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To Trade or Not To Trade?

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Doug Armstrong finds himself at a crossroads with the trade deadline looming

2014 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pacioretty, Kane, or Galchenyuk; who’s the best fit for a Blues team suddenly searching for a new forward? Blues fans have been fixated on this question since Jaden Schwartz hit the IR in December. But what if I told you a trade would be a bad idea? What if I told you this was the season that the Blues should walk away from the marketplace empty-handed?

Look, in the interest of full disclosure, I genuinely think Armstrong needs to go get a forward. Playing devil’s advocate here is particularly painful, especially for me. I love trades, and a busy deadline day is better than Christmas, but Armstrong has plenty of good reasons to be hesitant about making a move.

In the first place, the market prices for top-six forwards are absolutely goddamned crazy. Want Max Pacioretty? You had better put together a deal that looks a lot like Ottawa’s trade for Matt Duchene. Want Evander Kane in St. Louis? Buffalo will be expecting a first round pick, a prospect, a roster player, and maybe even a conditional pick if he signs a contract with the club next season. To make matters worse, there’s decidedly more demand than supply:

”But the market remains tilted, with more teams looking to add than to subtract. The Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres are in “sell” mode, for sure, and the Senators figure to make a few moves as they fade from the playoff race as well.

And the list of teams looking for help is long. The Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins are on it, along with the San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks from the Western Conference, and the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils from the East.

At the moment there may be more defensemen available than forwards. The Sharks are trying to move Paul Martin, and Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets has asked out.” [STLToday]

You know who else would have been a nice fit for this wobbly top six? Lars Eller - the former Blue who was already sacrificed in a deadline deal for Jaroslav Halak. Nowadays, Eller hovers around the 30 point mark every season and gives Washington some nice offensive pop down the lineup. It’s easy to forget about the value we give away, and at the first sign of trouble (yours truly included), many Blues fans start talking about fixing the roster with trades.

Armstrong has already made a blockbuster deal in acquiring Schenn. He has already mortgaged a bit of the club’s future by giving away their first round pick in 2018 to get him. In spite of this, St.Louis has a veritable treasure trove of prospects; Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, and Klim Kostin are coming off of magnificent WJC performances, and other GM’s are salivating at the thought of snatching one of these shiny gems at the deadline.

Predicting future performance is impossible, sure. And the Blues, as many others have wisely pointed out on Twitter, have waited patiently for other promising young forwards to pan out, only to see them fade away into irrelevance. There’s no guarantee Kyrou, Thomas, or Kostin are worth keeping. That can be said of basically any prospect at any time. Alexandre Daigle was a can’t-miss blue-chipper decades ago, but he busted. No one, especially in the front offices of NHL clubs, has a crystal ball.

But the same argument can be made for Hoffman, Kane, or Galchenyuk. There’s no such thing as a sure thing, even with an established NHLer. A tweaked knee is all it would take to derail a meticulously planned deal, no matter who’s involved. If the Blues trade Kyrou, I can’t really shake the sneaking suspicion that such a deal might end up looking like the Martin Erat-for-Filip-Forsberg disaster for Washington. Maybe Armstrong should stay patient. Even if just one of their ‘big three’ prospects pan out, that would be far more valuable to the club in the long term than a rental. The Blues are fortunate to have snatched Klim Kostin to begin with, having swapped enforcer Ryan Reaves for the pick used to obtain him. To throw all of that away now for a rental would be shortsighted. By all accounts, Kyrou and Thomas are special players as well. At the very least, they are probably worth hanging on to for another year or two.

I understand why the fanbase is antsy. God made the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years, and the Blues have beaten that high score by a solid decade. Throwing the future away on a single season makes sense - if we’re talking about a trade for Tavares or Stamkos - not for a lower-tier top-six guy like Hoffman or Galchenyuk .This isn’t to say a trade isn’t necessary; I think the locker room is in desperate need of a jolt, especially now. That trade, however, doesn’t have to empty the development pipeline. Throw Jaskin, Sanford, Sundqvist, or Magnus on to the block for a pick, even if it’s sixth-rounder. Clear out some of the lukewarm water in the lineup, give your players a more defined role, and watch the team improve.

Alright, the devil’s spoken his piece. That’s the best argument I can make for staying quiet at the trade deadline. If nothing else, I think exploring that side of the discussion illustrates just how high the stakes are for the Blues this time around. The franchise has come to a fork in the road. Is it time to seriously push for a championship? Or is it time slap a padlock on the prospect cabinet and hope for the best? In my opinion, the best option is the former, not the latter.

St.Louis is currently ranked 13th in the league in goals for, while allowing the 8th fewest goals against. This is generally in line with the Blues’ performance over the last four or five seasons. The defense is fine, and the goaltending gives you enough slack to win nearly every night, but the offense just isn’t there. The St. Louis power play might just be the worst in the league - ranked 24th at 14% - and if an injury to one player can destroy your special teams, then the real problem is a lack of depth at forward.

The offensive issues have never been fully addressed, and the Blues historically get knocked out of the postseason because their goal-scoring scoring disappears. The script is always the same; Tarasenko drowns in post-season double coverage, and apart from the occasional spark, the glut of wishy-washy, lukewarm forwards on other lines offer little help. The St. Louis roster is perfectly engineered to win, at most, eight playoff games. That won’t change until the top six gets better. Period. Goals win championships, and the Blues aren’t getting enough of them.

“The Kessel decision ultimately came down to a simple fact about the NHL that never seems to change: It’s hard to score goals in this league. It’s just hard. But Phil was a guy who had scored them year after year. He had been in a fishbowl in Toronto and he still scored 30 every year. I felt if we gave him a second chance, he’d really thrive in Pittsburgh.” [The Players Tribune]

That quote comes from Jim Rutherford - the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins - and with this approach, he has used trades to build a back-to-back, Stanley Cup winning team. Goals are tough to come by in the NHL, and the Blues won’t reach the next step until they take some scary risks. Vladimir Tarasenko is now playing in his sixth NHL season, and the second-round-and-done philosophy doesn’t seem to be a good use of the prime years of his career. Defensive cornerstone Alexander Pietrangelo has been in a Blues uniform for ten years. The precious draft picks earned during those abysmal, basement-dwelling years have a shelf life, and Armstrong should be determined not to squander them.

Is there a possibility that Kostin, Kyrou, Blais, Thomas, or even Barbashev could turn out to be incredible players? Of course. If Armstrong gets aggressive and makes a risky move, could it turn out to be another Ryan Miller debacle? Absolutely. But the time for playing it safe has passed, and the Blues can contend for championship right now if they make the right adjustments, and long-term stability finally needs to take a back seat to a win-now mentality.