s what happens when a team like St. Louis decides to shell a few million too much on bigger name players like Stastny this year and Bouwmeester two years ago.

In short, St. Louis has a foundation. They have until 2016 before Backes and Gunnarsson become unrestricted free agents or 2017 when Berglund, Steen, Elliott and Oshie also hit the open market, but Armstrong now has little cap flexibility to deal with if St. Louis wants to make a move and not a huge amount of NHL-ready prospects from within. Can Armstrong pull off some more magic like he has been doing throughout his tenure in St. Louis, or will the luck run out like it did during his time in Dallas?

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