St. Louis Blues

The art of the deal: Can Blues GM Doug Armstrong push this team closer to playoff success?

During my many years covering the St. Louis Blues, one certainty is always at the forefront.

When it comes to General Manager Doug Armstrong, expect the unexpected.

Armstrong isn’t like other NHL GMs whose opinions are shaped by fan unrest or shift in the wind based on hot or cold streaks or perceived needs or strengths.

When he makes a major move, he goes all in. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but never fault Armstrong for the type of bold, decisive deals he hopes can one day push this franchise a little closer to its first Stanley Cup title.

Rumors abound about how the Blues may be willing to part with one of their core veterans that have helped lead to much regular-season success and little in the playoffs.

Would Armstrong dangle names like T.J. Oshie, David Backes or Patrik Berglund out there hoping the move might jolt this team in a little more northerly direction at playoff time?

I think he would, but Armstrong has never been the sort of GM who makes trades just for the sake of making them.

This is a veteran executive who within a span of several years gave up solid talent and first-round draft picks to land goalies Jaroslav Halak (from Montreal) and Ryan Miller (from Buffalo), thinking each just might be the type of talent that would put the team over the top.

Neither deal worked out and now the Blues are moving forward with a tandem of Jake Allen, who started every playoff game last season, and Brian Elliott.

Armstrong and the Blues signed off on a four-year, $28 million deal for free-agent center Paul Stastny last summer. Stastny played well at times, especially near the end of the season after battling early injuries, but wasn’t the impact player some expected.

Armstrong dealt former first overall pick defenseman Erik Johnson to Colorado for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk. Stewart is long gone, but Shattenkirk has blossomed into an all-star.

Johnson went first overall in 2006 and most Blues fans at the time felt pretty good about that since the team needed an elite defenseman after the ill-fated August, 2005 trade of former Norris Trophy winner and league MVP Chris Pronger.

But just two spots after the Blues picked Johnson, the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Oshie’s former University of North Dakota teammate, Jonathan Toews. Toews has since won three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks, though in fairness hindsight is always 20/20.

In moving a key piece like Oshie or Backes or an experienced NHL forward like Berglund, Armstrong would have an opportunity to reshape the team’s nucleus. Maybe he’d like to add a bit more speed or scoring, but whatever he does has to have better playoff success in mind.

While there’s still a bit of financial breathing room under the new $71.4 million salary cap, there’s also the matter of signing franchise scoring star Vladimir Tarasenko to a contract extension. That doesn’t appear to be an easy task since the uber-talented Russian winger led the Blues with 37 goals and 73 points last season and is coming off a a three-year entry-level deal that paid him $5.25 million.

The Blues have no choice but to reward his talent and promise and hope that he continues his offensive growth along with players like Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera, Dmitrij Jaskin and others. After apparently deciding not to bring back veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, the Blues have to be hoping that young defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm are ready for regular duty. Winger Ty Rattie and exciting forward Robby Fabbri are also hoping to grab spots in the near future.

It’s not like this team doesn’t have talent already. Since Ken Hitchcock’s arrival, no other NHL team has piled up as many regular-season wins and points.

Armstrong made a bold inquiry into former Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock before Babcock signed a mega-deal with Toronto. The fact that Armstrong then still brought Hitchcock back on a one-year deal shows the GM apparently felt that “Hitch” was better than any of the other available candidates.

The Blues do not own a first-round draft pick for Friday’s NHL Draft opening round, having traded that to Buffalo in the Miller package.

Most draft experts are saying that while this particular draft is loaded at the top, particularly with can’t-miss top prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, there may not be a lot of instant impact players after that.

That’s true of most NHL Drafts, but Armstrong should be concerned with more than that.

If he’s going to make a move, it has to be one that will jump-start a team that simply hasn’t been able to get over the hump in the playoffs. The Blues won’t be changing divisions, so the Blackhawks will still be in their way along with an ever-improving Western Conference landscape of talent.

It’s your move, Doug Armstrong. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

(Norm Sanders covers the Blues for the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders)

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