So far, the St. Louis Blues 2022-23 season can be described by a number of words: frustrating, maddening, inconsistent, subpar are just a few that come to mind. However, coming off the recent news the Blues will be without two of their veteran stars leading up to the trade deadline, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly, I’d like to add a new word to a new calendar year: opportunistic.
Most savy Blues fans realize that this team currently faces a tall task trying to make the playoffs this year. Yes, they are currently only 3 points out of the last playoff spot with a game in hand, but seizing that spot without two of their top offensive guys, top faceoff guy, top penalty killing forward, and one of your top power play snipers is going to be a huge challenge. Throw in the fact that most people seem to understand that even if the Blues make the playoffs they do not seem equipped to make a playoff run, and all signs would point to General Manager, Doug Armstrong, feeling more inclined to move guys like O’Reilly and Tarasenko in the final months of their contracts instead of keeping them together for a first round exit. He showed with the trade of Paul Stastny in 2017, that even if a team is in the playoff hunt he will move pending free agents if he doesn’t think they have what it takes to make a serious run. And based off his recent comments, it seems like important and tough decisions are on the immediate horizon.
Blues fans are well aware of the salary cap issues facing the team and the contracts they must decide what to do with. Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas will see their big extensions kick into place next season, so the amount of money being saved without Tarasenko and O’Reilly on the roster is only about $4 million from this year. I’m sure the Blues would like to bring back one of their veteran forwards for that amount, but it is likely that they would want to see if they can get more than that on the open market. So, should the Blues risk seeing two productive players walk this summer with nothing in return, or would they be wiser to move them for cost effective prospects that can curb the rebuild process, or keep them and try to chase down one last Stanley Cup run with two franchise icons?
Questions like these are why I would describe the month of January as opportunistic. First, it is opportunistic for some younger players. The Blues have done a fantastic job of player development over the past 15 seasons. They have shown patience with their prospects. They have built depth at the NHL level that has not forced them to rush prospects to the league, which could potentially hinder their development and confidence. They prefer their top prospect play big minutes in the minors instead of hovering around ten minutes or less at the NHL level. They wait for the prospects to be ready so they can jump into a bigger role when need, kind of like now!
This is why January is a huge month for Jake Neighbours. He is still just 20 years old, but the 2020 first round pick has a great junior resume. He has gotten a taste of the NHL the last two seasons, and he seems like a guy the Blues are high on when they look towards the future. Given the current situation, Neighbours has the opportunity to play significant minutes at the NHL level for the first time and force the team to never send him back to the AHL. It also gives the Blues front office an opportunity to see how much they might need to address the forward position in the upcoming offseason, or if they feel confident that Neighbours can fill one of those spots next season. The same can be said for Nikita Alexandrov at the center position. This is an opportunity for him to make an impression and push for a permanent home on the NHL roster. Logan Brown cannot seem to stay healthy, so the opportunity is there for him to take a good amount of the minutes O’Reilly and Brown were getting.
The bigger opportunity seems lie in the hands of Doug Armstrong. He gets the opportunity to really evaluate some prospects at the NHL level to help gather more information about the long-term look of this team. Ivan Barbashev is a guy who looks like he could gain the most from this month of January. Due to the Blues salary cap issues, it seems unlikely that he will be able to fit into their long term plans. His current cap hit is just $2.25 million, but he could be in line for a nice raise if he can boost his offensive production in the second half of the season. However, he could also be a valuable trading chip for Armstrong if he catches fire with increased opportunities in January. Last season, Barbashev erupted for 26 goals, 12 more than his previous high in any season. This year he is on pace to score less than half of last year’s total, but he has shown that ability. He also was a key part of a Stanley Cup championship team, and playoff contenders are always looking to add guys with that experience, especially if they are a gritty player with some above average scoring ability.
Let’s also not overlook how important the 2019 Stanley Cup Championship was for the Blues organization and their fanbase. Blues fans had been haunted and taunted by past playoff failures with high payroll teams and superstars. The front office always seemed willing to do whatever they could to try and get the team over the top and deliver a championship to a fanbase that has always supported the team. Now that they have that Stanley Cup in recent memory, the Blues front office doesn’t need to risk sending the organization further backwards by desperately chasing down an elusive championship. They can be a bit more patient. They can try to remain competitive, while emerging superstars Kyrou and Thomas continue to grow and add key pieces and prospects around them. The Blues have the opportunity to trade off fan favorites and get something significant in return.
While the Blues have a number of players they can try and trade, they have an issue with those they cannot. Torey Krug, Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, and Nick Leddy all have full no-trade clauses in their contracts. They are each carrying a significant salary cap hit with them as well. The Blues have two directions they can go with this group, which really give them some opportunity to increase their value. First, the Blues coaching staff can begin to focus on a more defensive minded approach to the game. Losing top scoreres to injury and potential trade, the Blues might decide to change the structure of their game. They may no longer look to be more of an offensive rush team that values passing and high danger shot opportunities. Instead, they might look to offer a greater level of support and attention to detail from their forwards, which could help the poor defensive metrics of this unit that is going to be around for multiple years. The second option for the team is to approach some of the high priced, FNT defensemen with the reality that they will be moving pieces in an attempt to rebuild. They could use that leverage to see if one or some of them might be interested in allowing the team to explore trade options for them. While they will likely be selling low, it could allow them the opportunity to free up some cap space and quickly reshape what has been an underperforming unit.
The Blues also could use January and beyond as an opportunity to assess the goaltending situation. Jordan Binnington is under contract through the 2026-27 season. Since the Stanley Cup Championship in 2019, his career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. He was an All-Star in 2020, but essentially lost his starting job in 2022. He has faced the most high danger shots of any goaltender in the NHL this season, but he has not been great. However, he is being paid at that level. Going for him is the fact that he is a Stanley Cup winning goaltender. There are not many active members in that group, and teams like the pre-2019 St. Louis Blues are often willing to overpay to have that box checked on a players resume. The Blues signed goaltending prospect, Joel Hofer, to a one way contract extension which begins next year. Why not give him the opportunity to get some experience this year? Thomas Greiss is a veteran backup that other teams could be interested in, or he has the experience to be a starter and mentor to a young goaltender, should the Blues find a trade partner for Binnington.
It seems so strange to be looking at all of these options for a team just three points out of the playoffs, but Doug Armstrong and the Blues have always seemed to find a way to stay one step ahead of the league in the salary cap era. Outside of the original six, nobody has more playoff appearances than the St. Louis Blues. The Blues currently have the fifth longest active playoff appearance streak in the NHL, and they have only missed the playoffs six times in the salary cap era, and just once in the last 11 seasons. They are a model of consistency, and their General Manager has proven he can build a team that can get to the top in NHL and Olympic play. While O’Reilly and Tarasenko seemingly gave the Blues a better opportunity to play at a higher level this season, it hadn’t been happening consistently for 37 games. Now, January can be a great opportunity for the Blues to accelarate their future and direction by players stepping up into bigger roles, or by finding opportunities to move some of them elsewhere and begin a quick rebuilding process. Nothing should be off the table with this team, but they have the talent and opportunity to drastically reshape their team while remaining in the playoff hunt. Not many franchises can do that, which is why this month of January should be pretty exciting for Blues fans.
The Blues are in a good spot, because while they may be struggling and have some short-term questions, Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas are emerging superstars who have not even entered their prime years that are locked up on good long term deals. 2019 afforded some patience, 2020 looked like another Cup contender before Covid essentially made everything a wash, and last season the Blues were the only team to really give Colorado a playoff test. I am excited to see how this team changes its play and how players take advantage of new opportunities, along with the moves the front office is going to make. The injuries to Tarasenko and O’Reilly have really put the Blues in a good spot to do some evaluating that will help them this year and beyond.