St. Louis Blues

Armstrong in a tough spot at trade deadline, but Blues need more offense

Norm Sanders - BND Sports Writer
Norm Sanders - BND Sports Writer

Doug Armstrong has never been one to shy away from bold moves throughout his tenure as general manager of the St. Louis Blues.

Since taking over in the summer of 2010, Armstrong has been creative both financially and personnel-wise in his hopes of bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis.

But just like the guy that wins the chili cook-off each year in his hometown, Armstrong isn’t big on publicizing his main ingredients. He likes to fly under the radar, keeping everyone guessing as to which players he may be shopping — and which ones he might be chasing.

Armstrong has been bold at times, trading the Blues’ only first overall pick — defenseman Erik Johnson — to Colorado in a February, 2011 deal that brought Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues.

Stewart has long since moved on, but Shattenkirk — at the time somewhat of an unknown in the deal — has emerged as an all-star defenseman and the team’s top scoring threat on the back end.

Despite a long list of injuries to to players that would cripple some franchise, the Blues have pushed on. Heading into Saturday’s game at Nashville the Blues were 35-19-9 and their 79 points were more than all but three NHL teams.

Shattenkirk is 27 and has one year remaining on his current contract. His name has been among the most frequently mentioned among Blues players, but unless Armstrong can demand a king’s ransom for this effective two-way player it would seem extremely tough to let him go.

Blues captain David Backes can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and so far no long-term deal has been reached. Would Armstrong will be willing to part with the team’s captain and one of its top emotional leaders?

The Chicago Blackhawks sent a definite message to the rest of the Western Conference on Thursday by acquiring Andrews Ladd from Winnipeg. The Blackhawks already have three Stanley Cups in six seasons and are chasing hard after another one.

The addition of Ladd immediately makes them deeper and more experienced.

Currently 23rd in the NHL in scoring at a paltry 2.4 goals per game, the Blues are in definite need of an upgrade up front. Among the top names to surface before Monday’s trade deadline are Boston winger Loui Eriksson, Phoenix forward Mikkel Boedker and Toronto forward Nazem Kadri.

The 30-year-old Eriksson, a pending unrestricted free agent, is the Bruins’ second-leading scorer with 23 goals and 48 points. Kadri, 25, has 11 goals and 33 points in 55 games. He was the seventh overall pick in 2009.

Boedker, 26, had 13 goals and 38 points, but also has a glaring plus-minus rating of minus-38. Tampa Bay forward Jonathan Drouin has been on the trading block for some time as well.

Armstrong has to be pleased with the results to this point in the season. Despite a long list of injuries to to players that would cripple some franchise, the Blues have pushed on. Heading into Saturday’s game at Nashville the Blues were 35-19-9 and their 79 points were more than all but three NHL teams.

Even with defenseman Alex Pietrangelo seemingly ready to return from a knee injury, the Blues still have goaltender Brian Elliott (lower body injury) on long-term injured reserve and all-purpose forward Alexander Steen (upper-body injury) is scheduled to be out at least four weeks.

Veteran forward Steve Ott (injuries to both hamstrings) is in a holding pattern and Jaden Schwartz missed 49 games with a fractured ankle before making his recent return.

The injuries also make it extremely difficult to make a deal since the Blues have a little more than $3 million in available salary cap space. Just over $5 million more is tied up on injured reserve with Steen and Ott.

With a healthy team, Armstrong would have had a much better read on what he has and the overall team needs he sees that could help the Blues emerge from their all-too-familiar pattern of first-round playoff exits.

It’s happened three years in a row and the patience of Blues’ fans — and surely the organization itself —has to be boiling over by now. The mystery remains of how a Blues team that finishes among the top handful of teams in the NHL during the regular season finds itself only capable of first-round status in the playoffs.

Armstrong has made numerous moves he’s felt might help get this team over the top, but so far the results have not been in his favor.

Since 2010, the Blues’ No. 1 goaltenders at various time have included Chris Mason, Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott, Ryan Miller and more recently an Elliott-Jake Allen tandem.

During that span, Armstrong also dealt goaltending prospect Ben Bishop to Ottawa for a draft pick and signed future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur with the Blues battling goaltending injuries.

However, this is one of those crazy seasons that has tested everyone’s patience.

Despite injuries to some of the team’s best players and a continued downturn in offensive production, the Blues still find themselves in the thick of the Central Division and Western Conference race with one of the best records in the NHL.

Goaltending and defense have been strengths once again despite the injuries. The Blues’ rank sixth in goals-against at 2.30 and Elliott is second in save percentage and fourth in goals-against average.

Allen’s five shutouts are tied for second.

This team’s biggest need is the same as it has been for the past several seasons: more scoring.

The Blues’ paltry 2.4 goals per game average ranks 23rd in the NHL and that’s glaring since the bulk of the offense has come from star forward Vladimir Tarasenko (29 goals, 54 points) and the injured Steen (17 goals, 47 points).

Counting overtime and shootout games, the Blues are 23-7 when scoring three goals or more. They are 12-21 when scoring two goals or fewer, and those 12 wins says a lot about the type of goaltending and defense coach Ken Hitchcock’s club plays on a regular basis.

The return of Schwartz from injury has helped, but one route Armstrong could pursue is dealing from defensive depth to acquire a top-two line foward.

The Blues have only three players among the league’s top 136 scorers. Tarasenko is 14th, Steen is 36th and Backes (15 goals, 33 points) is 136th.

While the Blues’ record suggests they are quite capable of winning tight games, they simply are giving themselves too little room for error.

Scoring goals has proven even tougher for this team in the playoffs, so finding more scoring help would seemingly be at a premium.

(Norm Sanders has been covering the Blues for the Belleville News-Democrat since 1995).

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders