St. Louis Blues: Expansion Draft Strategy Becoming Much, Much Clearer

Feb 26, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Tanner Kero (67) and St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera (12) chase the puck during the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Tanner Kero (67) and St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera (12) chase the puck during the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Blues’ recent personnel decisions and the team’s emerging young talent are making it much clearer who the team will protect from this summer’s expansion draft.

The Vegas Golden Knights are now an official NHL franchise. They are able to make moves with other clubs related to the expansion draft. While no trades have been made yet, this has me thinking more about the St. Louis Blues strategy for player protection.

According to the NHL Expansion Draft Rules, clubs can choose between two options for player protection. Teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Or, teams can choose to protect any combination of eight skaters and then the one goaltender.

I don’t think there’s much debate about which route the Blues will take. I don’t see a scenario in which they choose the latter. They will want to protect as many players as possible.

As the expansion draft nears, the question becomes more and more interesting. Who will the St. Louis Blues protect from the Golden Knights? That name is still terrible, by the way.

What also makes this question more interesting is the recent personnel decisions by the Blues in addition to the emerging young talent that has arrived.

Now, let’s start by recapping the obvious.

There is no way in hell the St. Louis Blues will leave Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Pietrangelo, or Jake Allen unprotected. General Manager Doug Armstrong has made it clear that those guys are the main pieces of the team’s “core.”

Beyond them, the team will also surely protect Jay Bouwmeester to retain another veteran, consistent defender. The Blues will also protect Joel Edmundson. Armstrong recently noted the physical defender as a piece of the new core.

That already sews up the defense and goaltending. Service time rules exempt Colton Parayko from the draft. That’s a huge advantage to the Blues. It allows for the Edmundson decision and gives the Blues balance on both sides.

But with the forwards, there are still a few questions.

It seems  likely that Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, and David Perron will also be protected from Vegas’ grasp. These guys aren’t exactly spring chickens. But, they are a big part of the team’s offense and letting any of them go would be pretty brutal.

That leaves two forward spots to fill for protection.

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These two forward spots have been the focus of discussion for many since the expansion announcement. But recently, the Blues have solved part of that.

The five-year extension given to Patrik Berglund means one of those spots will be utilized. Prior to the extension, Berglund wouldn’t have even been part of this discussion. The Big Swede was due for free agency. But he will now be in St. Louis long-term.

While a commitment to one player has solved part of the equation, a lack of commitment to another has also shed light. The Blues are now 64 games into this campaign and there are no signs the team is committed to Nail Yakupov. The experiment has just not paid off. And it is now hard to imagine the Blues suddenly consider Yakupov as an integral part of the future.

Another recent personnel decision may impact the St. Louis Blues’ strategy for player protection.

The call-up of Ivan Barbashev and his solid play have given the Blues more depth at the center position. The team still lacks a true No. 1 centerman and probably will for a while but they have many options to formulate lineups.

Barbashev’s emergence makes it clear he will need more minutes than those of a fourth-liner. So, will his bump next season make Jori Lehtera expendable?

I have to believe the Blues are seeing that. Lehtera has two goals in his last 33 games and doesn’t have the assists you’d think a guy alongside Tarasenko would have either. Stastny and Berglund both outplay him every night and the team has guys like Robby Fabbri (exempt from this draft) and Steen who can jump into the middle when needed.

Jori Lehtera is no longer a must-protect. Side note: could the Blues give Vegas a draft pick to promise they’ll take him? That would be ideal.

Regardless, the Blues are really only down to one decision in player protection. They’ll have to choose between Lehtera, Yakupov, Ryan Reaves, and Dmitrij Jaskin. Those seem like the most likely choices for Vegas to take.

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With 18 games left, my money is on Lehtera still being protected and Yakupov being stolen. But if Barbashev continues to impress, it would make sense for the St. Louis Blues to protect Reaves instead. Fans love him dearly and he is a last remaining smidge of grit the club has.

Vegas probably won’t want to take on the Lehtera contract but they do have to meet a salary cap minimum and he is an experienced option. Given the recent personnel decisions of the Blues, it could very well be him who packs for the desert.