With Jaden Schwartz signing a new five-year contract Friday, the St. Louis Blues have solidified their nucleus not only for the 2016-2017 season, but also the foreseeable future.
As General Manager Doug Armstrong noted to STLBlues.com upon announcing the deal, “He’s part of that core we have moving forward. Schwartz and (Vladimir) Tarasenko, Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Jake Allen – we’re trying to build around these guys. Having Schwartz wrapped up in that group, we know we now have a core that we can build around.”
The future is solidified, but we still have questions, and here are five…
Q) Where is the leadership going to come from?
A) This is team’s most pressing issue after losing David Backes to free agency. Alex Pietrangelo, Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny will be expected to step up, as Armstrong listed all three as Blues who’ve worn letters before.
But keep in mind this has been Backes’ locker room for a long time, and there are likely players with leadership ability that didn’t assert themselves out of respect for him.
Schwartz was the captain of the Canadian team at the 2012 World Junior Championships.
Colton Parayko was the captain of his team at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and quickly earned the “C” for the Blues prospect tournament team last year. Jay Bouwmeester wore an “A” in both Florida and Calgary, as did Scottie Upshall with the Panthers. Joel Edmundson wore a letter in juniors. So there are plenty of players in the dressing room that have had leadership roles in the past. If the Blues need it, this is a chance for people to grow into that role.
Q) With the departure of Backes and Troy Brouwer, who is going to provide a net front presence?
A) I agree Backes and Brouwer brought size to the club that hasn’t been replaced. In fact, the only really big regular forward they have is Patrik Berglund, who showed ability to stand his ground in the crease when he returned from injury last year.
We know Robby Fabbri did great work in the crease. Certainly Backes and Brouwer did good work in the playoffs, but scoring on deflections isn’t just the domain of big fellas. The top net front presence in the league, almost by consensus, is Joe Pavelski of the Sharks. He’s listed at 5-10 and 190 pounds. Schwartz, who has shown a propensity to go to those areas others don’t venture in to, is 5-9 and 190.
Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds, also a great deflection scorer, is 6-2 and 185. Fabbri is 5-10, 180. And a pair of Blues that are expected to ascend, Dmitrij Jaskin and Magnus Paajarvi, are both 217 pounds and will be expected to go into the high traffic areas.
Q) What happens if, like last year, Jake Allen gets hurt?
A) Carter Hutton, who the Blues signed as a free agent, played 40 games for the Predators in 2013-2014, going 20-11-4 with a 2.62 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Last year in Nashville, he had a 2.33 GAA with a .918 save percentage in seventeen games, thirteen of which were on the road. We know he can be effective playing half a season. He is not Brian Elliott, but the Blues can expect a steady performer if Allen goes down.
Q) Will Ken Hitchcock lose the ear of or be undermined by his players?
A) A lot of people, even people in the organization, mused about the possibility of that happening LAST year. There was concern about his ability to lead the team as essentially a lame duck coach under a one-year contract. But the Blues finished with the second best record in the conference and went to the conference finals.
I’m not saying it won’t happen, but he came back after the team flirted with other coaches last season, and had just a one-year deal. If you can get players to play when they KNOW the franchise tried to replace you, you have a pretty solid approach. I’m not worried about this.
Q) The Blues have had a lot of young depth for several years. Who replaces Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund if they depart next year?
A) 2014 second rounder Ivan Barbashev is highly regarded by the organization. The twenty-year-old had ten goals and eighteen assists in 65 games for the Chicago Wolves last year. The Blues were also impressed with this year’s first rounder, Tage Thompson, at their prospect camp.
Young defensemen Jordan Schmaltz and Petteri Lindbohm are still thought of highly by Armstrong and his staff. And youngsters Paajarvi, Jaskin and Ty Rattie will have the opportunity to grow gradually because, with the addition of Vladimir Sobotka, the Blues top nine forwards are veterans who figure to get most of the playing time.
In addition, it’s safe to assume the Blues will get quality youth back when they trade Kevin Shattenkirk. It’s unlikely that he’ll last with the Blues past the trade deadline, and odds are stronger that the Blues will move him to a new team before the season starts.
There are a lot of questions to be answered, but Armstrong thinks the pieces are in place for another long run by the Blues this coming season.