Last week was an interesting time for the St. Louis Blues. Fans knew that coming into the off-season the Blues, in essence had their hands tied thanks to a large number of players already under contract. The Blues had little wiggle room under the cap but needed to make improvements to their roster. After a slow, and nervous, opening day of the NHL off-season (draft day) the Blues responded with a pair of moves late Friday that helped shape the roster into something new.
Every Blues fans dream, other than the one of seeing the Blue note hoist the cup, came true when Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong was able to unload Jori Lehtera’s contract, sending his 30 career goals and the remaining two-years and $4.7 million per year contract to the Flyers. However, what was even more shocking than dumping the salary was the ability to get a legitimate forward in return. Brayden Schenn, just 25-years old, has already topped 20 goals three times in his career and tied for the NHL lead with 17 power play goals last season.
This comes on the heels of Armstrong getting the Las Vegas Knights to select David Perron in the expansion draft, and taking the remaining $4.5 million dollars on his contract. Perron did well in his return to St. Louis last year during the regular season but failed to make any kind of impact in the playoffs. These two moves not only sent two underperforming post-season players to other teams but freed up the cap space necessary for the future resigning of younger impact players like Colton Parayko and gives the Blues some breathing room to make further moves in the future.
Maybe a bigger surprise than the Blues being able to get rid of the contracts of Perron and Lehtera was their next move, sending fan favorite Ryan Reaves to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Reaves was the most recent in a long line of Blues bruisers that the St. Louis fans love; from Kelly Chase to Tony Twist, to Reed Low, and Cam Janssen…Blues fans love their enforcers. Reaves had developed his game to the point to where he was no longer just an enforcer. He was the key member of the Blues fourth line, a player who brought energy and could crash the net while giving them a threat of scoring those tough goals.
I was sad to see Reaves go, as I am a fan of his. However, let’s take a step back. The NHL continues to change. Reaves is no longer just an enforcer but is most assuredly not a consistent offensive threat. His style of play does not have the same impact it once did in the NHL. The NHL is going faster, quicker, more offensive. Reaves meanwhile is a 31-year old checking line player. The Blues were able to move back into the first round, drafting Russian forward Klim Kostin, and acquiring a Oskar Sundqvist, a 23-year old player that gives the Blues much-needed depth at the center position.
The Blues turned a fading asset into two offensive prospects. And that is what the Blues need. Offensse. Energy and checkers can be found anywhere, but offense is a premium. And that is my big takeaway from the weekend. The Blues are reshaping their roster. Two summers ago during the press conference that announced the return of Ken Hitchcock, Doug Armstrong said about the Blues “We are going to have a different look. We’re going to explore improving our team to levels we probably haven’t explored in the past. But it has to make sense.”
In the same press conference Hitchcock stated “We’ve got to go back to reckless,” Hitchcock said. “(Our style is) too conservative, it’s too careful, it’s too much skill ahead of work. We’ve got to get back to reckless. We’ve got more skill than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. But skilled, careful hockey doesn’t win. You’ve got to play reckless.” Hitchcock used the phrase reckless five times when addressing the media.
But here is where I think things went different for the Blues. As I mentioned last summer when the Blues brought Hitchcock back once again for a run, he was an old coach set in his ways. We saw this during his tenure. He would say the Blues would play reckless and faster but if they had a bad game or stretch of bad games it would be all about “buying in” and the team would go back to the defensive mindset that Hitchcock believes in. It was something that I pointed out last summer and why I was not in favor of bringing him back.
So my question is with Hitchcock gone, is Doug Armstrong able to finally put together the team he wanted to two summers ago when he promised a faster team? A different looking team? Was it Hitchcock that truly controlled the roster? Yes Armstrong worked with Hitchcock in Dallas but never as the GM. Armstrong was named GM in January of 2002 and Hitchcock was gone that summer. Could Armstrong have let his respect of Hitchcock overrule his desire to make the roster moves he wanted to?
Armstrong deserves some blame for his questionable contract extensions, like Alexander Steen, Jori Lehtera, and Patrick Berglund…but was he being strong-armed by Hitchcock into keeping a roster that fit Hitch’s style of play rather than shaping the roster fitting of the faster paced style of play in the NHL?
I like the moves the Blues made last weekend. Not only are they addressing the current roster but they are thinking ahead. The Blues still may struggle as they reboot the team but I like this roster makeup much more than I did last year’s. The NHL is changing and it is good to see the Blues finally changing along with the NHL.
We have seen players sent packing, a Hall of Fame coach fired; if this year fails there is only one man left to take the blame; Doug Armstrong. So Armstrong will go down fighting and do so his way, by building his ‘army’ of Blues.