April 17, 2018 | 1:35pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
ARMSTRONG, BLUES HEADING TOWARDS SUSTAINABILITY
Doug Armstrong, GM
MONTREAL, QC -- Missing the playoffs is never easy for a franchise. It is even tougher when it’s a team that has been knocking on the door of a Stanley Cup for the last numbers of years. For Doug Armstrong, it was a tough pill to swallow.
In a year where the St. Louis Blues were going through transition, the team came flying out of the gate to start the year. The Blues were sitting atop the Central Division for quite some time, and the move to bring in centre Brayden Schenn (who was a first time All-Star) was paying off in spades. Along with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, the Blues had one of the best lines in hockey. Everything seemed to be going terrifically.
But as the season dragged out, things began to unravel for St. Louis. Injuries had begun to take its toll, the goaltending was not good enough and the team struggled to get offense beyond the aforementioned top three (with Schwartz being injured for an extended period of time). By the time the NHL Trade Deadline rolled around, Armstrong had effectively given up on the season, not trading for any help. In fact, he did the opposite, trading second line centre Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets to regain assets he had traded to Philadelphia in the Schenn deal (having had no first-round pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft).
While the Blues missed the playoffs by inches (being mathematically eliminated on the last day of the regular-season), it was clear that it was not the year for the Blues even if they had made the post season. The team’s core has gone through a facelift over the last number of seasons, as many familiar faces have departed. Since the team’s playoff run to the Western Conference Final in 2016, the Blues have lost David Backes (who was the long time captain), Troy Brouwer, Brian Elliott, Steve Ott and Kevin Shattenkirk. With the team losing so many players (a lot being from the leadership group), along with going through a coaching change from Ken Hitchcock to Mike Yeo, it was safe to assume that there would be some growing pains.
Despite the down year, filled with change and turmoil in St. Louis, management’s long term plan is a reason for optimism for the Blues.
Armstrong has always been a General Manager who was careful as to where he allocated big dollars. The Blues contract situation is a testament to that, as St. Louis is the only team to have never bought out a player since Armstrong began his tenure as the Blues’ GM. So when Armstrong made the tough decision to move on from aging forwards like Backes and Brouwer, it was done so to plan for the future.
The Blues have quietly assembled an impressive crop of young prospects over the last number of seasons, with much of the youth making an impact this year. Tage Thompson, the club’s 2016 first-round pick, turned into a regular for the Blues in the latter half of the season, as he finished the year with 41 games played, notching nine points in the process.
Robert Thomas (2017 first-round pick) and Jordan Kyrou (2016 second-round pick) began to draw attention in trade talks this year, as both impressed for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Thomas split time with the London Knights and Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL this season, finishing with 75 points in 49 games. Kyrou, who was one of the premier forwards for Canada in the tournament, notched 109 points in 56 games with the Sarnia Sting of the OHL this season.
To go along with the several high end prospects the Blues have on the way, the team is blessed with a talented young core that is still relatively young. The team’s aforementioned top three (Tarasenko, Schenn and Schwartz) forwards are all still under the age of 27, while having already asserted themselves as high end NHL forwards.
Defensively, the team is anchored by Alex Pietrangelo (28), who was having a Norris Trophy caliber season up until mid-January. Pietrangelo, who finished the year with 54 points, has been a top-end defenseman for the last number of seasons, having represented Canada on the international level on two separate occasions since 2014. Joined by promising young defensemen Vince Dunn, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson (all under the age of 25), the team’s defense will be in good shape for years to come.
The true concern for Armstrong and the Blues comes between the pipes. Jake Allen was given the reigns as the undisputed starter after the team moved on from Elliott in 2016, but has yet to fully to make the most of the opportunity. Allen has been the clear point of weakness of the Blues the last two seasons, despite having a decent .910 save percentage over that time. Allen’s inconsistencies will have to be resolved for the Blues moving forward, as he has three years left on his contract.
The Blues season was a disappointing one, but the big picture tells a much different story than the short-term.
Through all the changes, Armstrong has built the Blues to be a competitor for the long term, and in the process had to sacrifice moderate short term success. The fans in St. Louis were singing the Blues after a lackluster season, but if Armstrong’s plan comes to fruition, the team will be back on track sooner rather than later.