One of the best things about the St. Louis sports scene is that we love our guys. When players come back…especially our favorites…they receive a royal welcome upon their return.
It happened with Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph and Brendan Shanahan when they returned to St. Louis after leaving.
It happened with guys like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Ray Lankford with the Cardinals, and Kurt Warner and London Fletcher when they came back with different teams.
While we like our guys, sometimes we have a tendency to overemphasize their importance to success.
Very few players singularly affect an organization’s ability to win if the organization has a clue.
Michael Jordan did with the Bulls and Warner did with the Rams and Cardinals, but those organizations left something to be desired. The Oilers won a title after trading Wayne Gretzky. The Cardinals went to the World Series without Albert Pujols. The Packers won without Brett Favre.
Blues stalwarts David Backes and Troy Brouwer signed with new teams on the first day of NHL free agency. They were terrific performers in the Blues run to the Western Conference Finals last season, and in Backes’ case was a heart-and-soul player for a decade.
But the departure of Backes and Brouwer does not signal a death knell for the Blues, and will actually allow them to sustain success in the future.
Backes got a five year, $30 million contract from Boston. The Blues could have matched that offer and kept him, but G.M. Doug Armstrong didn’t want to give Backes a fifth year. Brouwer got a four year, $18 million deal with Calgary, and the Blues didn’t want to get into a bidding war for him.
Backes turned 32 during the playoffs, and Armstrong’s analytical information shows that for most players, there’s a drop-off in performance as players get deeper into their 30’s. Brouwer will turn 31 in August, and the same thought process applied to him.
While the Blues appreciate what those players brought to their franchise in the past, they were concerned about paying premium salaries to Brouwer as a 34-year-old, and Backes as a 35-36-year-old power forward.
In a story by our Blues insider Jeremy Rutherford at STLToday.com, Backes referred to Gordie Howe, Matt Cullen and Shane Doan playing well deep into their thirties. And he may be that rare power forward that does just that. But it’s more likely that Backes will suffer a drop-off from his age 26-30 seasons, when in non-lockout years he scored 62, 54, 57 and 58 points and had a pace of 48 points in the lockout year.
In fact, in 2015-2016 Backes put up 45 points, his lowest total since his second NHL season. So it’s reasonable to think Armstrong is on to something.
Along with the trade of goalie Brian Elliott and the signing of new backup Carter Hutton, that leaves the Blues with Jake Allen and Hutton in goal.
On defense, the moves likely signal a return of Kevin Shattenkirk to a defense that has Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson, Carl Gunnarsson and Jay Bouwmeester. That’s a pretty good six, with Petteri Lindbohm, Chris Butler, Robert Bortuzzo and Jordan Schmaltz in reserve.
Up front, the Blues have lines of Robbie Fabbri, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko; Patrik Berglund, Jori Lehtera and the returning David Perron; Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and either Ty Rattie or Dmitrij Jaskin.
The team also has a fourth line of Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Reeves, with a returning Vladimir Sobotka perhaps filling a role.
That’s a group with a lot of experience making the playoffs, and with a chance to be outstanding in St. Louis again.
Another point is that the Blues have plenty of of young talent that will head into free agency.
Schwartz is a restricted free agent right now. Parayko hits restricted free agency after next season, and Fabbri the year after that. If the Blues were to commit $11 or $12 million of their allotted cap dollars to Backes and Brouwer, it would be easy for a team to sign one of the Blues restricted free agents to an offer sheet, with no guarantee that St. Louis would be able to match the offer.
The really good organizations are identifying their six or seven core players and signing them.
That’s why the Blackhawks signed Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford to long term deals. Now they’ve added Artem Anisimov to that group. Those deals have forced Chicago to move solid players like Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen, Dustin Byfuglien and Brouwer.
The Blues’ new identity will include Allen, Parayko, Pietrangelo, Tarasenko, Schwartz and Fabbri. Other players will be peripheral, perhaps including Steen and Berglund when they become free agents next year, and Stastny the year after that.
The bottom line is that Armstrong would love to have his entire focus on the 2016-2017 season, and be sentimental and keep players around in their declining years. But in his job, he can’t.
Armstrong has to try to win next season, and also build for a long-term future. And when looking at the long term, he must throw sentiment and favoritism out the window, and make tough choices like letting Backes and Brouwer go.