Complete Guide for St. Louis Blues' 2014 Offseason
For a majority of the 2013-14 campaign, the Blues seemed capable of living up to those predictions. St. Louis hung around at the top of the Western Conference, Central Division and NHL as a whole through the first 70 games of the regular season.
Then something strange happened. The wheels came off of a talented and playoff-hungry team, and the Blues only won two of their final 12 contests (including the playoffs). There's plenty of blame to go around in St. Louis, and changes will be made following the embarrassing showing against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.
Once that smoke settles, the Blues will have plenty of work to do to gear up for the 2014-15 NHL season. The goal remains the same. The roster that is pursuing that goal will likely change.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted and are accurate through games played on April 27.
Season Wrap Up
The 2013-14 campaign had a rushed feel to it for several different reasons. After the NHL pushed back and compacted the 2013 schedule due to the lockout and then dropped the Winter Games into the middle of this season, fans would be forgiven for feeling like the last two years have been one big blur.
It's unique to this place and time, and the Blues have seen several key players elevate their level of play in the last eight months or so.
It's not very often that an eight-year veteran suddenly erupts for a 33-goal season, but that's exactly what Alexander Steen did. He had 16 points in October alone and finished the season tied for 11th in goal scoring.
That was a monumental surprise for a player that was coming off of an eight-goal campaign.
Vladimir Tarasenko continued to evolve in St. Louis, becoming one of the NHL's best at driving play in the offensive zone.
According to BehindTheNet.ca, the young Russian forward finished 15th overall in Corsi-for percentage—a strong indication of the excellent two-way game Tarasenko has developed over a short amount of time in North America.
Perhaps no player on St. Louis' roster experienced a rise to fame like T.J. Oshie. Taking down the Russians on their home turf with a heroic shootout performance can do wonders for a guy's profile, and Oshie became a household name in Sochi.
The Blues weren't without a handful of disappointments, however.
Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow failed to provide much meaningful depth offense down the stretch, and Roy was a non-factor through four playoff games. Patrik Berglund continued to tease with his talent, but 32 points in 78 games isn't good enough for the former first-round pick.
Overall, St. Louis' positives outweighed the negatives during the regular season. Young players showed improvement and have now proven capable of being the backbone of the Blues for the foreseeable future. They couldn't come up with many clutch performances against the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1 though, and that's a big black mark heading into a long summer filled with more questions than answers.
Biggest Storylines to Follow (2-3 storylines)
Will He Stay Or Will He Go?
Without question, the biggest uncertainty surrounding the Blues this summer is in goal. The Blues paid a high price for Ryan Miller, and there's still a number of ways that the situation could be resolved. General manager Doug Armstrong wanted this guy for the playoff run, and St. Louis sank while the former Buffalo Sabre failed to make key saves in big moments.
At this juncture, are the Blues even interested in bringing the netminder back to town? With Jake Allen's contract morphing into a one-way deal this season, according to CapGeek.com, could the reigning AHL goalie of the year get the chance to be a No. 1 guy in the NHL?
Armstrong has some interesting choices to make. If he re-signs or trades Miller's rights before the draft, the Blues will lose their first-round pick this season. After making only four selections in the 2013 draft, St. Louis' prospect stable is starting to thin out quickly. Will the team's brass be willing to roll the dice on Miller after he posted a sub-.900 save percentage during the postseason?
Ken Hitchcock's Future
Ken Hitchcock has been one of the NHL's top coaches for a long while. In 1998-99 he guided the Dallas Stars to the only Stanley Cup championship in team history, and the veteran has been a mainstay since 1995.
His track record must come into question at this juncture though. According to HockeyDB.com, Hitchcock has made it out of the first round just once in his last nine years as a coach. His playoff acumen isn't where it should be, and as the Blues continue to struggle to make an impact in the postseason, one has to wonder if this is the right guy to get the team over the hump.
There have been no rumblings about Hitchcock's future in St. Louis yet. Those decisions will come later, but no one should be surprised if the Blues decide to move in another direction behind the bench before October rolls around.
Fishing for a Finisher
During the regular season the Blues were the seventh-best offensive team in hockey. They scored goals during five-on-five situations and kicked in some backup from the power play. All that went dry against Chicago, and it's impossible to ignore who scored the game-winners for the 'Hawks.
Jonathan Toews had three, and Patrick Kane had one.
That's the sort of output that St. Louis needs its top players to be able to match, and T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko and David Backes weren't up to the task. Armstrong shouldn't be looking to mess with the nucleolus too much, but if he has a chance to land a top-six forward with some finish, he'll take a long look at the deal.
Notable Players Hitting Free Agency
Roy made $4 million last season and produced all of nine goals. The Blues were hoping for a mid-ranged center that could center either the second or third lines, but that never materialized. The journeyman pivot was frequently one of St. Louis' worst forwards, and it would take a serious hometown discount from Roy to convince Armstrong to keep him around.
As a restricted free agent, Patrik Berglund has less control over his future than players like Roy. His pending RFA status still leaves the Blues in an interesting position. He was one of St. Louis' stronger players after Sochi, but still leaves much to be desired in the offensive zone. He made $3.2 million last season, and he's not really in line for much of a raise.
Another veteran player that Armstrong moved on for supposed depth, Steve Ott didn't score a goal as a member of the Blues. He wasn't a decent enough checker to play in a shutdown role, and he doesn't have the offensive skills to frequent the top-six. With players like Ty Rattie waiting in the wings, the Blues need to trim down the roster, and allowing Ott to walk is one way to do so.
It can be irritating to see a particular player named as one of the NHL's most underrated, but Vladimir Sobotka is clearly in that category. He's outstanding in the faceoff circle, plays hard during every shift and is as tough as they come out on the ice. Sobotka's future is in St. Louis. Look for Armstrong to lock down the pending RFA for the next few seasons.
One of the few bright spots of the first round was Jaden Schwartz's play. Aside from Tarasenko, he was St. Louis' most noticeable forward from Game 3 to Game 6, and he should be in line for a decent payday after quietly finishing fourth in team scoring with 56 points—trailing Backes by a single tally. He's restricted as well, but he should see a good term tossed in his direction over the summer.
We covered Miller's situation in the previous slide so we won't re-hash it here. It's obviously worth noting that Miller is an unrestricted free agent though.
Brian Elliott has been the other goalie in St. Louis for three seasons. He's been the perfect understudy and backup, never pulling any attention in his direction despite posting outstanding numbers. Some general manager somewhere is going to give the 29-year-old a chance to be a starting goalie in the NHL. Will that be in St. Louis?
All contractual information appears courtesy of CapGeek.com.
Top Free Agents Targets
The Blues won't look to shake things up too much during the offseason. There are still a handful of free agents that could help St. Louis bulk up for another run at the Stanley Cup though. The Blackhawks exposed a weakness in the Blues' lineup, showing that the team didn't have any big-game goal scorers.
If St. Louis makes a splash in free agency, it will be to address this glaring issue.
When Thomas Vanek turned down a lucrative long-term contract from the New York Islanders last season, it created a suspicion that the forward already knew where he wanted to sign as a free agent. Various sources—including Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com—noted that Vanek had some close ties to the Minnesota Wild and could be looking to settle down there.
Armstrong still might consider taking a run at the premiere player available in this se0ason's crop of unrestricted free agents. With more than $25 million available in cap space, the dough is there if the Blues want to play hardball and increase their scoring prowess.
The Colorado Avalanche are alive and well in the playoffs, thanks in part to a dynamite line featuring Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon flanking Paul Stastny. If the Avalanche were ready to let the center walk via free agency, he's doing a good job of making that difficult.
Colorado still has a glut of centers though. MacKinnon is a natural pivot, Matt Duchene plays center and Ryan O'Reilly does too. Is there room in the top-six for Stastny to stay? If he tests the waters, Armstrong would be wise to at least kick tires here.
Stastny is still in the prime of his career and would give the Blues another player capable of scoring 50 to 60 points during the regular season.
Another option for Armstrong to consider is Matt Moulson. If the Wild end up landing Vanek, the current Minnesota player could end up changing his address for the fourth time in less than a year. That's good news for the Blues though, as Moulson would be a good consolation prize in the event of striking out on Vanek.
Best Options in the NHL Draft
The 2014 draft is going to be an interesting one for St. Louis. If they end up re-signing Miller or trading his rights, the Buffalo Sabres get this year's first round selection as compensation. For the purposes of this offseason blueprint, we'll operate under the assumption that the Blues won't trade or re-sign Miller.
There are a handful of players worth considering in the back-third of the draft. A few guys that the Blues should consider:
St. Louis has had some luck with small but talented forwards, hitting a home run with Schwartz already. Josh Ho-Sang might have the slickest hands in the draft and could evolve into a scoring top-six forward. Something that the Blues need and will lack in the farm system once Rattie graduates to the NHL.
He still needs to learn to use his teammates, but a few solid years of coaching could coax an All-Star out of Ho-Sang.
It's quite likely that Ho-Sang will be off the board before the Blues get a crack at the kid. Nikolay Goldobin offers the same sort of package—dangerous hands, a phenomenal release and a natural ability to score goals. He struggles in his own zone sometimes, but it's rare to see a teenager developed in all three zones.
If the Blues are looking for a goal scorer late in the draft, Goldobin should be high on their list.
Ho-Sang and Goldobin would be high-risk, high-reward players. Roland McKeown is a more steady option and plays an outstanding two-way game as a defenseman. He's noted for his high hockey IQ and ability to make the right choices under pressure.
There's the possibility that the Blues won't be able to get enough bang for their buck late in the first round if they take a forward. McKeown is a good contingency plan.
Players Who Should Be Put on the Trading Block
The Blues don't have any players that they need to get rid of in the name of a clean slate. Armstrong has constructed an exceptional core group of players in St. Louis, but the need to tinker is apparent. Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Jaden Schwartz—these players aren't going anywhere.
Patrik Berglund has always been long on potential but short on results, and his time in St. Louis could come to an end if the right deal is tabled. The Swede showed flashes of brilliance after playing for Sweden in the Olympics, but is that enough for the Blues to move forward with?
Vladimir Sobotka has taken Berglund's place in the lineup for all intents and purposes, and if the Blues have one exceptional trade chip, it's Berglund. He's still a strong two-way forward that can get the job done in the neutral and defensive zones. There just might not be a place for him on the roster.
If the Blues can trade the rights to pending free agents like Derek Roy and Branden Morrow, then they shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. We're talking depth picks here, but St. Louis' trading block will be barren until they decide how to handle their important RFAs.
Top Trade Targets
St. Louis' needs don't change in terms of trade targets. They need a superb goal scorer. Players like that don't come cheap, but there are a few names that have been floated around the trade rumor circuit over the last 12 months that could interest the Blues.
The players listed below haven't been connected directly to the team, but could still fill a need if Armstrong decided to move forward with a deal.
It would probably take an arm and a leg to pry Evander Kane away from the Winnipeg Jets. Back in December, The Fourth Period reported that Winnipeg was looking for a shakeup and moving Kane was a possibility.
To the best of our knowledge the Jets haven't told teams that they aren't interested in moving Kane. Are they simply waiting to be blown away? If so, would Armstrong consider moving young assets like Ty Rattie or Dmitrij Jaskin for a player that is viewed as a fickle, streaky goal scorer?
There aren't a lot of trade rumors floating around as it's just the first round of the playoffs, but Kane is the kind of player that Armstrong should be pursuing during the offseason.
Prospects Most Likely to Debut in 2014-15
He won't be making his outright debut, but Ty Rattie will have every opportunity to make St. Louis' opening night roster during training camp. He was outstanding for the Chicago Wolves as a rookie in the AHL this season, scoring 31 goals in 72 contests in the minors.
With the Blues in need of more goal scorers, Rattie will be an excellent addition to the bottom-six for the time being. Look for St. Louis to bring him along like they did with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko over the last two years.
Like Rattie, Jake Allen won't be making his debut in the NHL, but he will be part of the regular lineup for the first time in his career. The reigning AHL goalie of the year was outstanding in Chicago this year, posting a 32-16-3 record to go along with a .927 save percentage.
His contract turns into a one-way deal for the 2013-14 campaign, so he will be in the NHL. It's just a matter of whether or not he'll be the starter or the backup.
Projected 2014-15 Depth Chart
Jaden Schwartz - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Alexander Steen - Vladimir Sobotka - Vladimir Tarasenko
Magnus Paajarvi - Patrik Berglund - Ty Rattie
Chris Porter - Maxim Lapierre - Ryan Reaves
Alex Pietrangelo - Jay Bouwmeester
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Jordan Leopold - Roman Polak