St. Louis got its shakeup, now what? (Trending Topics)

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St. Louis got its shakeup, now what? (Trending Topics)
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St. Louis needed a shakeup and entering this summer, there was no way to guess how it would come.

There was talk they might fire Ken Hitchcock, whose defensive style hasn't held up under the bright lights of the playoffs. There was talk they might actually go out and get playoff-quality goaltending, which has been a big reason for Hitchcock's teams failing once the postseason rolls around. There was talk, too, that the team might try to shake up its underwhelming veteran forwards corps.

The last of these is, obviously, exactly what happened (though it must be said that Blues fans should be worried that it took Doug Armstrong this long to realize the core forwards were a problem). And so the obvious question is whether the team is better now than it was a month ago. And boy that's an interesting one.

There are guys St. Louis has signed this summer who will help (Andre Benoit, maybe Peter Harrold), and others who probably will not (Kyle Brodziak, Jordan Caron), but the big move for St. Louis this summer is obviously swapping beloved-but-overrated TJ Oshie for Troy Brouwer. 

To what end this trade was made is uncertain, because say what you want about Oshie — and the St. Louis media has been more than happy to do so since his departure — but he wasn't what you'd call the problem for this team. Perception? Yeah, that was a problem, because everyone thought he was better than he is (a high-end second-line guy), and frankly you'd rather have him at $4.175 million for the next two years than Brouwer's contract, which expires after next year, or, say Patrik Berglund's. This obviously comes with the caveat that Berglund probably doesn't get you as much in trade as Oshie does, but if the return is Brouwer, maybe don't even bother.

It's worth noting, though, that it's reasonable to assume Dmitrij Jaskin will be the one who slots into Oshie's top-six spot and not necessarily Brouwer, because Jaskin is seen as having a decently high ceiling and maybe he just needs the shot. His goals-per-60 numbers are already comparable with those of Oshie and Berglund's for their careers, though obviously his usage was, shall we say, favorable.

Though interestingly, while Jaskin was sheltered, he wasn't playing competition that much less difficult than Berglund, which, again, raises the question of why you pay Berglund this much. Statistically, Oshie and Berglund are very similar players, so the slight disparity in their cap hits ($475,000) seems like the latter was more of a bargain. But the difference is, Oshie played the toughest minutes of just about any Blues forward and got the same results as a veteran who had to be handled like a rookie. 

To that end, on some level the Oshie trade seems like a money move in addition to a hockey one, but the logic behind it still baffles. St. Louis is often talked about as a “budget team,” and to some extent they are. Doug Wilson talked about being able to spend as freely as other teams in the league after the Blues were eliminated in 2014, and said that they'd probably continue being able to spend to the level seen in 2013-14. But as you can see below, they flew past that mark this season, and now look as though they're positioned to be a cap team once again for next year.

The numbers below indicate cap hits and not actual salary, which is going to differ slightly. Budget teams will often try to take on low-salary, high-cap hit deals for this reason.

CapGeek/War on Ice
CapGeek/War on Ice

After the 2015-16 season, the Blues have just one noteworthy expiring contract, that of David Backes. For me, he's at least a little bit in the Oshie camp of being very useful but still overrated, but another guy you'd rather have over some of the other big-ticket guys on this club (Berglund and Brouwer in particular). And you wonder how much flexibility they're going to have to re-sign him.

Let's face facts: St. Louis is still a small market team, and the way Armstrong has talked about it, they might now be at the upper levels of where they can legitimately spend. The good news for them is that there's really no way of knowing just how much the cap could go up in any given year beyond 2015-16 — remember, there was some debate as to whether players would even allow it to increase at all given how much escrow they're paying these days. So this might be something of a sweet spot for the salary cap until the expansion teams come in (though expansion fees don't count as hockey-related revenue and thus have no impact on the cap).

The problem the Blues have, shared by a lot of teams that are able to consistently make the playoffs, is that they have a lot of guys on the payroll who are getting paid well above what they're worth. Jay Bouwmeester springs to mind, because he's locked up at $5.4 million until 2019. One wonders whether Paul Stastny is really a $7 million player in a world in which Vladimir Tarasenko (whose situation we'll get to in a minute) is worth $7.5 million. Berglund, again, isn't and shouldn't be worth $3.7 million to a team on a budget of any size. Steve Ott getting $2.6 million is criminal. 

Armstrong had to give Tarasenko whatever he wanted; any number of charts you can come up with will show what the eye test already does: He's a player of dazzling skill level (albeit one who carries a ludicrously high shooting percentage that maybe can't be held up), but if you want to compare him to someone — not in terms of contract but in terms of quality given his age — Patrick Kane isn't a bad jumping-off point.

While, as pointed out by Elliotte Friedman, Tarasenko's is the fourth-richest second contract since the salary cap was introduced, one must keep in mind that the salary cap today is 25 percent higher than it was back then. And interestingly, the deal Kane signed coming out of his ELC (the five-year deal that began in 2010-11 that just ended this season) carried a cap hit of $6.3 million. At the time, that number made up 10.6 percent of a team's total cap number. Tarasenko's new one comprises 10.5 percent. And while he's also older than Kane was at the time, you can't say he's not worth it when you compare their output at the same age.

(The chatter in St. Louis these days is that they're probably going to make Tarasenko earn his money with tougher minutes and a little more penalty killing, which is fair enough. You wonder how much of the Oshie vacuum he's going to be asked to fill. Probably the answer is “a lot.” How much does his offense suffer as a result?)

War on Ice
War on Ice


But what the Tarasenko contract — which they absolutely had to sign, should have signed, and in the end got them more value than they could have reasonably expected — does for the Blues is put them in a tough spot once again, especially if the cap's going to stay static for the next few years.

You'd have to reasonably say that this is this leadership group's last real kick at the can before most of the roster gets blown up. There are only 12 current NHLers signed beyond this coming season (though Jaskin and Jaden Schwartz will both get nice RFA deals next summer, if not before), and that means hard decisions are coming. They have some $51.9 million committed to those 12 players. Plus Schwartz and Jaskin will both be due raises from their combined cap hit of $3.8 million; if St. Louis is lucky, they combine for about $6 million, with Schwartz taking up a healthy chunk of that number. 

That's a lot of money for a so-called budget team to have invested 14 players, especially when only eight of them are forwards. Of that group, only Stastny, Tarasenko, and Schwartz are clear top-six forwards. If you want to stretch the definition a bit, throw in Berglund, and also hope Jaskin can perform. If they choose to, at what number do they attempt to re-sign Backes? Can they fill out the rest of the roster, and be competitive, while staying within that allotted budget given all these considerations? Again, hard choices.

And they're going to be harder than they have to be. This is due in no small part to the team investing $4.85 million for each of the next two years in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, whose deficiencies have been covered in this space before. Put simply: Hitchcock's teams have, over the past four postseasons, gotten the second-worst goaltending of any team to make it all those years (.898), ahead of only Minnesota (.895). Armstrong has doubled down on that level of performance for two more seasons in hopes that Allen — who, granted, is young — will be able to take the job from Elliott (that he has to compete at all tells you a lot, though).

War on Ice
War on Ice

The good news is Allen seems to be on the upswing in his career, which makes sense since he's, ahem, “only” going to be 25 next season and has just 59 games at the NHL level under his belt between the regular season and playoffs. But the best save percentage Allen has ever posted in his career, at any level, was his .928 in 2013-14, and it's a serious outlier. Next-best is .922 in 2009-10, as an overager in the QMJHL (his draft-year-plus-2). Put it this way: Allen is trending up in his NHL career, but these are the numbers of a guy who, at the NHL level, will probably be league-average in a best-case scenario.

St. Louis is gambling on Allen becoming The Guy over the next season or (maybe) two. And if he can't, there's no backup plan. You need better-than-average goaltending to be truly competitive in the playoffs, and statistically, Allen isn't likely to provide it. Which only puts the Blues back where they started.

To recap: The Blues downgraded up front and hope a young and unproven player, or maybe their new franchise forward who hasn't exactly gotten a rough ride in terms of usage, can slot into his tough top-six minutes. And they're spending about as much as they probably can given their budget constraints. And they've done nothing to fix what was ultimately wrong with them last year.

So why should we be optimistic that this team is on the rise? Hell, why should we think they even turn in the same level of performance?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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