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Scott Cullen

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The St. Louis Blues reached the playoffs for a sixth straight season, and advanced to the second round, in a season that saw them change their head coach part way through the season.

Off-Season Game Plan examines a Blues team that has playoff-calibre talent, though probably not Stanley Cup talent, and has some maneuvering to do this summer.

While some teams have to worry about filling out their roster in the offseason, the Blues virtually have a ready-made roster, though that also means they don’t have a great deal of room to move under the salary cap.

The challenge for the Blues, then, in addition to keeping their talent is figuring out some way to add more elite talent. Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko might be in (or have potential to be in) that class, but St. Louis has a lot of solid, not spectacular, players. 

That’s good enough to be a playoff team; maybe not enough to legitimately hold higher aspirations. 

HEROES

Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis’ game-breaker put up 39 goals and a career-high 75 points last season. He’s an easy one to include year after year.

Jaden Schwartz – The 24-year-old winger tends to be underrated, but 55 points and team-leading relative possession stats should ensure that Schwartz gets the praise that he deserves.

Alex Pietrangelo – He played more than 25 minutes per game for the fifth straight season, and scored a career-high 14 goals, really making a difference offensively after Kevin Shattenkirk was traded, putting up 17 points (5 G, 12 A) in the last 19 games.

ZEROES

Nail Yakupov – It was a worthwhile risk for the Blues to take when they brought in the first overall pick from 2012, but then he mustered just three goals in 40 games, generating less than a shot per game and playing a career-low 10:39 per game.

Jori Lehtera – In his third season, the 29-year-old centre dealt with some injuries, but still managed just 22 points in 64 games.

Alexander Steen – The veteran winger had 51 points in 76 games, and even though 0.67 points per game was his lowest since 2011-2012, the bigger concern was that his possession numbers dropped to a career-low Corsi percentage and his lowest relative Corsi since 2009-2010.

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

Doug Armstrong/Mike Yeo
 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2016-17 CAP
Vladimir Tarasenko 82 39 36 75 52.0 3.2 99.5 66.9 18:28 $7.5M
Jaden Schwartz 78 19 36 55 53.0 4.4 101.3 52.6 18:54 $2.35M
Alexander Steen 76 16 35 51 47.7 -3.1 101.0 50.2 19:18 $5.8M
Paul Stastny 66 18 22 40 50.4 0.1 100.9 46.2 19:08 $7.0M
Patrik Berglund 82 23 11 34 51.2 1.8 98.6 41.5 15:59 $3.7M
Robby Fabbri 51 11 18 29 51.6 0.7 96.2 62.1 15:37 $894K
Jori Lehtera 64 7 15 22 50.2 0.6 98.6 64.4 15:11 $4.7M
Kyle Brodziak 69 8 7 15 44.1 -7.8 101.6 20.6 11:12 $900K
Ryan Reaves 80 7 6 13 46.1 -4.4 101.9 25.7 8:53 $1.125M
Ivan Barbashev 30 5 7 12 48.1 -0.5 104.5 44.0 11:47 $742K
Dmitrij Jaskin 51 1 10 11 52.5 3.1 101.3 49.0 11:33 $1.0M
Vladimir Sobotka 1 1 0 1 56.5 22.2 95.8 83.3 16:41 $3.5M
 

FREE AGENT FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2015-16 CAP STATUS
Scottie Upshall 73 10 8 18 44.6 -6.1 99.8 23.3 10:59 $700K UFA
Magnus Paajarvi 32 8 5 13 50.8 4.1 105.0 48.6 12:09 $700K RFA
Nail Yakupov 40 3 6 9 51.3 1.3 97.6 63.9 10:39 $2.5M RFA
 

Over the past three seasons, Vladimir Tarasenko has scored 116 goals, ranking second only to Alex Ovechkin. The 25-year-old is a brilliant talent and strong as an ox. He has been outrageously, and consistently, productive. All that said, Tarasenko could probably be even better with a high-quality playmaking centre.

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Schwartz and Tarasenko lead the St. Louis attack.

2010 first-round pick Jaden Schwartz has been a steady performer, putting up 55 or more points in three of the past four seasons (scoring 22 points in 33 games during his injury-shortened 2015-2016 season). Schwartz plays a sound all-around game, and makes a fine complement to Tarasenko on St. Louis’ top line. 

33-year-old mostly winger Alexander Steen has been a consistently productive player for most of his 12 years in the league, putting up at least 45 points in six of eight seasons with the Blues; the two exceptions wer an injury-shortened 2011-2012 season and the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season. Nevertheless, Steen had been an exceptional possession player during his best seasons, but last season’s continued decline in possession metrics is of some concern because he has four more seasons left on his contract. He could still very easily fill a top-six role in St. Louis next season, but ideally his shot differentials will improve.

For the $7-million that the Blues are paying each year for Paul Stastny, they might like to get at least one 50-point season, but he hasn’t hit that threshold in the first three years of the four-year contract. He’s also missed 42 games over those three seasons, so that’s a little less than ideal but, at the same time, he remains a competent playmaker.

While Patrik Berglund did score a career-high 23 goals last season, he finished with just 34 points and his mid-season surge (during which he scored 16 goals in 26 games) appeared to influence the Blues’ decision to sign him to a new five-year, $19.25-million contract. That seems a lot for his recent production and is going to cover him from age 29 through 33. If the Blues run into cap concerns, this contract is going to be one of the reasons.

21-year-old Robby Fabbri suffered a torn ACL in early February, a big blow for the team because the young winger has shown potential, scoring 81 points in 143 (regular season plus playoff) games in his first two seasons with the Blues. If Fabbri returns healthy for next season, he’ll surely be counted on to play an offensive role.

Last season’s sinking production is a bit of a problem for Jori Lehtera and the Blues, because he’s under contract for two more seasons, at $4.7-million per. If Lehtera returns to form as a decent playmaker and secondary scorer, then the price isn’t so bad, but two more years of last year’s production would be bad news. 

Veteran centre Kyle Brodziak anchors the fourth line and that unit tended to be fighting uphill, pinned in the defensive zone, most nights. He has 15 goals and 26 points, total, over the past two seasons.

While the role of the heavyweight enforcer appears to be fading away, the Blues still boast a legitimate candidate for the role. Ryan Reaves had a career-high seven goals and 13 points last season, and he wins a lot more than he loses (15-3-1 over the past three seasons according to the voters on hockeyfights.com) when he drops the gloves. He’s also a punishing hitter and that keeps him in the lineup on a regular basis.

24-year-old winger Dmitrij Jaskin has been perennially in a battle for a regular role in St. Louis, playing 170 (of a possible 246) games over the past three seasons. He has decent size and plays a fine all-around game, yet he also managed just one goal in 51 games last season. It’s hard to make a convincing case for a spot in the lineup with so little production.

The Blues finally got Vladimir Sobotka back after three years in the KHL and he could be a useful top-nine forward. He had 102 points in 138 KHL games and then had seven points in 12 (regular season plus playoff) games after joining the Blues at the end of the season. Sobotka was buried in possession terms (42.8 CF%) during the playoffs, so that needs to improve, but he was typically a positive possession player before leaving for the KHL.

It sure appeared that Magnus Paajarvi, the 10th pick in the 2009 Draft, was on his way to washing out, but then he got an opportunity to play down the stretch and scored a bit, enough to get him another look next season. The 26-year-old has barely been able to contribute in any meaningful way since tallying 34 points as a rookie in 2010-2011, but maybe he can do it in a depth role.

Perhaps there is a lesson there for Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick in 2012 who seems almost assured to not receive a qualifying offer from the Blues after he fell flat. Despite dwindling offensive production, Yakupov is not without talent, so he could get another shot somewhere else, but expectations are going to be really low for a guy who has 11 goals in 100 games over the past two seasons.

Since the Blues have spent a lot of their money, it seems unlikely that they will make a significant forward addition in the offseason. Thus, a prospect like Ivan Barbashev may be one of the best paths to improvement. He had 37 points in 46 AHL games last season and benefitted from some favourable percentages on his way to 12 points in 30 regular-season games for the Blues. If St. Louis manages to unload one of their veteran forwards, Barbashev would most likely be the one to benefit with a regular spot in the lineup.
 

RETURNING DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2016-17 CAP
Alex Pietrangelo 80 14 34 48 50.2 0.2 100.2 43.1 25:17 $6.5M
Colton Parayko 81 4 31 35 50.8 1.2 100.7 49.6 21:12 $859K
Joel Edmundson 69 3 12 15 48.2 -2.1 102.1 48.5 17:46 $1.05M
Jay Bouwmeester 81 1 14 15 47.8 -3.2 101.5 41.3 22:24 $5.4M
Carl Gunnarsson 56 0 6 6 49.1 -1.2 97.9 52.9 13:36 $2.9M
Robert Bortuzzo 38 1 3 4 50.9 1.4 103.4 51.0 14:05 $1.05M
 

St. Louis’ workhorse on the top defensive tandem, Alex Pietrangelo has played more than 25 minutes per game for five straight seasons, missing a total of 14 games in that time. His possession results are always a little lower than might be expected from a player who gets regular turns on Canada’s blueline in the Olympics and World Cup of Hockey, but he’s still the leader of this group.

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Colton Parayko is a crucial part of the St. Louis blueline.

Rising star Colton Parayko has been very impressive in his first two NHL seasons. The 24-year-old is 6-foot-6, can skate, pass the puck and has a hammer of a shot from the blueline. As awesome as Parayko is, that could present a challenge for the Blues this summer, at least theoretically. He’s a restricted free agent and with the Blues pushing up against the salary cap, Parayko would be a natural target for an offer sheet, if only this were a league in which offer sheets were used as a normal course of operations under the collective bargaining agreement. Just to be safe, though, the Blues may want to move quickly in order to get Parayko signed because he’s a cornerstone piece for this team.

A hard-hitting 6-foot-4 presence on the blueline, Joel Edmundson did catch a little notice in the playoffs when he shockingly contributed three goals in 11 games, matching his regular-season production over 69 games. More importantly, though, is that Edmundson was getting more ice time as the season progressed and, by season’s end, seemed to have landed in the Blues’ top four. He still has room to improve, but that’s not unusual for a 23-year-old who has two years of NHL experience. 

At this stage of his career, 33-year-old Jay Bouwmeester is clearly not what he was during his best years in Florida or Calgary, and while his ice time declines – last year’s 22:24 per game was his lowest since his rookie season, 2002-2003 – that trend should continue. 

Injuries have worn down Carl Gunnarsson, and he played a modest 13:36 in just 56 games last season. He’s still under contract for a couple more seasons, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Blues to try to get away from those years, whether through expansion, trade or buyout.

A physical depth defenceman, Robert Bortuzzo has played 78 games over the past two seasons. He hits, fights when needed and is at least serviceable in that part-time role.

The Blues do have some prospects that should be pushing for playing time, if not regular roles. Jordna Schmaltz is a skilled right-shot defenceman who has a couple of AHL seasons under his belt. Petteri Lindbohm has been used in spot duty over the past three seasons, Vince Dunn had a strong rookie pro season in the American Hockey League, and Jake Walman is a promising prospect coming out of Providence College. 
 

RETURNING GOALTENDERS

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2016-17 CAP
Jake Allen 61 33 20 5 .915 .918 $4.35M
Carter Hutton 30 13 8 2 .913 .918 $1.125M
 

It was a tale of two seasons for Jake Allen, who had a .895 save percentage before the Blues fired Ken Hitchcock, only to rebound under Mike Yeo with a .938 save percentage in his last 25 games along with a strong playoff playoff performance (.935 SV% in 11 GP). There may have been doubts at the midway point last year about whether Allen was going to be the Blues’ starting goaltender, but he rallied and should have more confidence in that role going into next season.

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Jake Allen really bounced back after a slow start to the season.

While Carter Hutton did get into more games with the Blues than he was typically getting in Nashville, he also made quite a few relief appearances. With a .915 save percentage over the past two seasons, though, he’s a solid option as a backup goaltender.

EXPANSION TARGETS

Dmitrij Jaskin – Although the 24-year-old has just 19 goals in 190 career games, he’s inexpensive and has solid underlying numbers.

Magnus Paajarvi – Might be a little more appealing after a decent finish to the season, scoring eight points in his last 16 games, before adding three points in eight playoff games. 

Carl Gunnarsson – A steady veteran who is overpriced, and injured too much, at this stage of his career.

TOP PROSPECTS

 

BLUES TOP PROSPECTS

 
PLAYER POS. GP G A PTS +/- TEAM (LEAGUE)
Ivan Barbashev C 46 19 18 37 0 Chicago (AHL)
Tage Thompson C 34 19 13 32 -6 Connecticut (HE)
Jake Walman D 39 7 18 25 +11 Providence (HE)
Vince Dunn D 72 13 32 45 +15 Niagara (OHL)
Jordan Kyrou RW 66 30 64 94 +5 Sarnia (OHL)
Ville Husso G 22       .920 HIFK Helsinki (SML)
Jordan Schmaltz D 42 3 22 25 +4 Chicago (AHL)
Samuel Blais LW 75 26 17 43 +11 Chicago (AHL)
Petteri Lindbohm D 52 8 8 16 +3 Chicago (AHL)
Niko Mikkola D 56 4 11 15 +6 KalPa Kuopio (SML)
Evan Fitzpatrick G 49       .899 Sherbrooke (QMJHL)
Mackenzie MacEachern LW 55 5 6 11 +9 Chicago (AHL)
Austin Poganski RW 40 12 13 25 +10 North Dakota (NCHC)
Jordan Binnington G 32       .911 Chicago (AHL)
Adam Musil C 56 20 31 51 +10 Red Deer (WHL)
 

While the Blues don’t necessarily boast elite prospects, they have some quality organizational depth that should allow them to replenish the roster to some degree over the next couple of seasons. 

DRAFT 

20th – Callan Foote, Nicolas Hague, Josh Norris
27th – Robert Thomas, Kole Lind, Connor Timmins

FREE AGENCY

The Blues have approximately $68.6M committed to the 2017-2018 salary cap for 20 players.

NEEDS

Financial flexibility, depth forwards, depth defencemen

WHAT I SAID THE BLUES NEEDED LAST YEAR

Two top-nine forwards, depth forwards

THEY ADDED 

David Perron, Nail Yakupov, Carter Hutton

TRADE MARKET

Jori Lehtera, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, Dmitrij Jaskin, Carl Gunnarsson

 

MY PROJECTED 2017-2018 BLUES DEPTH CHART

LEFT WING CENTRE RIGHT WING
Jaden Schwartz Paul Stastny Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen Patrik Berglund Robby Fabbri
Vladimir Sobotka Jori Lehtera David Perron
Magnus Paajarvi Kyle Brodziak Ryan Reaves
Zach Sanford Ivan Barbashev Tage Thompson
Samuel Blais Wade Megan Landon Ferraro
LEFT DEFENCE RIGHT DEFENCE GOALTENDER
Jay Bouwmeester Alex Pietrangelo Jake Allen
Joel Edmundson Colton Parayko Carter Hutton
Carl Gunnarsson Jordan Schmaltz Ville Husso
Petteri Lindbohm Robert Bortuzzo  
Vince Dunn Jake Walman  

 

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca