National Hockey League

Blues need changes, but what do they need most?

St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (27), r m
St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (27) in the second period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Blues are brutal, that’s been established.  There’s never been a more heartless, inconsistent Blues team in the time I’ve been watching.  Everyone has addressed the lack of leadership in the room and the woefully inconsistent effort on a regular basis.  Through 31 games, they don’t have a three-game winning streak, but they DO have two three game losing streaks, and have lost four out of five on four different occasions.

Doug Armstrong’s plan during the off-season had merit.  After the Penguins won back to back Stanley Cups and then Washington won last year, it seemed reasonable to build a team strong up the middle.  So, adding Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak with the expected arrival of Robert Thomas appeared to be a good plan.  However, the Penguins had strong veteran, winning leadership, and the Capitals supplemented Captain Alex Ovechkin with Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom…and had grit with the tough (dirty?) Tom Wilson on the blueline.

The Penguins and Caps have speed and toughness, while the Blues fast veteran players…Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri…are fragile.  And the Blues toughness comes from veteran defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who signed a contract extension over the weekend, but also gets injured a lot.  If the Blues are healthy, they can ice a lineup that has lots of skill.  Looking to next season, most teams would like a top line of Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Fabbri, with a second line of Brayden Schenn, Schwartz and David Perron.  Then a third line that includes Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou and a fourth line from among Tyler Bozak, Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist and others.

Unfortunately, the Pat Maroon signing hasn’t’ worked out.  He should depart as a free agent.  The Blues should buy Alexander Steen out this summer…even though they’d have to swallow $10 million cash.  He’s the face of the inconsistent effort, talking after every loss about how the Blues were outworked.  He’s the longest tenured player and wears an alternate captain’s A.  He should have a more positive effect on the rest of the squad.

With the departures of those two, the Blues would have to find a third line winger, hopefully with some leadership ability.

On defense, Hockey Night in Canada’s Nick Kypreos suggested an Alex Pietrangelo to Toronto deal.  Moving him and letting Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson walk as free agents would freshen things up.  Bortuzzo is going to be here; he was signed to an extension over the weekend.  Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn would remain…and it would be incumbent upon the Blues to find a right shot defenseman (Kypreos suggested Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev) and a sixth and seventh d-man.

A buyout of Steen and the departure of free agents Maroon, Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson would take nearly $16 million off next year’s salary cap.  And the big thing the Blues would need to do with that money, in addition to finding a leader to play wing on the third line (Justin Williams from Carolina?  Carl Hagelin from the Kings?), would be to get a goalie.  The one premier goalie that’s going to be available in free agency is Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky.  If the Blues can get someone to take Jake Allen off their hands, all the better.  But if need be, he can serve as a backup until he departs.

The other thing the Blues need to determine ON the ice is if they can get reasonable value for Vladimir Tarasenko.  That’s a hard thing to do in today’s environment, because of number 91’s salary, his production this season, and the type of player other teams might want to move.  There just aren’t that many thirty goal scorers out there, and if a team has one, they probably don’t want to deal him for another one.  If the Blues are going to move Tarasenko, they’d better get a really good top line right wing back in return.  They’ll probably be better off getting a coach that can get the most out of him, like Ken Hitchcock did.

That’s going to be Doug Armstrong’s biggest move before next September.  He must make player moves, but the most important move will be to find a head coach that gets the Blues’ attention.  Mike Yeo couldn’t get them to play consistently hard, and neither has Craig Berube been able to.  There’s a belief that Blues players are unhappy because they don’t think Armstrong has his finger to the pulse of the room.  Armstrong better figure that out, and find a coach that’s able to get the most out of this group of players.  There’s no doubt that the Blues have a number of physically gifted players that just don’t try hard very often.  Army needs to know the personality of his players, and find a coach that’s able to push their buttons and get them going.

I believe this team…record notwithstanding…is closer to being good than to being terrible.  Looking at that list of names above, there’s enough to compete at least for a playoff spot.  This team is an embarrassment, but finding some players that care about succeeding and for whom winning is paramount, and finding a coach that can GET them to care is the most important part of the coming off-season.