Goaltending largely has been the Achilles’ heel for the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs ever since the franchise’s inception. Tied for the most points at the Olympic break, inconsistent play from Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott could prevent the club from making a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
The Blues’ front office has three options as they head down the home stretch of the regular season:
1. Stay the course
Halak and Elliott are very good—during short stretches, even great. But neither has been able to put a stranglehold on the No. 1 job in St. Louis.
Halak started the season strong, posting 14 wins with a .915 save percentage in October and November. Struggles in December led to just three victories and a .885 save percentage before rebounding with a 1.70 goals-against average in January.
Goalies are entitled to their ups and downs, but when Halak struggles, the challenge appears to be as much mental as physical.
Reliability also has been a major issue. Injuries have limited Halak to two playoff games for the Blues. Healthy at the end of last season, Coach Ken Hitchcock decided to ride the hot hand of Elliott in St. Louis’ first-round loss to Los Angeles.
Halak’s stellar play in helping the Canadiens overcome a 3-1 series deficit to the Capitals in the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals is well-documented. It forced Montreal to choose between Carey Price and him, ultimately leading to his trade to St. Louis.
That means little now. Overlooked in Halak’s small sample of greatness four years ago are the games in that series, as well as the Conference Semifinals against Pittsburgh, when he was so-so at best.
And Halak won’t carry any momentum coming out of Sochi following his Swiss-cheese performance for Slovakia.
Elliott has his demons, too.
Blues fans won’t forget Dustin Penner’s goal in Game 6 against the Kings last season. He rifled a shot past Elliott from just inside the blue line with less than a second remaining in the second period, giving LA a 2-1 lead. It sent the Blues packing.
St. Louis led 2-0 in that series. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick had his shaky moments the first two games. But he was the clear difference over Elliott in LA winning four straight and bouncing the Note from the playoffs for the second straight season.
It’s the kind of goal Elliott can’t give up during the regular season, much less the Stanley Cup playoffs. The kind of goal that conjured up painful memories for Blues fans of Steve Yzerman’s double-overtime series clincher for Detroit in 1996.
Elliott has struggled managing rebounds at times. During cold streaks, he also won't aggressively challenge shooters. Those flaws get magnified in the postseason when crashing the net is paramount to success.
2. Make a trade
Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is the player linked to the Blues in trade chatter. Plus, he’s the only goalie rumored to be available that represents an obvious upgrade over the current tandem.
Miller’s aggressive style and excellent positioning match well with a Blues defense adept at blocking shots and clearing shooting lanes. And a change of scenery likely would rejuvenate him coming from the last-place Sabres.
Even though Miller’s 2.74 GAA is higher than Halak’s 2.26, consider the talent, or lack thereof, around him. He’s faced 406 more shots than Halak in the same amount of games.
St. Louis has the pieces to get a deal done. After spending years building through the draft, GM Doug Armstrong can afford to deal prospects or draft picks without altering the makeup of his roster. Bleacher Report's Dan Robaczewski addresses what it might take for the Blues to land Miller.
A free agent this offseason, Miller represents the risk of a short-term rental. But even at 33, he’s a franchise goaltender worthy of a long-term commitment.
3. Give Allen a shot
There's not much for Jake Allen to prove in the Minors. He’s got 22 wins, a .921 save percentage and a 2.19 GAA for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
Allen has fared quite well for the Blues, going 9-4 in 15 starts last season with a 2.46 GAA. He looked sensational at times during stretches in February and March filling in for an injured Halak and struggling Elliott.
If the Blues don’t make a trade, chances are Allen would start next season anyway. Halak and Elliott are both free agents set to make more than St. Louis may be willing to pay with a prospect seemingly ready to contribute.
With 25 games remaining, it’s doubtful a veteran coach like Hitchcock would turn to Allen now unless compelled by injury. But that scenario can’t be ruled out given Halak’s recent history of late-season ailments.
Blues owner Tom Stillman operates with limited resources. Yet, he’s allowed Armstrong to lock up cornerstone free agents and aggressively pursue trade options.
It’s been over a decade since the Blues have possessed the right pieces for Stanley Cup contention. Management must decide if now is the time to go all in or ride the hand they’re dealt.