It’s no secret that the Blues’ defense this year has been less than ideal. Despite some stretches of good play from Colton Parayko since he’s been paired with Niko Mikkola, he still doesn’t look like the same guy from before his back injury. He also was paired with Marco Scandella for the first half of the season so far, and that was, well, to be judicious, less than impressive. The Blues went from “hoping they had their shutdown pair” to “you know, this pairing isn’t working at all” within the span of two months. Right now, the Blues are banking on the pairing with Mikkola to be the new shutdown pair, and so far they’ve been perfectly cromulent. The possibility that those hopes will be dashed by March much like the hopes for Parayko and Scandella were still exists.
The Blues have been keeping pace in the Central Division despite the injuries and despite the players (twenty so far) who have gone on the NHL’s Covid-19 protocol list. They’ve been doing so mainly through the strengths of their offense and goaltending, especially from Ville Husso and Charlie Lindgren when needed. You can get away with that during the regular season, but playoff runs depend on defense.
The Blues’ have a future quality blueliner in Scott Perunovich, two vets in Torey Krug and Justin Faulk, Parayko and whoever he’s paired with, some rotating 7th defensemen who play well when needed, and Robert Bortuzzo. The team has missed the stabilizing presence of Jay Bouwmeester certainly, and Alex Pietrangelo leaving in 2020 to head to Vegas was also another destabilizing blow, but the team has had plenty of time to recalibrate the defense.
Doug Armstrong seems to be taking a wait and see approach. For some players, like Krug and Faulk, it has paid off. Both players have settled into the system and the club nicely, and while they clearly bring different skill sets than Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo, they’re the cornerstones as it stands. Parayko, who signed an eight-year contract extension worth $6.5 million per season this year, is still working on recovering form. His pairing with Mikkola has brought consistency to his play, which has been helpful.
Scott Perunovich is the Blues’ blue-chip defensive prospect, full stop. He hasn’t played in the AHL for almost two months, and he leads all defensemen in the league with 20 points. Perunovich, who is currently in Covid-19 protocols (but who could return tomorrow night against the Kraken) hasn’t played since January 5th. That game against the Penguins was also the last time he scored a point, an assist. With the shuffling of players that the Blues have had to manage, Perunovich’s ice time as varied from being as much as 19:38 against Detroit on November 24th down to 8:38 against the Winnipeg Jets on December 19th. He’s been impressive for a rookie defenseman, a position that typically requires some seasoning. The Blues are giving him time to grow and learn, and it’s assumed that he’s the player that Armstrong considers the future cornerstone of the Blues’ defense.
All of that being said, there’s a variable on the horizon: Jakob Chychrun. The Arizona Coyotes are... not doing well. They’re 7-23-3 on the season for 17 points. Last place in the Central Division, they have just a .258 win percentage and are very clearly sticking with the “dump salary and rebuild” strategy. Their gameplan isn’t for near future success; GM Bill Armstrong should be focused on continued success, and getting there might take a while.
Chychrun has been bandied about in trade rumors partially due to his lack of production this year (which is more than likely closely correlated to what team he plays for) and also the potential for a salary dump. Chychrun is on year three of a six year deal with a reasonable cap hit of $4.6 million per. For a defenseman of his caliber, that’s a reasonable deal for the next three years. Chychrun is currently in his sixth season of play for the Coyotes. In 316 games played, he’s netted 48 goals and 80 assists. Last season, his 18 goals lead NHL defensemen, but this season he has just 2 goals and 5 assists in 26 games played. It’s tough to focus on +/- as a helpful stat on a good team, so Chychrun’s -29 really shouldn’t be a knock against him considering the Coyotes as a team have a -56 goal differential.
The Blues are rumored to be kicking his tires. Much of this rumor comes from the close relationship between Doug and Bill Armstrong, as Bill Armstrong was the Blues’ assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting before being hired as GM of the Coyotes. Another basis for the rumor is, as mentioned above, the need for the Blues to get more solid and larger on defense. Chychrun, who at age 23 is 6’2” and 210 pounds, isn’t a giant guy, but he also isn’t easily pushed around. He’s also a deft skater to go with his defensive presence, and is clearly an effective producer of points.
One name that has been tossed around as trade bait is Perunovich, which is an interesting look into priorities. Are the Blues in win-now mode? Some of their key forwards are aging up, so would that force Armstrong to consider the window for another championship closing? If Armstrong isn’t focused on the future, then Perunovich could be in play. On the other hand, all signs have pointed to the Blues being careful with Perunovich’s development. Would they be willing to trade a player that they obviously believe is a key future asset?
The Hockey News also points to Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou as pieces in a deal, and again, that feels like something that Armstrong wouldn’t entertain. Both players have been necessary elements in the Blues’ relentless offense, especially Kyrou, who leads the team in points with 36, and who is tied with Vladimir Tarasenko in the team lead for goals with 14. Is Is Armstrong willing to send one of those two, or both of those two since the Blues need to clear cap space, to Arizona? Bill Armstrong would be happy to have them - he scouted them for a reason, after all - but the risk to destabilizing the Blues’ offense is high.
Much of this boils down to how much Army believes in his team’s defense as constructed, the potential for Perunovich to excel in the future, and Armstrong’s confidence in the team’s offensive corps. It’s tough to make a solid prediction, because clearly I am not Doug Armstrong, nor am I privy to what his thought processes are. Jakob Chychrun would be an upgrade on defense, no doubt. If he’s an upgrade that Armstrong is willing to risk the present on, or the near future on, that’s what remains to be seen.