Frequent Game Time newspaper contributor Kevin Lorenz composed this look at what could’ve been had the Blues drafted with the hindsight that we now have. Kris Letang and Jonathan Toews? Yes, please. - Hildy
The NHL Draft is upcoming. And with it comes one of the more influential sources of optimism for Blues fans. Remember how great Lars Eller would be? Or Erik Johnson’s future partner for the next ten years, Ian Cole. Uh, or just Erik Johnson? Fast forward to draft steal Ty Rattie, or hidden gem Tommy Vannelli and we have a long list of players who provided Blues fans with enthusiasm for the future… and who may not have lived up to sometimes overly-lofty expectations.
But what if we could get a re-do? What if we could change one pick, just one, in the rebuild era in order to completely change the fortunes of the St. Louis Blues? What would you do with one draft mulligan?
Now let’s set some ground rules:
- This isn’t an article intended to bash the Blues for their picks. It’s not meant to be negative. Instead, it’s a positive look with 20/20 hindsight. The draft is a crapshoot. We know it. But what would we do if we could redo it?
- We assume the picks are where they are. We can’t take a mulligan on trade-ups or trade-downs. Instead, we will look at the draft board as it is when the Blues made their picks.
- While we have 20/20 hindsight, we also have the gift of reason (and a word count). Any mulligan we pick must be reasonable. We can’t go back and say the Blues should have picked Jamie Benn in 2007 with one of their first-round picks. The player we choose for a mulligan must be within 30 picks after the Blues selection.
- We limit the mulligan to the 2005-2011 period, because the Blues began a postseason run the following season, signaling to fans that they were no longer in a rebuild.
First, let’s look at the best mulligan candidates from each draft.
With the 37th pick, the Blues selected Scott Jackson a defenseman out of hockey factory Shattuck St. Mary’s high school. This is a pick that lives in infamy due to local product Paul Stastny going to the Avalanche seven picks later. But I wouldn’t select Stastny with my draft mulligan because 25 picks later at the beginning of the 3rd round, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected a mobile but slightly undersized Kris Letang.
Today, Letang (when healthy) is one of the top defensemen in the world, and players like him (i.e. 2018 draft-eligible Quinn Hughes) are slotted at the top of NHL draft boards each summer. In 2005, this new model of defenseman was remarkably unfamiliar to NHL scouts. If the Blues (or any team) could do it over, many would select Kris Letang. I would too.
James Neal (9 selections after T.J. Oshie), Patric Hornqvist (11 picks after Nikolai Lemtyugov).
We had to talk about 2006. It was inevitable. But let’s take all of the angst out of it; who would you pick instead of Erik Johnson? Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux, and Nicklas Backstom all went within 30 picks. For me it comes down to Toews or Giroux.
I’m not in the “Toews is not elite” camp. He is. Take the points argument out of the equation and Toews is one of the three best matchups centers of his generation. His style of play (and willingness to sacrifice a few extra points to do it) fit perfectly with his stacked Chicago Blackhawks teams during their dynasty.
That said, Giroux has the points, and rarely had the same caliber of team around him. Since we are taking just one draft mulligan, we can assume that the team around Giroux in St. Louis would have looked very similar. These Blues haven’t lacked in two-way play since 2005, but they have needed a point-producing center. The Blues would have had that with Giroux.
Brad Marchand (7 selections after Jonas Junland)
This is arguably the most frustrating draft when looking at how much the Blues passed on that could have positioned them to be a Cup favorite. The Blues made three first round picks and two second round picks to help kickstart their rebuild. PK Subban went four picks after Simon Hjalmarsson in the second round. Jamie Benn went 29 picks after Travis Erstad in the fifth round.
Subban won a Norris Trophy in 2013, while Benn won a scoring title in 2015. Both are great additions to any team, but presumably, with either addition the Blues would have been able to pick Alex Pietrangelo in 2008, so I’m taking Jamie Benn.
Honorable Mention: Max Pacioretty (4 picks after Ian Cole). Wayne Simmonds (17 picks after Aaron Palushaj)
Most of my rationale when selecting potential mulligans is rooted in the Blues’ selection of Alex Pietrangelo with the fourth pick in this draft, so chances are this will be a controversial section. Braden Holtby went six picks after Ian Schultz. The Ottawa Senators selected Erik Karlsson 11 picks after Pietrangelo. Throughout the relevant time period, the Blues have lacked a surefire workhorse-type goaltender.
Erik Karlsson is unquestionably (well, in my opinion, so actually still very questionably) the best defenseman in the NHL today. Pietrangelo has not won a Norris Trophy (yet), but has proven that his team can lean on him for heavy minutes.
Starting in 2005, out of goalies like Patrick Lalime, Curtis Sanford, Manny Legace, Chris Mason, Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott, and Jake Allen (among many, many others), not one has shown the Blues that they can handle a heavy workload that also includes winning 16 playoff games. Brayden Holtby has accomplished that feat.
I’ll take Holtby here.
Cam Atkinson (2 picks after Anthony Nigro). Roman Josi (4 selections after Jake Allen).
When the Blues selected David Rundblad 17th overall, they probably didn’t know they had made the selection that would ultimately net them their next signature goal scorer. The Blues traded Rundblad the following summer to Ottawa for the 16th pick, and selected some guy named Vladimir Tarasenko. But 16 picks after Rundblad in 2009, the Colorado Avalanche took two-way center Ryan O’Reilly.
Perhaps if the Blues take O’Reilly in 2009, they still take Jaden Schwartz 14th overall in 2010, and are unable to add Tarasenko that year. But who knows what this team looks like with an in his prime David Backes, and O’Reilly manning the first two center spots from 2012 through 2016.
That scenario is enough to make me wonder if O’Reilly is worth a mulligan.
Uh… What a brutal draft. I guess Tomas Tatar (12 picks after Brett Ponich).
Now a top defenseman in the NHL, the Dallas Stars selected John Klingberg in the fifth round, 27 picks after the Blues took Jani Hakanpaa. The Kings took Tyler Toffoli just three picks after the Blues selected, uh, Sebastian Wannstrom.
At that point the Blues were still working to build a defensive corps worthy of their identity today. Klingberg would have given them an interesting asset to work with toward building that group.
I’ll take Klingberg.
Brendan Gallagher (13 picks after Cody Beach)
Despite finishing with the 11th worst record in the NHL, the Blues did not make a selection until the second round due to a trade with the Colorado Avalanche involving former number one overall pick Erik Johnson. The Blues made three selections in the second round (Ty Rattie: 32nd, Dmitrij Jaskin: 41st, and Joel Edmundson: 46th), but lurking at the bottom of the second round was a risky Russian player named Nikita Kucherov, finally taken 58th.
In the fourth round, the Blues selected Yannick Veilleux 102nd overall. An undersized winger named Johnny Gaudreau went 104th.
Both are big names, but it’s a pretty easy call to name Kucherov the mulligan candidate. For the record, I’d swap the Rattie pick for Kucherov, while keeping Top-4 defenseman Edmundson, and NHL-player Dmitrij Jaskin.
Brandon Saad (2 picks after Jaskin), Victor Rask (1 pick after Jaskin)
Let’s review the seven mulligan candidates:
- Kris Letang
- Claude Giroux
- Jamie Benn
- Braden Holtby
- Ryan O’Reilly
- John Klingberg
- Nikita Kucherov
Keeping the rationale that Alex Pietrangelo is a dependable Number 1 defenseman, we can take Letang and Klingberg off the list immediately. If we’re looking for centers, Claude Giroux is and has been a better option than O’Reilly for longer. Holtby, while interesting, falls behind the final two candidates, Benn and Kucherov in terms of potential impact for the team.
Between Giroux, Benn, and Kucherov, we can look at potential impact, cap consequences, and the player they would replace with our one draft mulligan.
Giroux played under a $3.75m contract from 2011-2014, but then signed an eight-year deal at $8.275m. The Blues would not have drafted Erik Johnson, so they would not have had the assets that came from the 2011 trade with Colorado.
From 2012-2017 Benn carried a $5.25m cap hit while winning a scoring title. He now has a $9.5m cap hit through 2025. He entered his prime during a period when the Blues could have used his production (2013), and he carried a flexible cap hit at that time. The Blues wouldn’t miss Travis Erstad. But it’s hard to imagine Benn producing at the levels he has without riding shotgun on a line with Tyler Seguin. Benn would never have had that kind of center in St. Louis.
Kucherov broke out a little later. He first scored 65 points in 2015. He reached 30 goals for the first time in the same season the Blues reached the Western Conference Final. An anemic offense in that series against the San Jose Sharks could have used his extra spark. He’s in the final year of a $4.766m bridge deal, and looks to cash in heavily next summer. Ty Rattie has found some success playing limited time on Connor McDavid’s wing, but the Blues received nothing for him when he left, so the Blues wouldn’t have lost much by not drafting him.
With my one draft mulligan, I would take Nikita Kucherov.
Who would you take? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, or @KevinLorenz on twitter.