(Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-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. This is Part 2 of a two part article, and in this part I will focus on the Defense and Goalies. I have already gone through my take on the forwards of this team in Part 1, which you can find here. Now let’s get going with a look, player by player, at the Blues defensemen and goalies.
As I did in the forwards article, I’ll start this one with the top defensive pair and Alex Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo is the Blues top defenseman and captain, and while I can’t necessarily speak towards his ability to the latter, not being in the Locker Room and all, I can say that he has more than lived up to the former this year. Petro set career highs in goals, points and takeaways, and tied his career high in blocked shots. He averaged more than 25 minutes a game for the sixth year in a row, made yet another All Star game, and also finished the year 13th among Defensemen for points, 18th in assists, 8th in goals, and 6th in ATOI. He is easily within the top twenty defensemen of the year, and had the Blues succeeded in making the playoffs, I would have called it a travesty if he wasn’t top five in the Norris vote. As is, I expect him to be a top fifteen Norris trophy candidate and his relatively low Penalty minutes, 22 PIM for the whole year, would suggest he should be in the top 25 or 30 for the Byng trophy. All things considered, Pietrangelo continued the level of play we have come to expect from him year in and year out and did so while being paired with a rotating stream of partners, mostly due to the Blues’ usual injury carousel. He also reportedly had to deal with a near constant attack on his captaincy from an aging and underperforming Alex Steen, which may have led to a split locker room. Pietrangelo has made a clear statement as to why he is the captain and why he is the top defenseman and while I think he still has things in his game, especially on the special teams, which he needs to clean up, moving Pietrangelo at this point would be a mistake for the Blues.
Pietrangelo’s original intended partner for the year, as he has been the last couple of years, was Jay Bouwmeester. Bouwmeester started the year with an injury which caused him to miss all of October and most of November. He made his season debut on November 21st and then ended up finishing his season early as well, playing the last of only 35 games on March 3rd. It was yet another bad year for Bouwmeester who has spent the majority of his Blues career fighting injury and trying to live up to his great first full year with the team. He hasn’t topped 20 points since 2013-14 and he has gradually seen his ice time diminish as he goes. He will be 35 next season, coming off of yet another surgery, and honestly, the question has to be asked whether he really has anything left in the tank. Bouwmeester is being paid top pair money at $5.4 mil cap hit and will be going into the last year of his contract. Other defensemen have surpassed Bouwmeester with their play, Joel Edmundson chief among them, and it would serve the Blues well to look at their options for getting his large cap hit off the books and giving his diminishing ice time to younger, up and coming players. Unfortunately, Bouwmeester also has a Full No Trade clause, meaning the most favorable option the Blues have to do with him, trade him, requires his approval. Factoring in his age, I think there is a good chance that Bouwmeester intends to retire after the 2018-19 season and if that is the case, then he would be disinclined to sign off on the Blues shipping him off to some other team for the last year of his career. If he does intend to keep playing after next year, he would probably be more likely to agree to a trade, if it’s made clear that the Blues will not be resigning him. If they can get him to sign off and find a willing partner, then the Blues need to trade Bouwmeester. He has more or less already been supplanted in the lineup by Edmundson or Parayko, and it’s time to move on and make more room for the likes of Vince Dunn and Jordan Schmaltz. If the Blues can’t trade him, then a buyout becomes a likely possibility. A buyout of Bouwmeester reduces his cap hit to only $1.8 mil per year for two years. While it’s not exactly a perfect solution, it’s better than dragging around a $5.4 mil cap hit on a player who will likely be starting the year on IR, has struggled with his health recently, and is only really capable of putting up 2nd pair minutes at best. I congratulate Bouwmeester on his career and wish him the best, but it’s time for the Blues to move on.
Joel Edmundson did pretty much the exact opposite of Bouwmeester. While Bouwmeester slid further back and made more and more of a case for his eventual exit, Edmundson made himself more or less invaluable to the team. Last year we saw him move up from a bottom pair defenseman to a top 4 defenseman. This year he moved up from the second pair to the top pair and showed that he belonged there. He set career high numbers in goals, points, shots, ATOI and blocked shots. He also lowered his PIM’s despite playing 200 more minutes than his previous year, which shows his game is maturing more. Edmundson also plays with a grit and toughness that the Blues have lacked on the back line in recent years. He’s more than willing to throw his weight around if necessary and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves when required. Really the only downside I can see to Edmundson’s game, is that he only played 69 games due to an injury sustained in February when he broke his arm blocking a shot. From the looks of it, I would suggest that an Edmundson-Parayko pairing as the top pair is not too far off, and I think both are probably capable of playing on the top pair, but Edmundson got the chance first due mostly to the fact that he is a Left hand shot, which contrasts with Pietrangelo’s right hand shot. The good news here is that we have a solid defender that has surpassed everyone’s expectation and has risen to a top pair level. The bad news, is that he is a restricted free agent (RFA) this year and while that gives the Blues a certain amount of control, I also believe that his stock is high enough right now, that he would be one of the rare cases where a team would be willing to part with draft picks to sign him off an RFA contract. The Blues will have to pay Edmundson and that could get a little expensive. I would expect him to want money similar to Parayko and if Bouwmeester isn’t gone, that could easily leave the Blues in trouble with too many high dollar defensemen on the roster. Unless the Blues can get Edmundson signed in the $4 million cap hit range, they will have to move Bouwmeester or risk running low on cap space.
Colton Parayko was the guy that was supposed to be climbing to the top defensive pair, but this year he seemed to plateau a little. He played all 82 games, which is great, but his goal, assist, and points numbers were pretty much on par with his career. He did take significantly more hits than last year and blocked more shots, which is also a plus, but he never really showed that big jump in level of play that would have pushed him up the board. Parayko’s problem might just be that he is a right hand shot just like the guy above him on the depth chart, Pietrangelo, and therefore to climb any higher on the list, he has to out play a guy that probably had a career year this year. It also can’t help a player’s mentality, when he is touted as a future top pair defenseman, only to watch a guy that wasn’t expected to be that at all, Edmundson, move up past him and not only get that role, but thrive in it, all because of what hand he shoots with. Parayko needs to regroup, keep his head down and keep working. He has the potential to be a top pair defenseman and Pietrangelo is not getting any younger. As I said above, I expect at some point in the next few years for the top D pair to be Parayko and Edmundson, but Parayko has to prove he belongs there and this year was not great proof of that.
Probably the most impressive defenseman on the Blues roster this year was Vince Dunn. Going into the season with last year’s trade of Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester starting the year on IR, it was guaranteed that one of the Blues prospects would be getting a real shot this year. I personally expected that prospect to be Jordan Schmaltz, but Vince Dunn jumped him in the depth chart with a great camp and a solid pre-season. He then went full speed into the league and, while he did struggle a little in the middle of the season and lost his spot for a very short period when everyone was healthy, he finished the season strong climbing up fully into a 2nd pair position by the end of the year. His stats tell a great story as well. He played 75 games, averaged 17:14 minutes a game, put up 5 goals and 19 assists for 24 points and added 59 blocks. That last number needs to get up a little bit, as does his hit number which was only 29 for the year, but all in all, those are pretty good numbers. Among all rookies he ranked 28th in points, 21st in assists and 9th in ATOI. Among rookie defensemen he was 6th in points, 5th in assists and 6th in ATOI. Now Dunn doesn’t really figure into the Calder race as his numbers don’t compare to some of the other rookies this year, but considering he is only 21 years old and sits at least fourth on our list of defensemen, he has plenty of room to grow and plenty of time to grow into his role. This is the first year, and of course Dunn has a lot of things to improve on, but the future looks good for him as an anchor for the Blues 2nd D-pair, for years to come.
Sitting behind Dunn on that depth chart and somewhat surprisingly so, is Jordan Schmaltz. I can’t help but think that Schmaltz is starting to look like a draft bust. He is currently 24 years old and will be a restricted free agent this year. He is also a first round draft pick from 2012. In the time since he’s been drafted, Schmaltz has only managed to make the NHL roster twice, 2016-17 and 2017-18. In those two years he has played a grand total of 22 games and amassed a measly 3 points. His AHL numbers have been solid though, he put up 23 points in 31 games this year, 25 points in 42 games last year and 36 points in 71 games in 2015-16. His game has simply not translated to the NHL level and the Blues have been either unwilling or unable to give him a regular spot on the roster to see what he can do for a whole year. In the meantime, Jordan has watched Joel Edmundson, taken in the 2nd round of 2011, Colton Parayko, also drafted in 2012 but 2 rounds after Jordan, and now Vince Dunn, taken in the 2nd round of 2015, move up ahead of him and another defenseman, Jake Walman, who could join them soon. While Schmaltz has suffered a few injuries, his play simply hasn’t translated to the NHL level and he needs to figure it out soon, or else the Blues should start looking to move him and hope they can get a good return from a team willing to take a gamble on a highly touted but so far disappointing prospect. Regardless of what the Blues intend to do with him in the future, his entry level deal is coming to an end this year and the Blues should extend him, if for nothing else, to make sure they can trade him if the need arises.
Next up we have Carl Gunnarsson. Gunnarsson has been fairly steady in his four years with the Blues. He’s put up about 10 points a season and played in about 60 games, save for 2015-16 when he played in 72. He blocks about 100 shots a year and he puts up roughly 17 min of ATOI. This year those stats were 63 games, 9 points (5 goals and 4 assists) and 16:10 minutes ATOI. Those aren’t bad numbers from a 3rd pair defenseman who can fill in at a 2nd pair role in case of injury. The problem is that’s all Gunnarsson is, and $2.9 million a year is a bit much to pay for that work. Gunnarsson will eat minutes and he isn’t a liability, but he doesn’t exactly give you that much either. He might be useful if the Blues have any questions about Vince Dunn being able to keep up his performance for another year, but with the number of young prospects the Blues have at defense, the aforementioned Walman as well as Thomas Vannelli, it doesn’t really make all that much sense to keep him around. Gunnarsson doesn’t have any kind of trade clause in his contract and with the cap going up next year, a $2.9 mil cap hit is relatively team friendly. My suggestion would be to shop him around and see if you can’t find a taker at a decent price, but at the same time be cautious. It’s not going to hurt the Blues too much to keep him. They do have decent defensive options internally, but those guys are not the same level as their forward prospects, and holding them back another year or so isn’t going to hurt their development as much. Having an experienced veteran around the locker room can help those kids, and you can always move Gunnarsson later if the team believes they are safe without him.
Finally, we have the lower end of the defense, Robert Bortuzzo. Bortuzzo is an established veteran, he’s 28 years old and he’s been in the NHL for a while now. He is probably one of the best 7th defensemen in the league. He can be a solid bottom pair defenseman for a good team and he is more than capable of logging lots of games in case of injury. This year was a shining example of that, he played a career high 72 games, some of which was just to cover up for Schmaltz’s lackluster play and he also set a career high in points with 13 and blocks at 108. Bortuzzo is also very gritty. He doesn’t mind taking a hit or dishing it out and when necessary, he has shown in his career that he can play up to 15 minutes a night. He also only costs $1.15 mil cap hit and like Gunnarsson, he’s entering the last year of his contract. The Blues could do worse than keeping him around, but he doesn’t really add that much to the team. There are also internal options that have a much higher upside than Bortuzzo and as such, I would suggest trading him either at the draft or out of camp. I’m not sure what he’s worth, but I’m sure he would be worth more to another team than he is to us.
In summary, the main problem with the Blues defense this year is that there were too many people that were hurt too often. Parayko seemed to take a step back, but not a giant one, while Edmundson took a step forward. The defense also stepped up doing a lot of the scoring early in the season, but that was never going to be sustainable and when it finally broke, the offense didn’t show up to pick up what is technically their job. There are still some growing pains to be worked out by this group, but they are relatively young and that’s to be expected. The other advantage the Defense has is that they are not hampered by a list of talented prospects that need to be worked in. Basically, the Blues need to move one or two of their older players, but the amount of deals and the magnitude of the problems are nowhere near as bad as those with the forwards. Really the only glaring problem is Bouwmeester and with him in the last year of his deal, he should be relatively easy to get rid of considering that the team will likely be replacing him with someone significantly cheaper. The defense needs a few minor tweaks and then needs to hope that the young guns can either continue their great form or pick it back up next year, and maybe hope that one or two prospects finally break through.
That brings us to every Blues fan’s favorite topic of argument, the Goalies. Essentially the Blues have three players in this position: Current Starter Jake Allen, Current Backup Carter Hutton and Prospect Ville Husso. The question of which of those three should still be here next year, which should start and which should be backup, is probably the most heated topic of discussion surrounding this team right now.
Jake Allen opened the season as the Blues starting goalie and also closed the season as the Blues starting goalie. In between though, he more or less lost that role to Carter Hutton and probably only gained the job back because Hutton suffered a neck injury early in March and was sidelined for the better part of a month. This year Jake played 59 games, started 56 and finished with a 27-25-3 record. That’s not good, nor was his .906 save percentage, a career low if you throw out his 15 games played 2012-13 season. He also set a career low 2.75 goals against average. By pretty much any accounting, this was not a good year for Jake Allen and it has led to the very credible suggestion that he is not a starter at the NHL level. Jake’s lagging has two parts to it, first he is highly inconsistent. Jake’s career SV% is .913 and his career GAA is 2.47. However, if you look at his career numbers month by month, you’ll see something interesting. In October, Jake played 26 games with a SV% of .926 and a GAA of 2.05. In March, he played 43 games with a SV% of .925 and a GAA of 2.13. He also managed a .921 SV% and a 2.33 GAA in April, during regular season games. If you look at just those months, he looks very much like an elite goalie. However, the rest of the year is a different story. His November, December and February numbers are average at best. He’s registered a .909 SV% and 2.59 GAA in 41 games in November, a .906 SV% and 2.69 GAA in 44 games in December, and a .908 SV% and 2.52 GAA in 33 games in February. Then there is his January numbers which are simply abysmal; 16 games, .876 SV% and 3.49 GAA. Essentially, Jake is an Elite goalie at the start and close of the season average in November, December and February, and downright awful in January. There is a second part to Jake though, he gets very little support from the players in front of him. Hockey Reference keeps track of a stat called Quality Starts or QS, they are starts where the goalie’s save percentage is less than the league average for the year, or less than 88.5% on nights with 20 or less shots. This year Jake had 27 QS and he also had 27 wins. Last year he had 33 QS and 33 wins. That pattern continues in 2015-16. That correlation suggests essentially, that if the Blues didn’t get good goal tending the last two or three years, they lost. Now of course all of Jake’s quality starts weren’t wins, but in a league where we expect goalies to steal games from time to time, we should also expect players to cover up for the goalie equally as often. The Blues simply didn’t do that for Jake this year or last year and that’s on the team, not the goalie. However, if Jake wants to keep his job here in St. Louis, at the least, he needs to get those numbers, especially the January numbers, up. I don’t expect him to be elite all year, no goalie is, but if Jake can simply keep putting up his massive numbers in October and March and bring the January numbers up to at least average, he will be a solid NHL starter. As is, he will continue in the same cycle, start strong, fall off, get replaced in January and then be forced to win his net back in March. That cycle can’t continue, because eventually either the team won’t be able to find someone to replace him in January, or the guy that does won’t give the net back after he takes it. Jake is signed at $4.35 mil cap hit through 2020-21 and he doesn’t have any trade clauses. He currently isn’t earning that money although it is relatively low for a starting goalie. The free agent market for goalies is pretty lean this year though, and based on how the Blues are looking with their skaters, both forwards and defensemen, I doubt that the front office will want an unknown kid in net next year. My guess is that Jake will stick around for another year and that this year will really and truly be a make it or break it year for him. However, if Armstrong wants to shop him around and a deal presents itself that is too good to pass up, I would not be at all surprised or angered to see Jake go. Honestly, it might help him just as much to get a fresh start, possibly somewhere where there is less pressure on his shoulders.
The obviously apparent replacement for Jake, and the guy many fans would like to see in net next year, is Carter Hutton. In contrast to Jake, Carter Hutton set career highs in SV% and GAA, .931 and 2.09 respectively. He also got the most action he has had since the 2013-14 season, which was his first real season in the NHL. He played in 32 games, started 26 and finished the year with a 17-7-3 record. Also, 19 of those starts were quality starts, meaning the team actually cost him games outright this year, since he lost at least 2 of his quality starts. Those stats certainly scream starting goalie material, however, a bit of context is needed here. Hutton is 32 years old. He didn’t crack the NHL for real till he was 28 and then he spent 3 years sitting behind Pekka Rinne. The closest he got to a starting chance in that situation was in 2013-14 when he played 40 games and started 34 due mostly to Rinne only starting 24 games due to injury. He only managed a .910 SV% and a 2.62 GAA that year and he didn’t start 20 games again until he came to St. Louis as a free agent last year. Hutton has spent the vast majority of his career as a backup, logging backup time and putting up backup numbers. Then all of sudden this year, he is given half a chance and he takes off. The optimist in me wants to say that Hutton has put his mark on the team, he is showing how good of a goalie he is and he should get a start. The realist in me says 32 year olds don’t suddenly show up and do something they’ve never been able to do before. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want Hutton to fail, I’d love to be wrong and he steps up and spends the rest of his career as a genuine NHL starter, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Hutton will be a Free Agent next year in what looks like a lean year for free agent goalies. He currently makes $1.125 mil cap hit. After putting up those numbers, I expect him to hit that market and sell himself as a starting goalie and I expect someone to take that gamble and sign him as such. I would also caution that team to have another option waiting in the wings, because there is just as much of a chance that Hutton falls back to the average or below average numbers he’s put up the rest of his career. I think the Blues could definitely do worse than resigning Hutton, and I don’t necessarily think it would be an all-around bad idea to keep both him and Jake around for at least another year or two, and perhaps try and recreate the magic of the Elliot-Allen tandem we saw here for a couple of years. My intuition says that Hutton won’t exactly go for it, but perhaps he could be persuaded, I don’t know. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him leave for more money elsewhere and honestly, I wouldn’t blame the Blues for letting him walk. Effectively, Hutton’s future in St. Louis comes down to a business decision. His play defiantly earned him another contract, however, if the money he wants in that contract is too high, it would be better to see him do that again elsewhere than to keep him around and watch him regress. Unless, that is, you are willing to throw all your chips in the Hutton basket, trade Jake away, and then hope there’s a prospect waiting in the wings to take his spot if Hutton doesn’t live up to this year’s performance.
Speaking of those prospects, there is really only one that matters right now and that’s Ville Husso. There are a couple more goaltending prospects in the Blues system, but none of them have really managed to make much of an imprint. Ville Husso was called up to the Blues to backup Allen during Hutton’s injury, but the management never trusted him enough to actually give him any time in net. I think that might have been a mistake, considering we played Phoenix, Vancouver and Chicago while he was up here, all bad teams this year, and it probably didn’t help Jake that he was stuck starting 14 games in a row during that period. I don’t know if Husso would have really helped, and I understand not wanting to stick an untested rookie in when the playoffs might be on the line, but at the same time, sometimes you have to just throw a kid in the pool and see if he can swim, and one of those relatively weak teams might have been a good chance to do that with Husso. Regardless of his non-existent NHL stats, Husso has put up good numbers in the AHL the last couple of years, 22 games with a .920 SV% and a 2.37 GAA in 2016-17 with the Chicago Wolves, and 38 games with a .922 SV% and 2.42 GAA this season with San Antonio. Those are great numbers, but you can’t really know how they will translate to a much stronger NHL game. Ultimately, Husso will need starts to see if he’s good enough and those starts can only come if one of the guys above him are either traded or allowed to walk. That said, Husso is only 23 and on an entry level contract, so letting him sit in San Antonio for another year and improve some more wouldn’t be a disaster, but a good showing by him in camp and or pre-season, would make it even harder to justify sending him back down. If the Blues think he’s ready, I would suspect they either trade Jake and resign Hutton, then give Hutton the net and try and ease Husso in over a couple of years, or they let Hutton walk and do the same with Allen and Husso. Personally, I like the latter of those two, especially if Jake is going to have his usual January, because it more or less guarantees Husso a chance to take over the net, which might not come with Hutton. If Husso is the future it’s time to move on to him. Jake isn’t getting the job done and Hutton, no matter how good he’s been for us, is still 32 and can’t have that many years left in him.
As I said in Part 1, I don’t know what the Blues will do because I’m not in Armstrong’s head, but there will be moves this year. Bouwmeester has outlived his usefulness in St. Louis and the defense is carrying a few too many older guys, although most of them are living up to the money their making. I’d like to see some more youth on the team in defense, but I think in this case, it might be better to limit the moves and let the defense develop a little more slowly. At the end of the day as a unit, the defense had a decent year and while there is room for improvement, there pretty much always is, they are in a much better place than our forward unit is and as such requires less work at the moment. As for the goalies, all I can really say, is that this year wasn’t good enough and change is necessary, however, what that change may be is entirely up in the air. It might not be a personnel change at all, it might be a complete overhaul. It might come through trades, signings, or promotions. There are just too many questions and too many moving parts to tell on that. Either way, we should be in for an interesting offseason because frankly, this year wasn’t good enough and when a season isn’t good enough, something has to change.