Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pool Outlook for St. Louis

The Western Conference was going to be a difficult side to win this year and the St. Louis Blues came two wins away from doing just that.  The problem that they ran into was a hungrier, more desperate team in the San Jose Sharks and the Blues' offense couldn't match the output of the Sharks and their defense couldn't contain their opponents well enough to help their offense.

The Blues were a very good team in the 2016 season, placing 2nd in the Central Division, just 2 points shy of the division title and the Western Conference regular season title, just behind the Dallas Stars.  This team had a lot of the right pieces in place at the start of the year and they stuck to their guns through the year, which made them a solid unit, by the time they made the playoffs.

It really is a matter of perspective, deciding on how much of a success the 2016 season was for the St. Louis Blues, because everyone was going to have different expectation levels for this team, when the puck was dropped in October.  The team's brass likely had some very high expectations, meaning a Stanley Cup, and we'll realize just how high those expectations were, when the team announces which parts of the staff will stay and who will go.

From a progress perspective, making the Conference Finals for the first time in 15 years is definitely progress and they certainly have some of the pieces in place to keep that progress moving, but it will always ride a fine line, especially with those "unforeseen circumstances."

The Blues were definitely a hot team, coming into this year's draft, with 14 players taken from the team in September, including one 1st round pick, Vladimir Tarasenko.  The competing goalies were also of note, with both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen taken in the 2nd round, getting the gamble in early.  Since they were picked apart early, they did have a couple of drops and one pick in Week Nine, and they had one more drop to speak of in Week Eighteen.  A deal to bring a number three goalie came about and the Blues stayed the course at 14 players, by the end of the season.

Tarasenko was indeed worthy of his 1st round pick, as he finished the season atop the Blues scoring list, ranking 21st overall in the pool scoring list, finishing with 40 goals and 74 points in 80 games this year.  The kid has top end talent, no doubt, and will be back up around the top next season, I would imagine.

The pool had it right on this season, as the Blues finished with 14 players on the list for being worthy, including Tarasenko.  All three goalies, Allen, Elliott and deadline acquisition Anders Nilsson were all within the top 54 goalies this year, Nilsson doing most of his work in Edmonton.  Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, David Backes, Troy Brouwer, Robby Fabbri and Jori Lehtera were all worthy from a forward perspective, while Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, rookie Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester were all notable from the blueline.

What I Said Last Year, At This Time...

The Blues in 2016 will compete, I think that's a given.  The franchise has a roster of players that can do some amazing things, but they all need to be coordinated properly to achieve the proper end goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup.  If you can trust what the management and coaching staff say closer to the start of the season, that should determine how good of a team this should be.  The players will also have to take some accountability and when changes start to be made, that's when those statements come out.  No matter what though, the Blues will be above the wild card spots in the playoffs and if they show some real direction in the off-season, we can start talking about moving further in the playoffs.

A Conference Finals appearance is going further in the playoffs and it was a pretty good kick at the can in 2016, but for how hard it is to win in this league, they have to be somewhat happy with what they had done, despite the bitter disappointment of their loss to San Jose.  The Blues had a good compete level, the management team made some positive moves and the players were held accountable for their results.  The question now is, how much of this team will carry over into next season?

2017 Pool Outlook

Forwards Cap Defense Cap Goalies Cap
Vladimir Tarasenko 7.500 Alex Pietrangelo 6.500 Brian Elliott 2.500
Paul Stastny 7.000 Jay Bouwmeester 5.400 Jake Allen 2.350
Alexander Steen 5.800 Kevin Shattenkirk 4.250
Jori Lehtera 4.700 Colton Parayko 0.925
Robby Fabbri 0.894
Patrik Berglund 3.700 Carl Gunnarsson 2.900 Ville Husso 0.848
Ryan Reaves 1.125 Joel Edmundson 1.050 Luke Opilka 0.693
Mackenzie MacEachern 0.925 Robert Bortuzzo 1.050
Ivan Barbashev 0.773 Jordan Schmaltz 0.925
Vince Dunn 0.759 Thomas Vannelli 0.712
Adam Musil 0.736 Petteri Lindbohm 0.637
Justin Selman 0.678 Dimitri Sergeev 0.623
Zach Pochiro 0.663

The back end seems to be solid, from a pool perspective, but there will be questions over the off-season about whether or not the goaltending tandem could possibly co-exist for another year.  The Blues have a few gaps to fill for scoring forwards, but their core is there and can be built around, which suggests they'll be good for us poolies again next season.

The Blues are not boasting a terrific number of potential rookies that could splash into the roster next season, if they could make an impact at all.  Ivan Barbashev is believed to be the best prospect in the system, but the 20-year old Russian has a lot of work to do in his game, before he would crack the roster.  It would make a bit more sense to fill in some of those bottom six spots with bottom six type players, which won't be pool worthy anyways.

Needs at the 2016 Entry Draft

The Blues, thanks to their loss in the Conference Finals and their ranking in the regular season, will pick 28th with their 1st round pick, which they still have.  Somehow, somewhere, the Blues will have to try and find some more help with their prospect pool, which is lacking at the moment.  With a lot of the top end talent from their blueline already up with the team, they would be wise to start looking for a quality add in that department and Kyle Clague from the Brandon Wheat Kings looks like their kind of guy.  The Blues can wait for his frame to improve, but he has the tools to be a good player down the road.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

There are two big name free agents to look at in the Blues organization and one will certainly decide the direction of this franchise moving forward.  With their captain, David Backes, possibly heading towards unrestricted free agency, his return would keep the same ideals in place, while his departure may signal some change in philosophy.  Jaden Schwartz, on the other hand, is a restricted free agent, and the team will have more budgetary questions for his return.  Can they bridge him for another year or two?  Will they have to spend the money on a long-term deal?

The Blues are not struggling with their cap math today, as their roster could be filled out relative ease and under budget, but those free agents will be costly.  The 11 pool worthy players that have deals are coming in at $47.8 million and a few of those unworthy players likely have depth spots to lose, so the math adds up quickly.  If Schwartz is going to be a big ticket player, there might not be enough room for Backes and his salary demands.

I would certainly have troubles believing that this would be the same Blues team, if Backes was to leave via free agency and so, if he was to go, this team would certainly struggle in the tough times, making the losing streaks even longer.  The Blues will have more than enough skill to win a lot of games, but the long grind of the season and the playoffs won't be the same at all.  Let's say they make room for Backes though, it would be interesting to see where they make the room, possibly on the blueline, which could certainly improve.  St. Louis is definitely in a state of flux right now and any talk of another Conference Finals appearance or better, will certainly hinge on their leadership contingency.
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