Vladimir Tarasenko is going to be out for a long time. This isn’t really breaking news. Alex Steen will be out for at least a month. We’ve known this for a few days. But here’s one more thing we know: the Blues have a window where they can contend for the Stanley Cup, and that window is closing.
So, as I write this, the Blues have won seven straight games, and nine of their last ten. The Blues are best in the West, and hold a five-point lead over Colorado (who have played one less game) in the Central Division. It’s best to put this first, because it’s important that I acknowledge the success the team has had in Vladimir Tarasenko’s absence. Plenty of fans are considering this success as an extension of the Blues’ postseason style of play that led to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship.
But, by the same token, the analytics community will argue that what the Blues are doing right now is simply unsustainable. They’ll point to the fact that the Blues are winning too many one-goal games (six of the last ten). They’ll look at the five games that required overtime to win. There is the low-event game the Blues are continuing to play based on shot rates. And the expected goals rates compared to the rest of the league.
We can view both arguments in context of the greater picture, and the aforementioned window. Looking at Doug Armstrong’s recent actions, we can discern that he believes this is a team that can compete. The normally cap-conscious Armstrong has made some out-of-character moves this summer. Though the Blues have upcoming depth at the center position, Armstrong inked Brayden Schenn to an eight-year deal ($6.5m) that will end when Schenn is 36 years old. Despite having two stalwart defensemen on the right side, Armstrong noted a need on the power play and not only added Justin Faulk to a crowded right side, but also signed him to a seven-year contract extension ($6.5m) that will end when he is 35. Following these two deals, the fact that the Blues are seemingly still interested in bringing back Alex Pietrangelo on a term deal reveals three truths about Doug Armstrong’s plans: 1. He wants to keep this group intact, 2. There is a cap crisis coming, and 3. Armstrong doesn’t care about the impending crisis because he believes the team will win another Cup (or two…maybe three) before the cap eventually tears the team apart.
The first potential cap crash point occurs in 2021. Tarasenko’s $7.5m contract will expire the following year, as will Ryan O’Reilly’s. Colton Parayko will be on the board as well with his final $5.5m cap hit. But the Blues will need to re-sign or replace Jaden Schwartz (who will be due a significant raise), Tyler Bozak (centers don’t come cheap), Robert Thomas (who will be entering his prime and receiving his first non-ELC), Jordan Binnington AND Jake Allen (if he’s still in St. Louis), and Zach Sanford and Ivan Barbashev. Further complicating matters will be the Seattle expansion draft, which while potentially serving as relief, will more likely lead to the Blues losing a good contract, or a player who needs to be replaced. Finally, the NHL’s CBA will expire after the season; I won’t pretend to know how that will affect the salary cap landscape.
Presumably Armstrong will continue to re-sign core pieces like Schwartz, Thomas, and Binnington. But every season after that brings diminishing returns and a further-closing window due to a combination of factors including: the aging of players under term contracts (most notably, Tarasenko, O’Reilly, Faulk, Schenn, and maybe Pietrangelo), presumed success leading to fewer reinforcements (it’s hard to find good and quick-developing prospects while picking in the 20s), and the need to spend assets to enhance the team during the window.
This leads us back to Tarasenko, and more importantly the window. If we can say the window is definitely open for three seasons, and will close quickly after that, then Doug Armstrong has a problem that he needs to fix this season. By creating this cap crunch, (and let’s be clear, this is intentional) Armstrong has a duty to enhance the team in these next three seasons. He has some choices.
It’s the conservative approach. The Blues have limited assets after spending (Joel Edmundson and Dominik Bokk) to acquire Faulk this summer, and having traded first round picks in the summers of 2017 and 2018 for Schenn and O’Reilly. The cost of enhancing the team to a level that would replace Tarasenko, would be enormous. It would be best to stay the course, see where you get this year, and then regroup for next year.
Pros: The team is already good. Hey, it’s best in the West. They should be a competitive team in the postseason. Assuming that the Blues re-sign Pietrangelo, the team will look basically the same next season. They will try to win next season if they can’t this season.
Cons: A window isn’t a guarantee. It’s a window. And this is one of the three prime years to re-contend for a Stanley Cup. While it’s too early to tell for sure, there are concerns that Tarasenko’s shoulder could still be a recurring problem. If Tarasenko’s health is in jeopardy, and no one has replaced him, then we’d have to re-evaluate the window.
Swing for the Fences:
Everyone is thinking it. Let’s do it. A player like Taylor Hall isn’t available every year, and reports are that he is probably available.
Maybe he can replace Tarasenko’s production. And let’s not forget the dream scenario: maybe he can play left wing on a line with Tarasenko in the postseason. It’s easy to salivate over the possibility.
Pros: It’s Taylor Hall.
Cons: He’s going to cost someone a lot of assets. When players of Hall’s pedigree become available, conventional wisdom starts with an asking price of a first-round pick, a top prospect, and a producing roster player. As the market sets, that price can change a bit, but it’s going to be a lot. From the Blues’ perspective that means they’re parting with Jordan Kyrou or Klim Kostin (maybe both), a first-round pick, and then, from the roster, who knows. This all for maybe one spring of Hall, and nothing is guaranteed. Making this trade, and not winning the Cup, severely hurts the window.
Meet in the Middle:
So, Chris Kreider is available. He’s pretty good. Not as good as Hall, but pretty good. And if he’s not as good as Hall, then Kreider will not cost as much as Hall.
Pros: Kreider is a 20-goal scorer with speed and a bit of an edge at times, who would be a massive upgrade in the “players that remind us of Pat Maroon” department that current fans are missing. Maybe he’s more-easily re-signed too. Maybe.
Cons: He might not cost as much as Hall, but he’s going to cost a prospect and a high pick. He doesn’t improve the element lost by losing Tarasenko.
Shore Up the Depth:
The Blues have added Troy Brouwer and Jamie McGinn on Professional Tryouts. Neither will replace Tarasenko directly, but if either could make the team, they could help bolster the bottom six to eat some tough minutes.
Pros: It’s happening. If either can make it, then other players can compete for top six roles.
Cons: They aren’t solving the problem caused by Tarasenko’s absence. They could potentially block a prospect from joining the NHL team (though at the moment, no one has asserted themselves as NHL ready).
Add the Unknown:
Look, it’s November. We don’t know who will be available as the season progresses. Maybe someone else will be available.
Pros: It depends on who it is.
Cons: It depends on who it is.
The contracts that the Blues have signed have created a window for success, that once closed, will lead to some very lean years, and very hard decisions. Tarasenko’s injury has created urgency that didn’t exist when those contracts were signed. Time will tell what Armstrong does. Thanks for reading.