As word started to trickle in that the Blues were on the verge of acquiring goalie Ryan Miller from the Sabres on Friday, I was shocked when several reports suggested that the Blues would be able to balance the deal by including Chris Stewart, along with Jaroslav Halak, for Miller and Steve Ott. Throughout the season, and even on Friday, word from hockey insiders was that Buffalo general manager Tim Murray wanted a great young player in return. Logic dictated that, with T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo being untouchable, he would ask for Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz or Kevin Shattenkirk. All of those guys fit the profile of what Buffalo needed and would even out or nearly even out the salary cap money the Blues would get back.
Last year, Stewart led the Blues with 36 points on 18 goals and 18 assists. He scored nine of those goals, eight of those assists and 17 points, nearly half of his production for the season, in a 13-game span from Feb. 23 to March 23. This season, more than half (eight) of Stewart’s 15 goals came in a six-game span between Dec. 12-21. He had goalless streaks of 10 games, then five, six, and his last 15 with the team. In fact, Stewart had just two assists in his last 15 games. The fact that Buffalo picked up Stewart’s $4.15 million contract for next season despite his remarkable inconsistency was pleasantly stunning.
So now the Blues have Miller, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2010. He turns 34 and becomes an unrestricted free agent in July, and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2007. But he’s widely regarded as an elite goalie who makes the saves to win playoff games. Although the numbers don’t show clear superiority, he’s considered a much more stable performer than Halak. He’s definitely more durable, having played in an average of 65.6 games during his six full NHL seasons, and starting in every single playoff game Buffalo has been in during his career. This as opposed to Halak, who started a career-high 57 games in 2010-2011 and has averaged 45.5 games in his four full seasons. More notable is that Halak has been available for just two of 15 Blues playoff games in the two years St. Louis has made the postseason since he’s been here. While Halak has outstanding ability, his DURability is certainly an issue.
When you factor in that the Blues also got back gritty forward Steve Ott, the trade looks like a steal. Any draft picks the Blues give up at this stage are pretty inconsequential. They plan on being really good, and having low picks for the foreseeable future. They have young talent in Tarasenko and Schwartz, their defense is all under contract for multiple years, and in their system they have forwards Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie, defensemen Jani Hakanpaa and Tommy Vannelli, and goalies Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington. Although most of the Blues’ young talent is in St. Louis, it should last for some time.
Fans have to be pleased with the fact that the Blues are going for it in 2014. Blues fans are starved for playoff success, and the franchise doesn’t want to waste the window of opportunity provided by all of the struggling and high draft picks in years after the lockout. Ultimately, the Blues have to make some money to stay viable, and the only way to do that is to go on a playoff run and collect three or four rounds of playoff gates.
Fans think that Miller is the be-all end-all. Sometimes I get the impression that some believe he’ll never allow more than a goal a game. The fact of the matter is that Halak and Brian Elliott had allowed two or fewer goals 35 times, and Halak is the franchise’s all-time leader in shutouts with 16. We’ll never know how he would have performed in the playoffs, but he wrote his own ticket with his absence at playoff time the last couple of years.
Regardless of how you feel about the deal (and there are Blues fans who are upset with moving future assets and wanted a scorer rather than a goalie), the bottom line is this: Doug Armstrong helped build two Western Conference champions and a Stanley Cup champ in Dallas, and Ken Hitchcock coached that team. These guys know what a championship team looks like, and they think Miller makes the Blues look more like one than Halak did. If Armstrong and Hitchcock make moves, I have total respect for them. So even if I wasn’t on board with the deal, their history would ease my fears. Right now, these Blues have the best chance of any edition in franchise history to bring the Stanley Cup to St. Louis.