The inevitable Blues retooling could come sooner than expected
The big change was always coming for the blues.
They were always going to retool their roster and crack the remaining Stanley Cup core. They would move on to a younger team with new faces and new leadership.
Time marches on in the NHL. The game has become faster and the competitive balance has become greater.
General manager Doug Armstrong wanted at least one more run with proud veterans still in place, but as he pointed out last week, the players will tell him when the run is over.
Eight straight regular season losses after Tuesday night’s loss in Philadelphia spoke volumes.
Although this group has not yet reached the end of the line, they can see the last stop from their current location. Only a dramatic turnaround and a sustained surge would keep this group in the running.
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Otherwise, it will be time to start working on the future.
The Blues began their next phase by securing young forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou on matching eight-year, $65 million contracts. This dynamic talent is hard to acquire for teams that don’t have lottery picks.
They are the new foundation of the franchise. They’re the reason the Blues will retool, not rebuild, when it’s time to move on.
The Blues couldn’t endure the kind of painful re-tanking process that other markets have endured. St. Louis loves his hockey, but he wasn’t going to put up with years of futility while the franchise was starting from scratch.
So the challenge for Armstrong would be to retool on the fly while keeping a competitive team on the ice.
If the process is to begin this season, we will likely see the last of Vladimir Tarasenko and captain Ryan O’Reilly as Blues. Both have expiring contracts and both are headed to unrestricted free agency.
Even if the salary cap rises from $4 million to $4.5 million as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hopes, it would be difficult to fit those two.
Tarasenko seems willing to test the market, given past signals from his camp. If the Blues continue on their current path, Armstrong could be asked if he would waive his no-trade protection to a contender to complete a trade.
O’Reilly is a more difficult case, given his leadership value. He was the catalyst for the team’s Cup run and has been a positive talking point since his arrival.
But this season is 32 years ago. This game gets faster all the time and O’Reilly doesn’t. Despite his early season struggles, contenders would covet him for a matchup role in preseason play.
Early in his tenure, Armstrong traded away Kevin Shattenkirk and Paul Stastny and their coming contracts. He could move Tarasenko and O’Reilly for more picks in the deep 2023 NHL Draft, plus prospects, to speed up the makeover.
The Blues still have forward depth despite losing David Perron. Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad are both locked in right-sized deals. Brayden Schenn’s long-term contract will maintain a strong veteran presence.
Beyond Kyrou and Thomas, the Blues have some candidates for the future core of the team. Rookie wing Jake Neighbors could be a good long-term fit with his strong two-way game.
Forward Zachary Bolduc is tearing up the Quebec Junior Hockey League again, as expected, and could be at least a power play asset next season as he tries to develop into a scoring line role.
Human missile Alexey Toropchenko should fill a bottom-six forward role for some time. Perhaps the red-hot Nikita Alexandrov, who has followed a strong training camp with a strong start in the American Hockey League, can do the same.
Tight end Jimmy Snuggerud, the 23rd overall pick in 2022, is off to a good start at the University of Minnesota. He has good skill and hockey sense, so he could earn a scoring line role if he improves his skating.
Goaltender Joel Hofer hopes to finish his development in the AHL this season so he can secure NHL work next season. He has the size, tracking ability and athleticism to succeed, but his game still needs some cleaning up before he moves behind the ever-fighting Jordan Binnington.
Vadim Zherenko, a seventh-round goaltending find, will be worth following in Springfield as he backs up Hofer. He brings a flashy skill set to his transition to the American game.
Armstrong’s biggest challenge would be introducing quality youth on the blue line. Little Scott Perunovich looked like the power-play quarterback of the future coming out of college, but injuries derailed his career.
Niko Mikkola looks like a Cup-era Blues defenseman, but his puck handling still lags behind his shot blocking and physicality. Would a bigger contract be worth it?
Tyler Tucker was another nice seventh-round find, but neither he nor his AHL teammate Matt Kessel are can’t-miss prospects.
The Blues have four defenders on contracts that extend to the age of 30. That’s fine when a team is struggling, but not good for a team that’s being rebuilt. Fortunately, there is generally a seller’s market for defenders.
All of which gives Armstrong plenty to ponder as his team tries to pull together and stave off the inevitable for another year.
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