The St. Louis Blues seemed to be on the cusp of something special once they made the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Who knew that it might have been a blip instead of a building block?
The St. Louis Blues reached the culmination of years of effort and building and growing pains when they reached the Western Conference Finals in 2016. With several key players under wraps, we thought it was going to be the first step toward that final step that results in a championship.
While there are still reasons to believe this team can win, the facts are that the 2016 offseason may have changed this team in ways we did not think imaginable. Not even the most obvious changes seemed like they were going to alter this team the way it has.
Despite the growing sentiment that Doug Armstrong is doing a terrible job and should not be retained, this piece is not to pick on him alone. It is more to point out how some people are not meant to have the faith we show in them.
This problem does not rest in management alone. It had to do with coaching and most importantly, the players as well.
The Blues, at least according to rumors, were never going to be able to take that next step. They seem to be a team with too many inner struggles.
The more we hear, the more it seemed like the success they experienced in 2015-16 was in spite of themselves. It was as much about will and talent as opposed to a true, sustainable structure.
When Ken Hitchcock got fired, there were stories emerging that the players had been discontent with the coach for several years. Jeremy Rutherford, the Blues beat writer, even said there were motions made by the team to have Hitchcock let go prior to their best season in 15 years and perhaps before as well.
Regardless of how you feel about him in this moment, Armstrong made the right call. The pieces the team added made them title contenders and had a profound effect the team’s success. It was supposed to be the next step and instead it looks like the peak before a very long fall.
Unfortunately, the Blues were painted into a corner by several factors.
Despite what the denizens of Facebook and Twitter type about in all-caps, the Blues made the right call in regards to David Backes. It just has not worked out.
Backes will always remain a Blue in the hearts of many. However, he was already showing signs of wear.
Despite his form in the playoffs, Backes had the fewest amount of points last season since 2009-10. It can be partially attributed to less playing time, but his numbers are on pace to be lower this season in Boston as well.
If he fails to achieve his normal averages, even if only by a few, is Backes really worth $6 million a year? Can you fully expect him to regain or surpass his averages as he ages?
The answer is no. And no amount of perceived leadership is worth that much money alone also.
To those that say the leadership was worth the price, how much did Backes’ leadership provide before last season? He was with the team for 10 seasons and captain for half of that.
In that time the Blues reached the playoffs six times, got bounced in the first round four of those times. It took his 14 from last year’s playoff run to get his career playoff totals into the 20’s.
Troy Brouwer was clearly the more important cog in the team’s success from 2015-16. It wasn’t just from production either.
Brouwer knew what it took to win from his days in Chicago and that rubbed off on the team. He also had the cachet to tell a strong personality like Hitchcock to shut up and leave the players to themselves for a bit. Though he was not the captain, he had the personality behind him to tell guys this is how it is done to win.
He leaves and the Blues go back to what they were. A soft team that whined about their coach being to strict and demanding. In the end, the team got what they wanted with the firing of Hitchcock, but the new voice only lasted so long.
The Blues looked like last year’s team for about eight games following the coaching change. Now it is back to that listless, lackadaisical play with the team’s top players acting like they could not care less at times.
However, for those that complain that the Blues should have kept Brouwer, it was never going to happen. Unless they grossly overpaid him, he was always going to Calgary as long as the Flames showed any interest.
He was building a home in Calgary, his father is there and he was going to return there. You cannot say the Blues have too many bad contracts in one breath and say they should have given the Earth and the moon to Backes and Brouwer in another.
The point where the management failed was failing to do anything after that. Brouwer and Backes leaving was almost a foregone conclusion in hindsight. Armstrong did not do enough to mitigate the losses though.
Most fans would have been more than accepting had he turned Kevin Shattenkirk into a high draft pick in the 2016 draft. There were several highly touted current and near-future NHL players in that draft and it could have been an easy sell.
Instead, he stood pat. Well, he stood pat after Shattenkirk nixed a trade that would have brought Taylor Hall to St. Louis, but that falls on the Oilers too since they could have still taken Shattenkirk as a rental to convince him to stay. Neither option helped this team.
At the time, those of us that drank the kool-aid, believed it was going to be alright. The team was seeking to become younger, faster and more dynamic. The thinking then, as it is in this very moment, was it is OK to give more time and responsibility to the younger Blues.
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As we have seen, that was not exactly the best idea. While guys like Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri learned how tough it is to perform in the playoffs, it has not translated into the team knowing how to win.
Regardless of who you want to blame, the core of the Blues is weak mentally. It pains me to say that, since I love all of them, but it is undeniable at this point.
Hitchcock was part of the problem and undoubtedly difficult to play for, but the team won when they fully bought into his style of play. The core of this team refuses to take that to heart and keeps thinking they can win giving a half effort.
To steal a line from the film Miracle, this team does not have enough talent to win on talent alone. Tarasenko might be the best scorer this side of Brett Hull, but he disappears for long stretches of time. Alexander Steen was a defensive nightmare for opponents last season, but has been a ghost this season. Jaden Schwartz can still be the player we want, but, as of writing, has not scored in his last six games and only has three goals in his last 30.
Right now, the Blues look like a team in need of a tune-up. They are not nearly as bad off as the teams of the mid-2000’s. Anyone that says that needs their head examined.
There is talent on this team. They do need a new mixture since the attempts to weed out the lazy players have not worked or the players at fault poisoned the rest.
Maybe that is a venture for a new general manager. Personally, I don’t think Armstrong has been to blame for his mess.
If players want to whine about coaching, but cannot summon the will to perform when they have the ability to compete with anyone, that’s on them. That said, Armstrong’s deals have not been enough to supplement the team consistently.
The other issue with everything that has transpired is it caused quite the division between fans. If you don’t think Armstrong is the devil incarnate, you apparently can’t be a Blues fan. If you did not worship at the feet of Backes or did not think Hitchcock was the main problem, you were not smart. There is no clear cut issue and there is no clear cut answers anymore.
The Blues are not a doomed team with no hope. Unfortunately, they are not nearly as close as we had all hoped unless there are some long looks in the mirror by all involved.
It’s pretty sad to think that one offseason has altered the course of this team for the worse. Hopefully, one more offseason can get them back on track. It will take some will by those that make the decisions for that to happen though.