Over the years, I’ve had an ongoing argument with friends about the merits of Blues POHO (President of Hockey Operations) and General Manager Doug Armstrong. I’ve been a proponent of his work, of the fact that the Blues have been a good team for a long time without having top-of-the-draft picks.
The primary arguments against Armstrong are that his teams haven’t won a Stanley Cup, and that he’s given out several questionable contracts. I think any rational person would have to agree with the latter, when you look at the deals signed by Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera. The arguments for are that the Blues have made the playoffs in seven out of eight years, have avoided those contracts being burdens on trying to succeed, and that while other teams win and then have to tear down, the Blues have rebuilt while missing the playoffs by one point in one season. And Armstrong has done it without super-premium draft picks.
When you look at the Blackhawks mini-dynasty, it was led by Jonathan Toews (3rd overall pick in 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st overall in 2007). The Kings have won two Stanley Cups, in 2012 and 2014, and were led by Anze Kopitar (11th overall in 2005) and Drew Doughty (2nd overall in 2008) along with a 3rd round goalie named Jonathan Quick. Pittsburgh won in 2009 and then back-to-back Cups in ’16 and ’17, led by #1 overall Sidney Crosby in 2005, 2nd overall Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and 1st overall Marc Andre-Fleury from 2003.
The Blues haven’t won a Cup in that time, but are on their second nucleus that has a chance to go to the Final Four for the second time on four seasons. The Blues highest picks since 2000 have been Erik Johnson 1st overall in 2006 and Alex Pietrangelo 4th overall in ’08. Otherwise, Lars Eller was taken with the 13th pick in 2007 and Jaden Schwartz…Armstrong’s highest selection…came with the 14th pick in 2010.
In comparison to the Blues two top-10 picks since 2000, the Kings have had three (and four other 11th overall picks), the Penguins have had six; including two top overall picks, two number two’s and a number five, and Chicago has had seven top ten picks and an eleventh overall. This year the Blackhawks will pick third and the Kings will pick fifth.
The point here is that while those three Stanley Cup winning franchises have had various stages of rebuilding during this century, the Blues have been mostly great, with a stretch from ’05-06 to ’07-’08 where they had losing records and no chance of making the playoffs.
Despite not having to rebuild, the Blues are one of nine franchises that have been among the final eight teams standing multiple times in the last four seasons, and if they beat Dallas in Game seven would join Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and San Jose (if they beat Colorado) as franchises that have had multiple final-four appearances in the last four seasons.
Back in 2016, the top eight scorers for the Blues in the playoffs were Vladimir Tarasenko, Robby Fabbri, David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Troy Brouwer, Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alexander Steen. After that run, Backes and Brouwer left as free agents and haven’t been close to the same players since. Fabbri has suffered two torn ACL’s and is a shell of his former self. Stastny and Shattenkirk were both dealt for number one draft picks at the trade deadline before free agency. Four of the eight are still around, with Fabbri joined by Steen, who’s now a fourth liner, Tarasenko and Schwartz.
This year’s top playoff scorers for the Blues so far are Schwartz, Pietrangelo, Ryan O’Reilly, Colton Parayko, Tarasenko, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Oscar Sundqvist. O’Reilly, Bozak, Perron and Sundqvist were all acquired by Armstrong either through trade or free agency. Parayko was a 3rd round pick who was a rookie in ’16.
The Blues starting goalie during those 2016 playoffs, and he was great, was Brian Elliott. He wanted to be a number one goalie, and with a year left on his contract Armstrong traded him to Calgary for a second-round pick used on prospect Jordan Kyrou. One of the Blues best players in this post-season has been another first round find…Robert Thomas…who was taken twentieth overall in 2017.
When Jake Allen faltered in the first half of this season, of course, the Blues brought up 2011 3rd rounder Jordan Binnington. You know his story.
From 2016 to now, the Blues core has changed significantly but they had a chance to win it all that year and have a chance to win it all this year. That’s not luck. It’s not something they fell into. It’s because of quality talent evaluation at the top.
While the Blues haven’t won a Stanley Cup, they’ve maintained the quality to go far in the playoffs. And most importantly, they’ve been able to turn over their nucleus and keep giving themselves a chance. And this year, as we speak, Armstrong’s Blues have a chance to quiet the naysayers and get that elusive Cup.