As we flipped the calendar to 2023, the St. Louis Blues are not where we thought they would be. Most expected them to be challenging for a division, not worrying about whether they are even a playoff team.
Unfortunately, the way things have transpired, that latter option is more true than the first. It would take a run like we saw from the Blues in 2019 and 2008 for them to even come close to winning the division.
As it stands, they cannot afford any losing streaks just to make the playoffs. Yet, making the playoffs should and is still their goal as a team.
The masses on social media have a different opinion. They, as well as a few in the talk radio sphere, seem to think tanking for draft position is a better idea.
The problem is the NHL is not like other leagues. It is not the NFL, nor the NBA where draft picks are put into the rotation of players on your team almost immediately and, in some cases, expected to be stars immediately.
It does happen, of course. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin hit the ice running and never looked back.
Those players are rare. Even as great as Connor McDavid is, he only played 45 games his very first season in the NHL.
Sometimes it can take a couple years for a high draft pick to make the NHL. It can take five years, or longer, to really hit their stride.
Look at all the hype the Blues put on Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou. Thomas was a 20th overall pick, but there were still some impatient fans who were upset with 33 points in his rookie year.
He benefitted from being on a veteran team that had players like Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon to cover for him. It let him grow at a more normal pace. He still had a season of junior hockey before the Blues brought him in.
Kyrou actually got drafted the year before Thomas. While he did play a handful of NHL games in each season starting in 2018, he didn’t play a “full season” until 2020-21 and even then it was a covid-shortened season.
Now that both players are approaching their middle twenties, they’ve hit their stride. Thomas is looking like the top center we had hoped for and Kyrou is looking like a legitimate 30-plus goal scorer.
The thing is it took time. It didn’t just take time because they were lower first rounders or second-round picks. It took time because hockey is hard to make that transition from a game with teenagers and early 20-somethings to playing against fully developed men.
There’s no guarantee with top picks either. He’s a steady NHL player, but the Blues botched their lone first overall pick with Erik Johnson.
They drafted for need, hoping they’d found their next Chris Pronger. In the process passed on a sure Hall of Famer in Jonathan Toews.
Similarly, Alexis Lafreniere is already under fire in New York. The former first overall pick is actually part of vague trade rumors approaching the midway point of the 2022-23 season – his third overall in the NHL.
Some of those rumors are because he plays in the media mecca of New York where everyone is trade bait at some point in their career. Some of it is because we just have no patience.
We think of these athletes as infallible. They’re prepackaged, plug and play stars and they should be great right out of the box.
That’s not how humans work. A player that takes a little longer may end up having a better overall career than one that made it work in the NHL their first year. Yet, we write off the one that takes longer because they weren’t ready when we demanded it.
What makes anyone think it will be different for whomever the Blues draft in 2023?
Let’s assume, by insane logic, the Blues did get the top pick and drafted Connor Bedard. There are two options.
The first is the Blues traded off half their team to acquire future assets. This signals a full rebuild.
In that scenario, we might be looking at years of futility regardless of having Thomas, Kyrou and Bedard. You think Edmonton wouldn’t mind having several deep playoff runs over the last few years instead of having McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Sure, the Oilers made the conference final in 2022, but they’re no closer to winning anything now than when they drafted any of those players.
In the second scenario, the Blues do tank, or are just that bad, but write it off as one bad year. They reload in the offseason and simply use Bedard in the way they used Thomas.
What’s the guarantee that Bedard is the next big thing instead of the next Erik Johnson? While the media pressure is greatly lessened, what if the pressure of being on a team still expected to make a playoff run is too much for Bedard and gets in his head?
We’ve seen that in St. Louis before too, even without playoff pressure. I still contend that players like David Perron and TJ Oshie would have hit their maturity, from a talent level, long before they did if they were not the focal point for the franchise for so many years.
You can say they had David Backes to deflect, but we all knew it was supposed to be their team. With as much hype as surrounds the kid now, people will immediately expect the Blues to be Bedard’s team even with the presence of Thomas, Kyrou and whatever other veterans would be left.
If St. Louis declared he wasn’t ready and gave him another year in junior, there would be huge uproars. Some sections would say the front office has to go, while the others would say he was a bust if Bedard couldn’t make the NHL immediately.
Ultimately, that’s all conjecture. We’re ignoring the point that the NHL is a weighted lottery system.
Even if the Blues do miss the playoffs, it would be nearly impossible for them to acquire the top pick in the draft. They would have a statistical chance, but it’s about as much chance as you have of winning the 50/50 drawing at the game.
2023 is projected to be a deep draft, but we circle back to the Blues still drafting too low for that to matter any time soon. Jaden Schwartz was drafted in 2010 and didn’t make the team full time until 2013. Vladimir Tarasenko was in the same draft, just two selections later, and he also did not make the team full time until 2013-14.
I get it. Fans want change and they think the new, shiny thing will be better.
These are human beings, not cell phones. The next option is not always an upgrade.
Players take time to develop. The Blues don’t have that time because they’re not going full rebuild and a retool would look more like the offseason of 2018 than anything.
Making the playoffs is still more beneficial to this franchise than fans can understand. They don’t have the money behind them like New York or Toronto.
The Blues owners spend to the cap because they know that’s their best shot at winning games and getting butts in the seats. Butts in seats in April and May, and maybe even June, now is better than empty seats while you wait for draft picks to come to fruition.
The funny thing is you would think being a baseball town, St. Louis might realize that drafts take longer. We haven’t seen the immediate success of the NFL or NBA because they don’t exist here, or didn’t even try when they were here.
Tanking now for what some hope would be an immediate return would be the wrong play for this franchise. I’m not old, but I remember how bad it was in 2005. We don’t want that again, even if it landed a top pick.