After six straight NHL postseason appearances and only two years after reaching the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the St. Louis Blues failed to qualify for the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was a difficult season for the Blues. A combination of injuries to key players, a lack of secondary scoring depth, inconsistency from starting goaltender Jake Allen and lousy special-teams play combined to derail their playoff hopes.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong will likely have a busy offseason attempting to address those issues. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported there’s “lots of expectation” the Blues will be aggressive in this summer’s trade market.
Bolstering the scoring depth should be Armstrong’s priority. The production of the Blues’ forwards dropped significantly beyond the first line of Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.
As a result, the Blues were 24th in goals-for per game (2.72). That lack of scoring punch also accounted for a power-play percentage (15.4) that was the league’s second-worst.
A healthy Robby Fabbri, who missed the entire 2017-18 campaign to knee surgery, should improve those numbers next season. Promising forwards such as Tage Thompson, Robert Thomas, Klim Kostin or Jordan Kyrou could be ready for larger roles.
Still, Armstrong will likely look outside the organization to bring in an established scorer or two via trade or free agency.
Cap Friendly indicates the Blues have over $62.6 million invested in 18 players for next season. Part of that will be taken up re-signing restricted free agent defenseman Joel Edmundson. But with the cap ceiling projected to reach $80 million for 2018-19, Armstrong should have room to re-sign or replace his notable free agents and still have enough to improve his roster.
The Blues carry considerable depth in promising young prospects to use as trade bait. They also have an additional 2018 first-round pick acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in the Paul Stastny trade.
On Apr. 10, Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch speculated Armstrong might get into the bidding for New York Islanders center John Tavares if he tests this summer’s free-agent market. He also suggested Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or the Buffalo Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly as possible trade options.
Gordon acknowledged signing Tavares could be a long shot. More affordable free-agent options could include Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk, San Jose Sharks left wing Evander Kane, Vegas Golden Knights right wing James Neal or New Jersey Devils left wing Patrick Maroon.
Those wingers will not improve the Blues depth at center. Still, adding one of them should provide some much-needed scoring punch.
Don’t expect Nugent-Hopkins to become a trade candidate. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli last week dismissed the notion he was on the block during his end-of-season press conference.
O’Reilly, however, could be another matter. His recent remarks about the Sabres’ losing culture and its effect upon his game have given rise to speculation over his future in Buffalo. He’s signed through 2022-23 with an annual cap hit of $7.5 million and lacks no-trade protection.
While O’Reilly would be an expensive option in terms of salary and potential trade return, he could be a good fit centering one of the Blues’ scoring lines.
Over the past two seasons, Allen’s inconsistent goaltending was a source of concern. Armstrong gave the embattled netminder a vote of confidence but expects him to be better next season.
With Allen returning next season as the Blues starter, they must ensure he has a reliable backup. While Carter Hutton is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July, Gordon’s colleague Jim Thomas tweeted Armstrong reached out to the Hutton camp in hopes of opening contract talks.
If talks with Hutton fall through, Armstrong could find other options via free agency. They could include the Carolina Hurricanes’ Cam Ward, the Colorado Avalanche’s Jonathan Bernier or the Winnipeg Jets’ Michael Hutchinson.
Armstrong could also go shopping for an affordable penalty-killing forward, such as Daniel Winnik of the Minnesota Wild. Mark Letestu of the Columbus Blue Jackets or Jay Beagle of the Washington Capitals. He could also re-sign center Kyle Brodziak.