Jay Bouwmeester, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Robby Fabbri (Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
That the St. Louis Blues finally exorcised their first-round demons won’t matter much in the coming days. But as an off-season of potential change behind the bench and in the lineup approaches, the Blues should feel hopeful for what the future could hold.
It might not feel like it today, tomorrow or even one year from now, but the St. Louis Blues' 2015-16 campaign was a successful one in many ways.
Few teams faced the pressure over the past season that the Blues did. After three consecutive first-round playoff exits, 2015-16 was seen as this group’s last shot at making a deep post-season run. Coach Ken Hitchcock entered the campaign on the hot seat, the vast majority of the roster was forced to miss time at one point or another with injury and when St. Louis fought through the adversity to lock up the second seed in the Central Division, they were paired up against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues managed to get by the Blackhawks, though, before downing the top-seeded Dallas Stars and earning a berth in the Western Conference final. But in the conference final the Blues fell flat.
They were shutout in two consecutive games, and when it came to a potentially series-deciding Game 6, it took St. Louis nearly 52 minutes to find the back of the net. So even with the successes the Blues did have, they still failed to reach their goal and flamed out at the worst possible time. That’s all but certain to mean changes are coming for the Blues this off-season.
First, let’s get the coaching thing out of the way. Hitchcock did a great job this season given that his roster was plagued with injuries. He took a team some expected to take a step backwards and had them challenging for a division title. The Blues were defensively sound, strong offensively and Hitchcock got the most out of his depth players while mixing in young talent such as Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko. St. Louis was once again a strong possession team under Hitchcock, too, and they answered well when faced with challenges in the first two rounds of the post-season. Those are the positives for Hitchcock.
The negatives? His public spat with star winger Vladimir Tarasenko during the opening round and Hitchcock’s lack of trust in the Russian sniper saw cries to increase his ice time. It didn’t happen. At least, not really. Say what you will for Tarasenko’s defensive responsibility, but he led the Blues in scoring and notched two big goals — admittedly, his first pair of the series — in Game 6.
There’s also the sit-back defensive style Hitchcock's Blues played with when protecting a lead. It almost cost them the first-round series against Chicago. Were it not for Brent Seabrook’s shot careening off of both posts in the final minutes of Game 7, the Blackhawks may have sent the Blues home in the first round.
Whether Hitchcock is back or not could come down to whether or not GM Doug Armstrong feels the need to move in a new direction. There’s a case for Hitchcock sticking around, to be sure. It’s just hard to say it’s a much better one than the case for seeing if some new blood behind the bench can’t help a talented Blues team get over the hump.
There’s also the very important matter of free agency. As it stands, there are five unrestricted free agents set to depart the Blues, and it seems likely the two biggest names — captain David Backes and winger Troy Brouwer — will test the open market in what,as 30-plus-year-old players, could be their last real shot at scoring a big payday.
Brouwer’s brilliant post-season play will assuredly see him land a raise on the $3.67 million he earned this past campaign. He's sure to have plenty of suitors, too, following his post-season performance. If there's a bidding war, Brouwer's final number might be a price too rich for the Blues’ blood, especially if they want to keep their captain around.
Backes is coming off of a five-year, $22.5-million deal, and he’s certain to command at least that on the open market. How much more, who knows, but it’s not beyond reason that he prices himself out of St. Louis. That’s especially true because the Blues will need to take the future into consideration, with contracts either up or nearly up for several young players, including Parayko, Dmitrij Jaskin, Jaden Schwartz and Petteri Lindbohm, as well as veterans Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund. In that case, Backes might not be a long-term fit for the Blues.
There’s also the question of how different the Blues look on the blueline. It’s been no secret that the team has shopped defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk before and he could again be on the market now that St. Louis has packed it in for the season. Realistically, regardless of the end-of-season result, Shattenkirk could have been the odd man out on the St. Louis blueline. The emergence of Parayko makes moving Shattenkirk easier, too, because there’s an heir apparent for his spot in the top three.
And what becomes of St. Louis’ 1A-1B situation in goal with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen? Both shared the crease this past season and are under contract for another year, but with an expansion draft potentially on the horizon, does the promise of losing one or the other — and Elliott a UFA next season — make Armstrong move one of his goaltenders? They’re an exceptionally cheap tandem for the numbers they produce, costing the Blues only $4.85-million for top-tier goaltending. It’s hard to pass that up.
No one should go thinking the off-season turnover will mean a step back for the Blues, though. The free agent losses of Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and Steve Ott won’t be crushing blows for St. Louis, nor should the potential losses of Backes and Brouwer. The losses will hurt emotionally, but the on-ice product shouldn’t take a major step back.
Even with changes, this is a Blues team that come 2016-17 will boast Tarasenko, Steen, Paul Stastny and a full season of Schwartz, who missed the first half of this past season with a broken ankle. They’ve got scoring depth and two-way talent, as well as defensemen who are young, learning the system and could be impact players for years to come. Allen took steps forward and still projects to be a top-10 goaltender with Ville Husso coming up as a potential future starter. That’s not to mention a prospect pool that includes promising center Ivan Barbashev and defenseman Jake Walman, both of whom were ranked among the top-35 prospects by a panel of scouts in THN’s 2016 Future Watch issue.
Wednesday’s loss will sting, no doubt, but don't let that cloud what could very well be a bright future in St. Louis.