Like most people, I was asleep the last time the St. Louis Blues made a trade that truly altered the trajectory of the franchise. Seven years ago today, Erik Johnson and Jay McClement left for the Colorado Avalanche. Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk formed the main part of the return, and the door was closed on a rebuilding process that began with the miserable 2005-06 season.
I went searching for my initial Twitter reaction to the deal, and was pleasantly surprised to find I was circumspect:
Going to take a long while to digest this one. First reaction? Shock. Second? I like it a lot. Got deeper. It's a new team. #stlblues— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) February 19, 2011
That tweet was sent at 8:35 AM. In Jeremy Rutherford’s story on stltoday.com from that day, he mentions receiving a text of reaction from Johnson at 2:40 AM. The Blues played in Buffalo the previous night and informed the players involved that they had been dealt upon touching down at the airport in St. Louis.
Quietly and in the middle of the night, Armstrong and the Blues management team changed the course of the franchise. At the time of the trade, the Blues were in last place. They were 26-21-9 and in the process of selling off rental pieces. Team captain and scapegoat Eric Brewer was traded to Tampa Bay on the afternoon of February 18th, and less than 18 hours later, Johnson, the only first overall draft selection in team history, was gone as well.
I mention this because the present incarnation of the Blues may be facing similar turmoil. Two years prior to the trade with the Avalanche, the team made a surprising run to the playoffs that wasn’t matched in the following seasons. Davis Payne took over as head coach halfway through the 2009-10 season, and a year later, the shake up happened. If we imagine the progress of the franchise on a bell curve, they were trending up but stalled. The Colorado trade was an attempt to push them forward again.
Today’s Blues may be on the other side of the curve. That 2010-11 season was the last one in which the Blues failed to qualify for the playoffs. This season is at risk of being the next. The Blues currently sit in the top wild card spot in the Western Conference. They’re four points ahead of the Calgary Flames, which is the top team not currently holding a playoff spot. The Flames do have one game in hand, however, which theoretically cuts further into the safety of the standings.
Jeremy Rutherford is now with The Athletic, and released a mailbag this week (subscription required) in which he expressed some unusually pointed criticisms of the team.
“Every May,” he wrote, “I see a despondent group of players and every October-April I see the same group making the same mistakes and excuses.”
Rutherford went on to mention that some players may be wary of Vladimir Tarasenko’s work ethic, and delivered this rebuke which was stronger than any I can remember reading from him in recent years:
“Guys are just playing hockey, many of them not playing FOR EACH OTHER. And I haven’t even mentioned the guys who are just playing for the paycheck or the lifestyle, which in this case I’m not going to name names, but they know who they are.”
That’s an alarming passage to read from a reporter who has been around the team nearly every day for more than a decade, and it seems to bring a problem of locker room culture into sharp relief.
It’s often said that it’s easier to fire the coach than the players, but like Payne seven years ago, Mike Yeo hasn’t been given sufficient time to seize control of the team and shape it to his specifications. And, like Payne, Yeo may be saddled with disappointing players who are unwilling or unable to fit their square pegs into round holes.
Players like Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka have been widely discussed as being available on the trade market, which calls into question the wisdom in signing each to long term contracts as recently as last spring. Still, trading neither of those players would offer the kind of core shakeup that the Blues felt was necessary in the run up to the Johnson deal.
I don’t expect to wake up early some morning in the next week to discover that Tarasenko has been traded or that Alex Pietrangelo is packing his bags. However, I also don’t expect Doug Armstrong to be content with a plateau that may soon become a cliff.
The winds of change will sweep through the Blues roster, and they’ll come soon. Failing that, the summer may grow unbearably long.