When the Blues didn't make a move that affected the NHL roster at the trade deadline last month, the prevailing logic held that the Blues just didn't have the cash for raising the payroll. But part of me wondered if the Blues were admitting that while the success this year is nice, they were being realistic about not really contending for a Stanley Cup this season. "Build for the future," and all that. And then they talked Jaden Schwartz into turning pro on Monday.
When college players see their season end, they have a couple options. They can stay in school to continue their eligibility. They can sign a pro contract with an NHL team or they can sign a tryout contract with a minor league team. The advantage to signing with a team in the AHL is that players can get a taste of professional hockey and hopefully
experience some playoff action while not using a year of eligibility toward free agency. Because Schwartz signed with the Blues and the deadline to have players on the AHL roster has passed, the 19-year-old forward can't go down to the minors the rest of this season. There are some implications to this move.
The first is that it sure seems like Matt D'Agosini and Alex Steen aren't coming back soon. The Blues could use some depth up front and it wasn't coming in the form of T.J. Hensick or Adam Cracknell. And while Jamie Langenbrunner has played a key role this season, he's not the answer for making the offense better in the playoffs. Schwartz brings some flexibility to the roster with his ability to play wing or center. He's speedy and a playmaker first, scorer second. He's not overly big at 5 feet, 10 inches, but that's not a concern unless he's on a checking line. You think he would be an interesting linemate with T.J. Oshie and David Backes? Or maybe he takes Andy McDonald's spot and No. 10 teams up with Oshie and Backes. There's suddenly some flexibility Ken Hithcock didn't have on Sunday in Columbus.
You think this might be a response to the Alexander Radulov returning to Nashville from the KHL rumors? The Predators have clearly been the most aggressive team in the division as the season has wound down. Yet
look at the standings. The Blues were doing everything they could to stay ahead of the Predators two weeks ago. Now, the lead is 10 points. The Blues are now six points ahead of Detroit and a whopping 15 past
Chicago. And the schedule is running out of games fast. That leads to a realization.
The Blues believe they're Stanley Cup contenders right now. They had to weigh the benefit of three full entry-level seasons on Schwartz's contract, a benefit they would realize in the future vs. having him contribute right now and only two full seasons and what's left of this one. And they chose the now. For the first time in more than eight years they're making a move for the present instead of the future.
Some things to consider about their decision:
- They have dominated Eastern Conference opponents to the tune of 13-1-1.
- The Red Wings are starting to feel their age with the number of injuries on the roster (Hint: Lidstrom is old).
- Chicago has real questions in goal and sure looked vulnerable last week in St. Louis.
- They won the season series with Vancouver 2-1-1.
- They swept the San Jose Sharks.
- Goaltending, one of the most crucial ingredients for playoff success, has been excellent.
- The Blues are playing their best hockey of the year right now.
Obviously regular season success doesn't equate to postseason results, but it's promising. All of a sudden, the big picture shows the Blues are in the catbird seat. The only team to consistently give the Blues fits in the conference has been Nashville, a team the Blues have a decent chance of avoiding at least in the first round. No one is going to anoint them a favorite to win the conference. At least not today. It'll be interesting what national analysts say about the Blues the first week of April.
All this leads inexorably to one simple question: Why not the St. Louis Blues?