I've mentioned it before and I'm not afraid to admit it here in front of all of you. Hi, my name is Sean Gallagher and I am a horrible fantasy hockey manager.
But that doesn't stop me from playing. I have a keeper league that I've been in for over 10 years. On top of that, it's a simulated keeper league, so rather than the geeky rotisserie-style that most people play, mine is about five times geekier than that. If you don't know, ask your average fantasy hockey manager and he'll confirm it for you.
And despite the fact that my keeper team has yet to win a championship in my fake league in over 10 years of trying, I'm going to go all fantasy manager on you tonight as I look at the Blues' offseason. If I were promoted from Fantasy GM/Shitty Hockey Paper Editor to GM of the Blues, this would be my plan of action:
Step 1: Clean House. There are people who are going to leave and people who need to leave. The Blues' unrestricted free agents are Paul Kariya, Chris Mason, Keith Tkachuk, Carlo Colaiacovo, Darryl Sydor, Mike Weaver and Brad Winchester. Of that group, I think I'd let every one of them go except for Weaver and Colaiacovo. Colaiacovo has found his way in St. Louis and is just entering his prime. Short of some ridiculous salary demand, he's a good fit on this team in terms of play and age. Weaver is probably a cheap re-signing and I'll pay him the highest compliment I can give a defensive defenseman: I almost never notice the guy.
As for the rest, Tkachuk is done and he knows it. I like him, but his career is over and he'll retire. At least he should. Not all of us will remember his Blues career fondly, but I will. Kariya doesn't fool me; he has always left teams for anyone who will give him more money. He's leaving for a bigger paycheck elsewhere and he's playing the "I'm clicking here and want to stay" story to milk more money out of someone else. Chris Mason is not the future in net here and he has proven over the last couple years that he's not even the now in net. Depending on what you believe, one of Joe Fallon, Ben Bishop or Jake Allen is the future in net here; none are ready now. The Blues are going to need a bridge between here and there and Mason isn't it; use his cap money on someone else. Sydor and Winchester are not to be re-signed.
Step 2: Take Care Of Ours. The Blues' restricted free agents are Erik Johnson, Alex Steen, David Perron, Cam Janssen and D.J. King. Johnson's cap hit was $3.7 million this year. He needs to be signed to a bonus-heavy contract to allow room to sign his fellow youngsters over the next couple seasons. He only has two NHL seasons to his credit and needs to leave room to grow. He is hardly an established star at this point and should recognize that. Ditto for Perron. Alex Steen should be re-signed, but he needs to remember the same message: leave room for others and realize you're not exactly a superstar at this point. There's room here for all three to blossom, but they haven't yet.
As for the fighters, let both of them go. I like both guys, but King has played 11 games in the last two years and is part of a dying breed: heavyweight fighters are employed almost exclusively by non-Cup contending teams at this point. As for homeboy Cam, we'd love to have him, but the roster needs room to grow with the full and talented pipeline and he's part of the attrition. B.J. Crombeen plays every game and takes a regular shift and he has fought 17 times to Janssens' 19. The team needs space to grow and the guys who can fight need to be able to play, too.
Step 3: Make More Room. In the first two steps I have eliminated seven roster players. Is there more room to make? The elephants in the room are Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer. They both get paid too much for what they do, and both seem to be guys who aren't contributing much. Brewer has one year left on his contract at $4.5 million. He can be bought out for $2.25 million spent over the next two seasons. In other words, it costs about three million bucks a year less to not have him next year than to have him on the team. Domo arigato, Captain Roboto.
As for Jackman, I'm not ready to give up on him, nor am I ready to pay him $4 million to not play here over the next two seasons. The defense is going to get better around him and he should settle into more of a Mike Weaver mode as the team grows.
Step 4: Go Get Somebody. There are players available on the free market and on the trade market. The top unrestricted guys will likely be players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau and we can make arguments as to whether either would be a good fit in St. Louis. Can Davis Payne get Kovalchuk to play a team game or, alternately, can he cover up for his defensive lapses with responsible linemates (are Backes and Oshie up to the task)? Can Payne coax a consistent effort out of 30-year-old Marleau? Will he be worth the money he's paid?
On the restricted free agent side, there are sure to be some players who can't agree with their teams on their value. The Blues should investigate a trade for an NHL-proven youngster at the cost of some NHL-potential players. It's a given that not everyone in the pipeline has a spot on the pro team waiting for them. Someone can be packaged to make a run at a guy like Blake Wheeler or Bobby Ryan or Devin Setoguchi. Management needs to do the homework and identify high-salary teams that will have problems with their re-signings or identify players who aren't getting the playing time they crave with their current teams. Signing away RFA players hardly ever happens, but trades for RFA players happen all the time. The Blues need to be active on that front. Acquiring a guy who fits in with the core group's 21-26 age range would be a big step forward for next year.
Trade partners exist. Some teams need to move from a position of strength, like Montreal with goalies Carey Price (22 and RFA) and Jaroslav Halak (24 and wanting a starter job) or Minnesota with Niklas backstrom (long-term contract starter) and Josh Harding (25 and wanting a starter job). Those teams both need what the Blues have: young talent.
There will be opportunities to trade from strength to address a weakness. New GM Doug Armstrong needs to be proactive on that front and get to teams before the bidding wars begin. It won't be easy and the assets that will be used may hurt to see them go, but it's time for the Blues to address a couple weak spots with players from outside the franchise.
Step 5: Promote From Within. The Plan has now eliminated eight roster players and hopefully added one or two back. The rest of the spots should be filled from within the organization. In goal, Fallon and Bishop will have to continue compete for time with the Rivermen while Jake Allen plays out the rest of his junior eligibility in Canada. Hopefully Ty Conklin will back up a new addition. Defensively this plan brings back Johnson, Jackman, Weaver, Colaicovo and Polak, which leaves one slot open for either Tyson Strachan or Jonas Junland or Alex Pietrangelo to make the team. I would rather see Pietrangelo start in Peoria and build his game at that level, as he has struggled in the NHL during his tryouts the last two seasons.
Offensively this plan brings back Backes, Berglund, Boyes, Crombeen, D'Agostini, McClement, McDonald, Oshie, Perron and Steen, 10 forwards in all. If the Blues can acquire another forward to add scoring pop, there is one available spot for someone from Peoria to make the team. Whether that is a skilled player like Lars Eller or a hard worker like Nick Drazenovic will be up to the coaches, but it is important for the organizational players in the AHL and ECHL to see that it is possible to move up the ladder with the Blues. It keeps them focused and positive. They need to know that hard work could get them into the pros without having to be traded.
My fantasy GM plan, while easier said than done, achieves several goals. It keeps together the core group of NHL players as well as addresses a couple of holes without going overboard to re-organize everything. Additionally it promotes players who have earned the shot that the NHL from the minor leagues, further solidifying the pipeline.
On the down side, dipping into the well of prospects to address current needs will hurt. Players like Junland or Ian Cole or David Rundblad or even Alex Pietrangelo could be packaged up and shipped off to another city to bloom. The Blues might have to surrender high draft picks to seal a deal or two. It's sure to upset fans, but if the return is right, it's a necessary evil.
Jumble the players however you want into line combination, but my fantasy eye tells me that the Backes and Oshie duo needs to stay together, possibly with a new acquisition on their other wing. McDonald and Perron might be just the offensive combination needed to get Brad Boyes re-started as a goal scorer, while McClement and Crombeen have looked good together, providing shut-down coverage. Let's put the similar Matt D'Agostini on the line too. Could the Swedish duo of Berglund and Steen provide a third scoring option, possibly with Eller, a Dane who spent his junior days in Sweden as the third piece?
Defensive pairings would be easy to build, with two defensive blueliners, Weaver and Jackman, paired with the offensive blueliners Johnson and Colaiacovo. Polak has a nice two-way game and would be easy to pair with the farmhand who makes the NHL.
It may seem crazy and maybe just a tad too clean, but that's the fantasy world. Can the Blues front office make the right moves to beat my fantasy picks? Should be an interesting summer.
-Sean "I suck at fantasy drafts, too" Gallagher