It's not surprising that everyone pointed to the full-time return to the lineup of Roman Polak, Alex Pietrangelo, Erik Johnson and Barret Jackman and the beginning of the Blues' latest five-game winning streak as being an intersection of sorts. Obviously, when those four guys and Carlo Colaiacovo and Eric Brewer are all in the lineup together the Blues have a better defensive corps than when big minutes are being held down by guys like Nathan Oystrick, Nikita Nikitin, Ian Cole and Tyson Strachan.
And that's not to say that the "Other Four" were terrible, by any means, as Cole and Nikitin showed flashes of the promise we've been told about and Strachan has played a solid seventh defenseman role for two seasons now. But the Group of Six are clearly the guys that this team was built around by the management. Add to them the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin and you've got the equation that has resulted in most of the Blues' wins this season. With the offense anemic due to long-term injuries to T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald and David Perron, if not for the excellent defense and goaltending of this team, we'd be talking about lottery picks in the Entry Draft.
Of those eight players on the defense and in net, five are under contract for next year and likely to be playing these same positions next year. One, Polak, is a restricted free agent and more than certain to be re-signed. Conklin is an unrestricted free agent, and as the back-up goalie will be offered a contract only if the Blues think either Ben Bishop or Jake Allen are not ready to assume the back-up role in St. Louis. It may also be the case that one or more of them need more minutesand seasoning in Peoria or that one of them will be traded at some point. But for Conklin, no team is going to call his agent with an offer to be the starter, so it's not a huge assumption to say that the Blues will either re-sign him or let him walk because they are confident in Bishop (or possibly Allen) to do an equal or better job.
And that leaves just one more regular to talk about. Eric Brewer, who is still referenced as "The Guy We Got For Pronger," is an unrestricted free agent this summer and could walk away from St. Louis. Or he could be re-signed.
For his part, Brewer is having a career year. He's on pace for a career-high in goals, even as his assist totals have been off-pace. But his plus-9, if it were to hold up or increase, would be his best since 2001, when he was plus-15 for Edmonton. In fact, were he to finish as a plus player, it would be just his second time to do so in his 11 NHL seasons. But the numbers don't tell the whole story with his improvement. He's no longer always the guy picking the puck out of the Blues net. He's not making glaring errors in coverage where his man is open for a chance or a score. He hasn't been tripped by a blueline in months and hasn't scored on his own net in over a year.
Instead, Brewer has been the player we were told we were getting back when the Blues acquired him in 2005. He has been solid defensively and confident on the ice. He has made the right play way more often than the wrong. Even the Brewer Haters out there have had to capitulate: Yeah, he hasn't sucked so bad this year.
But, the big question remains hanging out there. Is this just a guy playing well because it's his contract year or is this a guy who is finally completely injury free and playing the way he has wanted to play for years?
There's no denying that when he plays as well as he is right now, he is a key part of the Group of Six. It makes sense to want to keep that group together next year too. If they can help the team win so many games with this goaltending and no offense this year, it stands to reason that they'd be at least as good next year.
So, do the Blues keep Brewer? I think so, under a certain set of conditions.
- The recommendation of the coaching staff needs to be yes. We've heard publicly that the players are happy with Brewer as team captain. They finally came out and said what I encouraged them to do at some point; they just said 'Outside this room you'll never know, but he has our respect and he's our captain. Great, thank you. However, unofficially, there have been murmurs that he "isn't everyone's captain." The coaches have to read the room. If he's the great captain and the team wants him and he's still playing this well, that's a good reason to re-sign him.
- The money has to be right. Brewer signed a four-year deal before 2007-08 worth $17 million. At the time that was to keep him off the market at a time when management felt it would be hard to get a comparable free agent to come to St. Louis. That is no longer the case. The Blues are an attractive team now to free agents and the Blues will have money to throw at a free agent or two. Brewer's role on this defense will be fading over the next two to three years, not increasing. The contract should reflect that. An agreement of three years worth $2.5 million a year would be appropriate. Anything over $3 million is a robbery and will take money away from future negotiations with the youngsters who will be taking over the mantle of the defense.
There will be money to spend next year (a pending announcement on a new ownership organization is due some time this month and at that point maybe we'll know how much money will be available to be spent), but I think it's obvious that the money that's going to be spent will be on offense.
T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Matt D'Agostini and Patrik Berglund are all restricted free agents this summer and there's no reason to believe any of them won't be re-signed with raises. The Blues clearly could use more scoring in the lineup and the list of potential unrestricted free agent forwards has some interesting names on it. The list of potential unrestricted free agent defensemen, on the other hand, is less scintillating.
The Blues may find that letting Pietrangelo and Johnson and Polak taking more active roles in the defense and letting Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo and Eric Brewer take a step back is the right development plan for the team. If they can keep a healthy and happy Brewer in the fold for half the dollars they're spending on him this year, that may be the right answer, leaving the defense corps together and freeing up $2 million more to spend on the offense.
In the end, it may not be as easy as that. Brewer may be chomping at the bit to get the saddle off his back and bolt St. Louis, a town that has never treated him well. Even at the last home game, as my son and I watched warm ups, a kid about nine years old next to me screamed at No. 4, "Brewer, you suck!" I asked him why he would yell at one of our own players, especially one who has been playing well all year. The kid thought about it, looked back out at the ice and said, "Because he sucks."
I guess the question remains, then. Does he suck and we're just seeing Contract Year Eric or is he for real? Are the Blues getting tricked or should they try to re-sign him?