Fresh off the heels of a six-game series loss to Nashville, and with a "transitional" season in the rear-view mirror, an uncomfortable question hangs over the Blues like a thick fog: what will this team transition into?
If the answer is "Stanley Cup contender," then the only way to truly square that circle is to obtain a legitimate #1 center. The lack of depth up the middle for the Blues was impossible to ignore. St. Louis lost 393 face-offs in 11 postseason games, ranking dead-last in face-off win percentage among all playoff teams. To his credit, Mike Yeo threw everything he had at the problem; he gave youngsters like Sanford and Barbashev a chance in the circle, and even tried to utilize Steen at center, but nothing really worked. What can the front office do to correct the problem up the middle? Armstrong, in an interview with Lou Korac, threw a soaking-wet-blanket over any trade talk:
“If we can add outside sources there, we can do that. Internally we only have one unrestricted free agent. So, a lot of the players that are here are either on this team or with the Chicago Wolves right now, we're not going to have a lot of holes outside of that one unrestricted free agent. So if we can improve our team via trade, the old stock line, we always look at it, blah, blah, blah ... but I think the core of this group is going to be the core that we're going to move forward with.” [In The Slot]
This is the same half-in, half-out, risk-averse strategy Doug Armstrong has continually pursued for years. The front office never fully commits to a rebuild, nor does it attempt to make the big deadline trades that clubs like Pittsburgh use to win championships. This philosophy creates long-term stability, sure, but without a few seasons in the basement, the Blues can't draft high enough to snag the next McDavid, and without being able to bring in top-tier talent at the deadline, they can't really be considered a Grade-A Cup threat.
Yes, smart fans should be careful what they wish for. Reckless trades and aggressively overpaying aging free agents can mess up a franchise's big picture very quickly. Fair enough, but this fanbase is desperate for a championship, and without some bold action, it's tough to see how the Blues can get there from here. To be blunt, we've seen what this lineup can generally do in the playoffs, and it clearly needs a little something extra to push it into serious contention.
This isn't to say it’s easy to snatch a top six center in the NHL. Far from it. The salary cap is a cruel mistress, and the Blues have drawn up some questionable contracts that probably won't age well. It won't be easy to get what this club needs, but there's nothing easy about being a general manager in the National Hockey League. Poile needed a player like Subban, and he got the deal done. Rutherford needed another sniper like Kessel and he got the deal done. If Armstrong wants a ring, he needs to emulate them.
Every other aspect of the roster appears to be in good shape, apart from the forwards. The blueline is quite possibly one of the best in the League. Piertrangelo - an oddly disliked player by the 'Bluenote Lounge' genius brigade - is unquestionably one of the best defensemen on the planet. Edmundson's coming-out party (-/+ 12 in the postseason) was incredible. The defense prospect pipeline looks healthy, too, with Lindbolm and Schmaltz getting some ice time and showing some promise during their stints with the big club. Jake Allen - easily the postseason MVP for St. Louis - proved he can steal a series. Hutton has been remarkably good through his first season in St. Louis as well, and Husso is turning heads in the minors.
What the Blues needed in order to beat Nashville was potent and consistent offense. They didn’t get it. The power play in the postseason was a train-wreck. It was, without exaggeration, historically bad. Two for thirty on the man advantage is an embarrassment, and proof-positive of a serious depth problem at forward. Championships are won and lost on goaltending, defense, and special teams. The Blues had the penalty killing, they had the goaltending, and they had the defense, but the offense withered on the vine. A top-notch center almost certainly changes that, and could provide another offensive threat that could sting the opposition while the league's best defensemen are grabbing and clutching Tarasenko.
For two years running, the Blues have watched as their goal scoring dried up when it mattered most in the postseason. The Blues were shut out twice against the Sharks in the Conference Final last season, and the Blues scored just a single goal in three playoff games against the Predators. St. Louis needs a running partner for Tarasenko. They’ve needed one for a long time. Vladimir needs the Toews to his Kane, the Seguin to his Benn, the Draisaitl to his McDavid.
Every top ten scorer in the NHL had a teammate also in the top 25, except Vladimir Tarasenko who didn’t have one in the top 50. #support— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) May 8, 2017
Maybe you could argue offensive help is on the way from the minors. Ivan Barbashev certainly took a big step forward, and he could carve out a lasting roster spot next season. Even Kenny Agostino, under the right circumstances, could find a way into the lineup. Nothing's impossible, sure, but it seems very unlikely that the problem at center gets fixed through the AHL. Or, maybe you believe in the group the Blues already have, and there's probably a case to be made there, too. Robby Fabbri is an electrifying goal-scorer, and had his season not ended a few months before the playoffs, maybe the Blues get back to the Conference Final and we're not having this discussion. Maybe you could point to slumps or other injuries from guys like Jaden Schwartz, but even with every single cylinder firing, I still don't see St. Louis in the same tier as Pittsburgh without some more offensive help. Or, perhaps, you believe a moderate upgrade at the position (instead of Duchene, someone like Nick Bonino, for instance) could give the Blues what they need. In my view, the Blues are already drowning in moderately successful wingers and centers. There's a lot of lukewarm water in this forward group, and while someone like Bonino would help, it's a band-aid for a wound that Lehtera, Upshall, Jaskin, Paajarvi, Sanford, Yakupov, Rattie, and Barbashev haven't yet been able to fix. The transitional year is over, and the future is in Doug Armstrong's hands. Will he try and take this team to the next level, or is more of the same in store?