Washington holds the final piece of the puzzle that would arguably bring Lord Stanley to St. Lou

   Much was at stake in game 7 between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Legacies were on the line, Careers were on the line, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals were on the line. The Capitals couldn’t get over the hump yet again, losing game 7 at home and exchanging their hockey sticks for golf clubs. Many, including myself, ponder if that was Alex Ovechkin’s best chance he’ll ever have at winning the Stanley Cup. Which also leads us to the next topic, the Caps have done everything possible to build a winner, yet have never got out of the 2nd round in the Ovechkin era; is it time to shake things up in DC? 

   Doug Armstrong and the Blues watched game 7 of the Pens-Caps series knowing their own franchise had something on the line in the game as well. If the Capitals would have won, the Blues would have acquired Washington’s 2019 2nd round pick. A compensation pick in the trade involving Kevin Shattenkirk a few months ago. After going all in and adding players such as Shattenkirk, Eller, Weber, etc over the past year, it leads us to believe Washington needs a major shakeup to their roster.

    First thing is first, the Caps have 11 free agents that they need to re-sign. Williams, Oshie, Winnik, Alzner, and Shattenkirk are all UFAs. Orlov, Grabauer, Schmidt, Connolly, Burakovsky, and Kuznetsov are all RFAs. It’s impossible for Washington to re-sign every one of those players. Washington doesn’t pick in the upcoming entry draft until the 4th round. If you go into the draft, knowing you’re going to lose some guys to free agency, why wouldn’t you try to regain assets that you previously lost in trades such as Shattenkirk and Eller? 

“You may want to trade one or two RFAs if you’re Washington.” – Mike Rupp on NHL Network Radio.

   Going after a potential RFA via trade isn’t the only “shakeup” the Capitas need. Washington has NEVER made it to the Conference Final in the Ovechkin era. D.C failed to cash in on the prime of the career of the best pure goal scorer to ever step foot on an NHL ice rink. After numerous head coaching changes, acquiring countless world class players, 3 Hart trophies, and 5 Maurice “Rocket” Richard trophies, the Capitals have failed to get out of the 2nd round in every single season. Almost everything has been changed or tweaked for Ovechkin to finally lift the biggest hardware of them all, except one thing. Throughout Ovechkin’s entire career, he’s faced change both on and off the ice, however, one thing has almost always stayed the same; the most underrated player in the NHL. Every Batman has his Robin, just like Alex Ovechkin has his Nicklas Backstrom. Now, I’m not saying Backstrom is the reason for Washington’s failures , I’m saying he may be the only big thing left, other than Ovechkin, to change. 

“Maybe even break him away from Nicklas Backstrom, who remains a superstar.”             – James Mirtle of the Athletic, talking about breaking Backstrom and Ovechkin apart. 

   The St. Louis Blues were 2 wins away from reaching the Werern Conference Final for consecutive seasons. Not bad considering they changed head coaches in the middle of the season, their #1 goalie had a mental and physical breakdown a few months ago, and they were fighting for their playoff lives for the first time in a few years. The biggest need for the Blues is to somehow aqcuire or grow a true #1 center. This offseason is a prime opportunity to fix this need. The two players I’m looking at, that will instantly improve the chances of winning a Cup, are Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. 

 

   Here’s a look at the top 9 highest paid forwards on the Blues roster and where they ranked amongst team leaders in points. The highest paid center, Paul Stastny, ranked 6th in team scoring last season. That’s just simply not good enough for a Stanley Cup a Champion team. Over the past 5 years, here’s how every Cup Champion’s #1 center ranked amongst team leaders in points: Crosby (1st – 85P in 80GP), Toews (1st – 66P in 81GP), Kopitar (1st – 70P in 82GP), Toews (2nd – 48P in 47GP), Kopitar (1st – 76P in 82GP). Paul Stastny ranked 6th – 40P in 66GP this season. Backstrom would have ranked 1st on the Blues with 86P in 82GP, and Kuznetsov would have ranked 2nd on the Blues with 59P in 82GP this season. Also, they wouldn’t be the 2nd highest paid forward on the team, Backstrom would rank 3rd highest at $6.7 million, and Kuznetsov would rank 9th at $3.0 million. Still not convinced this is the missing peice of the puzzle? 
Outside of their powerplay, arguably the biggest weakness for the Blues in the playoffs were faceoffs. Practically losing on the dot in every postseason game is not a great way to go deep into May and early June. Backstrom would make the better argument than Kuznetsov here, however Kuznetsov is still young and has potential to improve. Backstrom won 51.4% of faceoffs during the season, and has won as much as 53.6% of faceoffs in his career. Kuznetsov, has great offensive upside, however wouldn’t help much on the dot. He won 44% of faceoffs during the season, and has won as much as 47.8% of faceoffs in his career. Faceoffs are Stastny’s expertise, winning 55.7% this season. Adding a player like Backstrom to your first line, and dropping Stastny to the 2nd line will instantly improve 2 areas of need, 1st line point production, and depth faceoff wins. It’s a domino effect. Still not convinced? 

   St. Louis had the 8th best powerplay percentage in the NHL this season at 21.3%. However, the Blues were the WORST powerplay in the entire playoffs, ranked 16 out of 16 after posting a 6.7%. Having the worst powerplay in the entire playoffs is also not a great way to keep plauing hockey into late May, Early June. During the regular season, Paul Stastny ranked 5th on the team in powerplay points with 13 (5 goals, 8 assists). Here’s the major difference… Nicklas Backstrom netted 35 powerplay points over the season (8 goals, 27 assists). I’m sure that’s music to Vladimir Tarasenko’s ears. Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied 14 powerplay points over the season (3 goals, 11 assists). Washington’s 2nd line powerplay center had more points than our 1st line powerplay center. Put Kuznetsov on the 1st line powerplay with Tarasenko and others, along with the increased ice time, and he could be around the 20+ powerplay point range. Again, this would cause a domino effect, moving Stastny, a good playmaking center down to your 2nd powerplay line, improving your powerplay as a whole. 

   Not only would one of Backstrom or Kuznetsov help offensively, but both are reliable two way players as well. Kuznetsov was a +18 and Backstrom was a +17. The highest Blues center was Ivan Barbashev at +5 (Although, it was a limited 30GP). Others listed: Stastny +4, Brodziak +2, Lehtera -6, Berglund -7. And for a stat that doesn’t matter, the Blues only center that scored an OT goal this season was Patrik Berglund (1). Nicklas Backstrom had 2. Last but not least, the cherry on top is that both Backstrom and Kuznetsov are playoff producers. Backstrom led the Caps in playoff scoring with 13 points in 13 games, Kuznetsov ranked 3rd with 10 points in 13 games. That’s 1.00 and 0.77 points per game. Get this… The highest ppg from a Blues center came from Jori Lehtera at 0.55 points per game (4 points in 8 games). Other Blues centers include: Stastny 0.43ppg (3 points in 7 games), Berglund 0.36ppg (4 points in 11 games), Brodziak 0.20ppg (2 points in 10 games), and Barbashev 0.00ppg (0 points in 6 games). 

   It is a make or break offseason for Doug Armstrong, who is in the last year of his contract as well. You’d have to think he takes the much needed risk to bring in a coveted number 1 center. If he doesn’t, and the Blues have another underachieving season, a year from now this story will be on the Blues search for a new ger General Manager. Army has plenty of assets, including 2 first round picks (20 and 27 overall), a few very good defensemen prospects with top 4 potential, a couple potential top 6 forward prospects, and who knows, maybe, just maybe, we see a blockbuster hockey trade… I wonder if we see a few more of these than normal this offseason, after seeing how it payed off for Nashville acquiring Subban from Montreal in exchange for Weber. Everything is setting up to become a very interesting and potentially active summer without hockey. Will Doug Armstrong potentially save his job and aqcuire the final piece of the puzzle? 

   Thanks for reading. Tweet me your thoughts, comments, and opinions on this story on Twitter @Palazzola_RTN

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