As the Blues Fade, GM Doug Armstrong Faces a Tough Summer

The person with the toughest sports-related job in town right now is Doug Armstrong, the Blues’ president of hockey operations.

As the Blues crawl to the finish line of the 2017-18 regular season, scoring fewer goals than the impotent West Brom soccer club of the English Premier League,  Armstrong faces a super-colossal offseason.

A severe talent shortfall among the forwards — combined with an ambivalent competitive attitude — has resulted in the weakest offense we’ve seen around here in a long time. The scarcity of goals is alarming. And you didn’t need to stay up late Thursday and struggle to resist snoozing to know this. The Blues’ 2-0 blank job by the Sharks at San Jose was the latest downer.

The Blues squeaked for only 16 shots on goal, including two in the third period.  Sixteen shots  on goal? Amazing, really … but for the wrong reasons. I went back to the start of the 2010-11 season and made this statistical discovery: the Blues have had fewer shots on goal   only three times   in a span of 607 regular-season games.  And their two shots at San Jose was their lowest total in a third period this season.

San Jose had a 29-11 advantage in scoring chances. And in the category of high-danger scoring chances, the Sharks won with a 7-0 shutout. From the Blues’ standpoint, I believe the word we are looking for here is “futility.”

A few depressing facts:

+ The current scoring average of 2.64 goals per game this season would rank 41st among the 50 Blues teams teams in franchise history.

+ Their power-play success rate for the season, 15.4 percent, would also rank 41st out of 50.

+ The Blues have scored a pittance of goals, 14, in their last 10 games. And their record is 1-7-2.

+ In their last 36 contests the Blues have scored the fewest goals in the NHL with an average of 2.08 goals per game. Their PP has produced 14 goals in 101 opportunities … for 13.9%.

+ The Blues have played 67 games this season. They have scored three goals or fewer in 72 percent of their games. They’ve scored two or fewer goals in 52.2 percent of their games. They’ve had either one or no goals 25% of the time. I’m not fabricating anything here; the awfulness is real.

+ The Blues have lost seven times this season when allowing two goals in a game. That happened no more than four times a season in their previous five campaigns.

This is ridiculous. And the famine isn’t because of the knee surgery that wiped out Robby Fabbri’s entire season, or the fractured ankle that removed Jaden Schwartz from the lineup for 47 days, or the trade of center Paul Stastny.  The Blues scored plenty of goals early in the season without Fabbri. They haven’t picked up their scoring pace since Schwartz returned on Jan. 15. And they weren’t scoring much with Stastny in the lineup.

The Blues’ roster requires more than the usual tweaks and adjustments. As they reach the end of an era, the Blues are crashing. It’s time to start over,  but I’m not referring to a rebuilding project. It’s more like a transfusion. Or a transplant.

The Blues need enhanced firepower on offense.

They need players that have higher competitive standards.

Players that are mentally tougher.

Players that view effort as mandatory instead of optional.

The Blues need a change of leadership in the locker room. Someone to take charge and challenge and confront the softies and paycheck thieves.

The Blues need an identity change.

To his credit, Armstrong and the team scouts have accumulated several elite forward prospects. He’s collected draft picks. He’s in the process of building up assets that will eventually play a big part in shaping the Blues future. The names of the future forwards by now are familiar: Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Klim Kostin, Tage Thompson, Sammy Blais,  Zach Sanford.

That won’t be enough.

Most prospects take time to develop.

Most prospects get lost, get dizzy, and roam around the ice without purpose until they figure it out. That isn’t a quick process; just look at Tage Thompson. The 20-year-old is so frozen by the pace and pressure of the NHL game that he fails to keep his legs moving; we often see him lagging behind the play.

Some prospects don’t develop much at all.

Or they reach a level that doesn’t come close to satisfying expectations.

The prospects will be a part of this.

But when it’s time to start in on the offseason work, Armstrong needs to reinforce this roster with veteran players.

As I mentioned earlier: this franchise is nearing the closure of an era.

The era that would be led by a young nucleus … primarily forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron plus defenseman Erik Johnson. Other future pieces arrived through trades including forward Alex Steen and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.  Alex Pietrangelo was drafted 4th overall in 2008, and began growing into a cornerstone defenseman in 2010.

One by one, most of the names on that list have gone away. They’ve been traded. They’ve jumped to another team as free agents. Others on the list — Steen and Berglund come to mind — have gotten older, beaten down and aren’t nearly as effective as they used to be.

In recent years the rundown of veteran Blues players that have moved on — or been moved — includes Backes, Oshie, Perron, Shattenkirk,  Stastny, Troy Brouwer and Ryan Reeves.  (If we want to include goaltenders, then throw Brian Elliott in there.)

Viewed independently as stand-alone cases, most of the trades or business decisions made sense. There was no reason to overpay an aging Backes or hang into Shattenkirk when the Blues had no chance of re-signing him.

But from an overview standpoint, you can’t gradually move out a bunch of veterans and not replace them with other veterans or established young players.

When you look at all of the forwards who became ex-Blues, it’s startling to look at roster and realize that Armstrong has brought in only one impact veteran forward,  center  Brayden Schenn. The other forward imports are marginal at best. And Armstrong deserves scrutiny for giving long-term deals to declining veterans, Steen and Berglund.

All general managers make mistakes.

But since Armstrong became GM in the summer of 2010, the Blues are second in the NHL in wins, third in points, and made the playoffs six consecutive seasons (2012-2017). The Blues tried to make a run at a Stanley Cup but only got as far as a single Western Conference final, in 2016.

And now that era is fizzling out.

A new era must be designed and created, starting this summer.

And Doug Armstrong has an enormous responsibility to get it right.

Thanks for reading …


More: Can the Blues Score More Goals in the Final 17 Games? If Not, Bye-Bye