As the dust settles on the Blues 2016-2017 season, something became apparently clear. This was a transition year. And then it wasn’t. And then it became one again.
A team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs in January excelled down the stretch, showing that some quality pieces were, in fact, in place. The Blues responded to their new coach, Mike Yeo, in a way that few fans expected. They upended the Minnesota Wild in five games before losing in six to the Western Conference’s (possibly literally) golden child, the Nashville Predators. The Blues played the type of hockey in round two that many expected them to play in round one, but it wasn’t a crushing defeat. Most games were one goal affairs. A bounce here, a better executed power play there, and the Blues could’ve just’ve easily been facing the Anaheim Ducks in the conference finals.
But they didn’t, and that starts the transition/rebuild talk again.
Listen, we’ve all been in this place before, and we all respond in different ways. Some of us get frustrated by annual defeat, some get angry, and some just shrug and move on. This season, I’ve firmly planted myself in the last group. This season didn’t end as badly as it could’ve, and I didn’t expect greatness or a Cup. I did expect a level of competency, and that was rewarded from February through May.
The level of competency I expect from the team is a level of competency that I expect from the general manager, Doug Armstrong. While the team itself has met my (admittedly tempered) expectations, the general manager has not. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. I expect him to put together a strong team that has the ability to be a contender; he did not. I expect the team that he does put together to play relatively good hockey. They did.
Unfortunately, he did not put together a team that necessitated an increase in my level of expectations from last season, and that’s a problem. I don’t think that any of you out there feel like he put together a team that necessitated an increase in your level of expectations either.
Now comes the editorializing, which I suppose I’m contributing to. “The Blues need to take inspiration from the Predators!” writes Jeff Gordon. I don’t disagree. As Gordon points out, the Predators’ success wasn’t an overnight process. It took several years of David Poile flipping pieces for prospects and making two major hockey trades (Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban) to get the Preds to the point that they’re at.
So, when you take that into consideration, the Blues can’t accomplish what Nashville did overnight, but they can take steps to start. However, when was the last “hockey trade” that Doug Armstrong pulled off that was a) good or b) an actual “hockey trade?” When was the last splash the Blues made on the trade market or during free agency?
This team has accumulated very, very good players. They’ve managed to have one truly great one in Vladimir Tarasenko, but have shown a predisposition to build a team around him that doesn’t help. The Blues are first ballot inductees into the hall of very good, but when you have a ton of above average third-liners, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri, and Alex Pietrangelo surrounded with others who don’t make them any better (while, one could argue, these players are made better by the stars - it’s a one way transaction), how can you make it past very good? You can’t. You stagnate.
Until Doug Armstrong shows the shrewdness of Poile, the Blues will be incapable of following Nashville’s lead, much like they were unable to effectively follow the Chicago Blackhawks’. Armstrong created a team that butted up against the cap without the start power of, say, Pittsburgh or Chicago - and without the overall finishing skill of the Predators. That’s an accomplishment.
The draft and development path that Gordon discusses in his article has been working for Armstrong - to a point. But also, like Gordon points out, this team has a lot of dead weight that drags down the draft and develop guys. Until Armstrong stops putting too much faith in the likes of Jori Lehtera, we might as well just accept the Blues as another inductee into the hall of very good.