Ken Hitchcock turned the Blues around when he arrived in St. Louis, but a second round exit was earlier than expected. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)
A season in which the St. Louis Blues far exceeded expectations came to a disappointing end on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Kings swept them from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Buoyed by the coaching of Ken Hitchcock, the superb goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott and the improvement of several up-and-coming players, the Blues not only returned to the playoffs for the first time in three years, but finished second overall in the Western Conference.
They wasted little time dispatching the San Jose Sharks in five games in their opening round series, but the Kings exposed problem areas that dogged the Blues throughout and must be addressed in the off-season.
One reason for their defeat by the Kings was the absence of Halak, who was out with a leg injury. Though Elliott played well in relief during the Sharks series, he struggled against the Kings and seemed to lose confidence. A healthy Halak, who has more post-season experience than Elliott, would have made a difference.
Halak and Elliott have been mentioned as trade candidates from pundits in cities that need a goalie (hello Toronto), but expect Blues GM Doug Armstrong to keep the tandem intact.
Injuries also took a toll on defense, as top blueliner Alex Pietrangelo was shelved by a questionable hit in Game 1 against the Kings, missed Game 2 and wasn't as effective after he returned.
Pietrangelo's injury, however, didn't excuse the poor performance of the rest of the Blues defense, which struggled against the Kings aggressive, physical forecheck. The Blues made the playoffs and eliminated the Sharks largely because of their defensive game, but came up against a Kings team that beat them at their own game.
Pending UFA defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo's poor performance against the Kings all but ensured he won't be re-signed, while Barret Jackman may have also played his final game with the Blues.
The rise of Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as the early-season addition of Kris Russell from Columbus, gives the Blues a promising blueline nucleus, but they'll need to surround them with a better supporting cast.
Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out the Blues also need to bolster their offensive depth.
It wasn't just against the Kings that the Blues had scoring issues. During the regular season, they were 21st overall in goals-per-game and 19th on the power play. Their play with the man advantage was particularly lousy against the Kings, failing to score on 17 power play opportunities.
Health, depth and player development are the obvious issues.
Their top scoring forwards were center David Backes, right winger T.J. Oshie (both with 54 points), left winger David Perron (42 points in 57 games) and center Patrik Berglund (38 points).
Center Alexander Steen had 28 points in 43 games, while right winger Andy McDonald had 22 points in 25 games.
Except for McDonald, all are 28 or younger and management has waited patiently for them to develop. Most appear to be heading in the right direction, but they've yet to fully reach expectations as scoring stars.
Steen, McDonald and Perron cannot be faulted for the injuries that hampered their performances.
The fact all three were sidelined by concussions raises the risk they’ll be sidelined by similar injuries in the future, which creates further pressure on management to bolster offensive depth.
The Blues currently have more than $35 million committed to 16 players, with Jackman, Colaiacovo, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner as notable UFAs. Oshie, Perron and Chris Stewart are their notable restricted free agents.
Assuming the salary cap minimum remains at $48.3 million, Armstrong would have to spend at least $13 million just to become cap compliant, which would still leave plenty of room to not only re-sign Oshie, Perron and perhaps Stewart and Jackman, but also to pursue additional scoring punch.
The problem, as Bernie Miklasz of the Post-Dispatch observed, is it remains to be seen how much incoming majority owner Tom Stillman will be willing to invest in the club's payroll.
Armstrong had to run the Blues on a budget much lower than the $64.3 million salary cap, investing about $54 million. It's possible Stillman will decide to keep the payroll just north of the cap floor. That would make it more difficult for Armstrong to retain his key players, find suitable replacements for departing free agents and add more offensive depth.
A limited budget would prompt Armstrong to shop around the trade market in hopes of finding a deal to address his offensive needs while ensuring the dollars balance out.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.