Forwards – Should They Stay or Should They Go: A Team Review, Part 1

 (Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The Season has now drawn to a close. It was a season of ups and downs and overall just plain disappointing. After the rocket hot start this year’s Blues team had, pretty much anything short of a Central Division Championship would have been disappointing. Then January and February happened, and the lead in the division was suddenly gone. They put together a great run in March that had everyone believing they could at least make the playoffs. However, they followed  that up with a sudden return to their January form, finishing the season a pathetic 1-4-1 in their last six games, and ended up missing out on a playoff berth that should have been clinched a week earlier by 1 point. Obviously, with a season that started with this much promise to end the way it did, leaves everyone that follows this team and roots for this team questioning what went wrong, and more importantly, who’s to blame. This article will take a quick look at most of the players on this team. Give a quick idea of what they’re supposed to be doing, what level they are actually playing at, and will suggest what the organization should probably do with them.

Before we get into that, I will add this, I’m not going to suggest who should replace anyone, suggest any Free Agent signings or try to put together any trades. I will look at possible internal replacements for a few people and bring up a few prospects we either haven’t seen or haven’t seen much of. The purpose of this is not to say what the team should do specifically, but rather to suggest who isn’t living up to their job, who should probably be replaced or who shouldn’t, and who should probably be getting more of a look than they are. Also, in the interests of not writing something that more resembles a novel than an article, this will be split into two parts. Part 1 will focus on the forwards, while Part 2 will cover the defense and goalies. Alright, with that out of the way let’s get going.

Starting at the top of the order of forwards with the top line of Schenn, Schwartz and Tarasenko. These three did everything they could this year and they all three had a good year. Brayden Schenn set career highs for points, goals, assists, faceoffs taken, faceoff percentage and average time on ice (ATOI). Jaden Schwartz came close to his career numbers as well, despite being injured for a good chunk of the season and only playing 62 games, and he actually set a new career high for ATOI. Vladimir Tarasenko didn’t have as great of a year, but he has been asked to do more work than he had in any previous years, setting a new career high in ATOI, and when he was lined up with Schwartz and Schenn, most of October and March, his stats were up pretty much across the board. I personally think he was overthinking a few plays and trying to do more than he could or should. Tarasenko’s injury in the last game of the season was also not ideal.  Losing your best scorer at any point isn’t ideal, but right then when you need him most and everything’s on the line, is probably the worst possible time. However, with all that taken into account, these three seem to work very well together and I would suggest that they are the top line of the future. They have done their jobs and shouldn’t really be blamed for the season’s failure. I would dare to go as far as to say this line should stay together, barring injury, all of next year without question, and I mean that including the outside chance that the Blues acquire a top level forward through either free agency or trade. Yes, it would be nice to see Tarasenko lined up with the likes of John Tavares, but not at the expense of the incredible chemistry these three seem to have.

I’m also not going to pass judgment on Tage Thompson, Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, or Nikita Soshnikov. Firstly, they are all young, 20, 22, 24, and 24 respectively. Tage Thompson is a rookie, and while he didn’t exactly light it up his rookie year, he still looks more than capable of developing into a real top 6 forward, possibly with top line upside. He should be given the chance to reach that promise for at least a few more years before any conversation is had about him. Ivan Barbashev is in a similar situation. He has more NHL experience under his belt, but he has spent most of his time with the team either bouncing back and forth between active and scratched, or being sent back and forth between the NHL and AHL. Barbashev has never really been given the opportunity to establish himself at the top level, a fact that I find slightly astonishing, considering who he is getting scratched for. He has never really been able to settle into the team and I think he needs that chance before we start talking about replacing him. Oskar Sundqvist is in his first year with the team and frankly he was a solid grab in the Reaves deal with Pittsburgh. No, I don’t think he will become a top line centerman, but he is a solid fourth line centerman and is still young enough to develop into a reliable third liner. Nikita Soshnikov arrived late in the season and was promptly injured, meaning he didn’t have enough time to really have an impact with the Blues. When it comes to late season acquisitions, my opinion is, you can celebrate them if successful, but they can’t really take blame if they don’t make an impact, because a month is just not enough time to gel with a new team. In Soshnikov’s case, he is only 24, has great speed and looks interesting enough to keep around.

There is also the case of Robby Fabbri. Frankly, all I can say about Fabbri is that the team needs to figure out his status. If he can play again then he should get another shot, but right now, we simply don’t know. I wouldn’t blame the team for cashing out on him if possible, especially if he has the audacity to ask for a lot of money considering he effectively spent the last 2 seasons on IR. Either way, the team needs to figure out what he will be physically when he comes back and then make a decision, and they need to do it this off-season.

Now with the softballs out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the issue, starting with Alex Steen. Steen was a good forward. He was never really a knockout offensive forward, his career high in points is 64 and his career high in goals is only 33. Steen’s value has always been as a defensive forward and it wasn’t too many years ago that he was being looked at as a contender for the Selke Award. In fact, a couple years ago I even suggested he was a great fit for the Tarasenko line, as his defensive abilities allowed him to cover up for Tarasenko’s lack of defensive abilities. All that being said, his numbers are way down from those career high years. The last three years he’s averaged less than 20 goals and about 50 points. Now those numbers aren’t exactly bad, but they’re not knockout first line numbers. Steen is currently costing $5.75 million in cap. That’s first line money and he is not playing first line hockey. So what happened? Steen got old. He is 34 years old and is starting to look it. I believe he probably has a few more years working the second line, but the Blues have a list of talented young prospects coming through the ranks and honestly, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes up that could supplant him for that second line spot. When that happens, the team will find itself stuck with a third line forward that they are paying first line money. Unfortunately moving Steen is not going to be easy. He has three years left on his contract and a full no trade clause that runs till February 2021. That means that unless the Blues can get him to agree to a trade, they can’t trade him. The other option, a buyout, would get him out the door now, but it would still leave the Blues paying a cap hit for the next 6 years, a hit that might hurt when it comes time to resign young players like Thompson and others. The question with a buyout right now is: Is it better to pay a 2nd liner 1st line money but have the guy and what he brings, or is it better to pay a little less money but have nothing for the next 6 years? While I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a buyout of Steen this year, I think he’s more useful with the team now, than being bought out. I would re-evaluate that after the 2018-19 season.

Patrik Berglund is another odd case. Here’s the problem with Berglund, he isn’t a centerman! He was drafted as a centerman, he was brought up through the system as a centerman, he was projected to be a centerman, and he has spent a major chunk of his NHL career as a 2nd or 3rd line centerman. Berglund is not a centerman though, he is a winger that is good at faceoffs. His career faceoff numbers are on the level with a 2nd line centerman, but there is more to that position than just taking faceoffs and on everything but faceoffs, Berglund leaves a lot to be desired. He is tall, 6’4, but relatively slim, 219lbs; for comparison, Tarasenko is 6’0, 225lbs, so Berglund could probably use to bulk out a little more, although that seems unlikely considering he’s basically 30. In other words, he has the body type to be a big man, but not the weight or the drive. He shies away from contact and he doesn’t have the will or grit to get into the dirty area of the ice and win battles. Now that kind of player can excel in the NHL on the wing, Patrick Kane jumps to mind as a talented winger that prefers to avoid contact, but it doesn’t really ever work for a centerman. Basically, if you’re not willing to go to the dirty area and fight for your right to be there, then you can’t succeed at that position and Berglund can’t do that. He had a great late surge this season, but that hardly covers up for years of underachievement and a cap hit of $3.85 million, which is 2nd line money and that makes him a liability for this team. Essentially, Berglund is being paid 2nd line money to give a 3rd line performance. That can’t be allowed to continue, especially with the list of young players below him. Berglund has had injury issues in the past, but even when healthy, he has struggled to put up the numbers needed to justify his contract and when push comes to shove, the Blues can get those same numbers for less money or a better player for basically the same money. Berglund has a Modified NTC that requires him to submit a list of 20 teams he can’t be traded too. My advice would be to call all 10 teams not on that list and see what the best deal you can get is. The Blues need to move on from Berglund and I think he probably could use to move on from them as well.

Next up we have another contentious player, Vladimir Sobotka. I’m not exactly sure how to categorize Sobotka. It’s easy from a distance to look at his performance and say that he’s not worth keeping and I can agree that there is a case to be made on that. However, I think we are also biased in St. Louis on him. We have had him since he was 23 years old. He had been developing well over his first three seasons here and was starting to look like he might have top 6 potential. Then he ran off to Russia and honestly, that killed his career. The difference between a 1st or 2nd line forward and a 3rd line or depth forward, more or less comes down to one or two years in their mid-twenties, of course, elite players like McDavid or Crosby excluded. The players enter the league, they spend a few years establishing themselves as regulars and then one season they just step up their game. They start controlling play and not reacting to it. We’ve see this in action the last couple of years with Jaden Schwartz and this year with Brayden Schenn, they simply raised their game to a new level. Sobotka spent those years, his 27, 28, and most of his 29 year old seasons in Russia. An NHL 3rd liner basically lines up as a 1st liner in the KHL. Thus, Sobotka went from fighting for minutes against elite players to basically being handed the top line minutes against the guys he was comparable with here. That stunted his development and while I think a lot of people, Armstrong included in my opinion, hoped that he would pick back up where he left off and continue improving, but he didn’t. He is playing at essentially the same level he was when he left and that is a third line level. That’s not exactly bad, but it’s not what we needed out of him. He is currently holding a $3.5 mil cap hit which was 2nd line money this year, but with the expected Salary Cap rise next year, would be high end 3rd line money then. It is a little bit more money than I would like to be paying a 30 year old forward with his stats, but it’s not too bad and he doesn’t have any trade clauses, meaning that the team has way more options in moving him than some of the other guys on this list. In summary, I could make a great case for getting rid of Sobotka to free up cap for free agent signings, and to free up a roster spot for a young player. However, if you wanted to keep one guy on the 3rd line, Sobotka is the guy I would suggest keeping. He can play either wing or the centerman position and would be helpful in gradually advancing inexperienced prospects in. Basically, it’s a lot easier to figure out what position a player can play at the NHL level when you can try him at all three, because you have someone that can fill whatever hole is left. Whether Sobotka stays or goes will probably depend on what prospects are ready, when they are ready, and if the Blues need that $3.5 mil in cap space to make a signing. If they don’t have the guys internally to fill that 3rd line spot and they don’t need the money, then they could do worse than keeping Sobotka, as long as they don’t expect him to be a top six forward, because he’s not and at this point he’s never going to be.

Kyle Brodziak falls into the same boat as Sobotka but for opposite reasons. While Sobotka was underachieving, Brodziak was over achieving. Brodziak was signed as a 4th line forward, he was projected to be a 4th liner with the ability to step up to 3rd line if necessary. He also provides invaluable Penalty Kill minutes which is incredibly helpful for a 4th line forward. This year though a Blues team, racked by injuries and under performance, asked Brodziak to step up and play on the 2nd line, he did and did it with distinction. In his last month or so with the Blues he probably played himself into a decent contract next year, whether that will be with the Blues or someone else is still up for discussion, but he will get it. I think expectations need to be tempered though. Brodziak is 33 years old and except for a brief run in his mid-twenties with Minnesota, he has never put up the numbers of someone that is better than a reliable 3rd or 4th liner. I would like to see Brodziak back in a Blues jersey next year, but I also think it would be a mistake to break the bank trying to keep him. He currently makes $950k and I think he would be well worth between $1.25 – $1.5 mil. If that is offered and he accepts, then sign him for a couple more years and keep him. If he wants more and can find someone to give it to him, then let him walk. What he brings to the team is great, but he is still 33 and I have yet to see a player of that age make a significant improvement on his game. Brodziak had a good month but thinking that month makes him a top 6 forward is reaching. The Blues should try to keep him, but only at the right price, and I believe there are other teams out there that would be willing to take the gamble that he has meaningfully improved, which to me would be a mistake.

Alongside Brodziak we have his two intended 4th line mates Scottie Upshall and Chris Thorburn. Neither of these guys are really worth keeping. They are both 34 years old, they are both paid less than a million, $800k and $900k respectively, and neither really brings anything to the team that can’t be found elsewhere. My suggestion would be to let Upshall walk and if necessary and possible, bring him back next year if injuries require. As for Thorburn, I’m sure there is a team that is so desperate for a physical presence, that they would be willing to throw a 6th or 7th round draft pick or an unsigned prospect at you for him. If a trade partner can’t be found then buy him out, cut him a check, and call it a day. The $300k cap hit for 2 years from that is not going to hurt the team that much and would free up greatly needed space.

Last but not least for the guys that actually played this season, we have Dmitrij Jaskin. I have to admit I’m kind of split between 2 minds when it comes to Jaskin. The side of me that wants to give kids another chance says he’s only 25, he was a 2nd round draft pick, give him another chance. The side of me that looks at his stats says he’s been a regular in the NHL playing 50+ games for four years now, and he’s never broken 20 pts. Jaskin had promise but he’s never lived up to it, and right now he is nothing more than a fringe 4th liner. He is a restricted free agent at the end of next year, so the Blues have control of him for another year. It would take $1 mil to qualify him and honestly, I highly doubt that anyone else would really have any interest. I also doubt salary arbitration would be that friendly to him, but he could be a suitable 4th liner. If he is willing to sign for $1 mil or less, then he could be useful on the fourth line, but if the Blues can find someone willing to trade for his rights, then I’d take it. I can understand them signing him, but like Upshall and Thorburn, it might simply be better to write him off as a failed experiment and see what’s waiting in the wings.

All in all the Blues’ forward group is kind of all over the place. The top line is elite, they are capable of scoring all over the place and they look great doing it. However, once you get past that to the 2nd and 3rd lines, the story is one of overpaid veterans that aren’t performing to their expected level. They also have a stack of promising young talents. Jordan Kyrou and Rob Thomas have been absolutely tearing up Juniors and the last World Juniors Championship. While it’s not a given that performance at the Junior level will automatically translate to performance at the NHL level, it’s difficult to suggest that calling them up to see what they could do would be that detrimental, considering the lackluster performances of the guys they would be replacing. Add in Zach Sanford, who missed most of this year with an injury and who projects as a 3rd liner with a chance to be better, and the newly acquired Erik Foley, and the case for moving some of these guys for internal options becomes ever stronger.

I can’t say what the Blues will do because I am not in Doug Armstrong’s head, but this year was an incredible disappointment and most of the blame for that disappointment falls on a forward group that seemed utterly incapable of scoring at times. Something has to change with the list of players above and that something can’t simply be signing one or two guys. Some of the guys that have been here for a long time, Berglund, Sobotka, Steen, etc., have gotten complacent and far too comfortable. A real shakeup is needed and with the prospective talent the Blues currently have, the time for that shakeup appears to be now.  Just how big that shakeup will be remains to be seen.

Stay tuned, as this is just Part 1 of the story. Later on I will post a Part 2, where I will take a player by player look at the defense and goalies, see where both of those groups looked like this year and where they are possibly going next year.

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