The One Downfall of St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong

Doug Armstrong has been one of the best GM's in St. Louis Blues history and one of the best in the league. However, there has been one downfall during his tenure.
St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong
St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong / Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Blues brought in Doug Armstrong in 2008, most fans were asking "who?". Though there have been ups and downs, dips, potholes and the occasional road block, Armstrong led the Blues to heights never seen before for the franchise.

Maybe we should have known how good Armstrong could be in St. Louis. He did have a .634 winning percentage as the GM in Dallas and drafted James Neal, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn.

Nevertheless, it seemed like an odd choice when the Blues brought him in as the director of player personnel with a seemingly clear indication he would eventually take over for Larry Pleau. He took over and went to work, acquiring Jaroslav Halak in the transition period and then drafting and trading for some of the biggest key names in recent Blues history.

Army won GM of the year in 2013 and somehow got runner up in 2019, despite winning the Stanley Cup. Regardless of online discourse, he has really made no bad trades and his drafts have been pretty stellar. The main knock against him is in free agency and also the contract extensions he has given out.

Despite that, he is in the conversation for the best general manager of all time in Blues history. Even if he had not won the Cup, he's kept the Blues in contention as well, or better, than any of his predecessors.

Yet, there's one big problem that Armstrong has had and it has cost the Blues twice. He is too enamored with speed.

The NHL, and hockey in general, is one of the fastest games in the world. The sport now compared to even 24 years ago, at the turn of the century, is quite different.

It's understandable that any GM would try to keep up with the Joneses. All sports are copy cat leagues, afterall.

When the Golden State Warriors were crushing the NBA, the entire league went away from the dominant center and looked for three point shooting. The NFL has continually gone further and further into the passing game, making running backs almost inconsequential in terms of individual play.

Likewise, the NHL has become all about speed. The likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are just the latest incarnations of a league that is ruled by quickness and skill.

However, the problem is that doesn't always win by itself. The NHL has not strayed so far as to forget what has always won - toughness, defense and goaltending. Sometimes you can win without a star goalie, but just as often the hot goaltender carries a team that might not have won without that.

So, why did Armstrong veer away from what was working for the team twice? I'm not in that office, but I have to think it was a fear of being passed by, both literally and figuratively.

When the Blues went to the Western Conference Final in 2016 for the first time in over 15 years and just the second time in almost 40 years, it was because they were big and physical. That team was led by David Backes, who was 6'3 and 215 lbs.

Nearly everyone of consequence on that squad was above 6' tall, other than Jaden Schwartz. The vast majority of players weighed over 200 lbs. They were big and tough to push around.

Instead of sticking with what worked, the Blues tried to get faster. In a vacuum, that's fine, but the problem is MacKinnon's don't grow on trees. It's easy to find smaller players to increase your team quickness, but not as easy to keep that size.

The Blues started a small decline due to this shift and the team ended up having to fire both Ken Hitchcock and Mike Yeo because of it. It wasn't until Craig Berube reinstituted some physical first mentality that things turned around.

Armstrong either learned a breif lesson or lucked into what won for the Blues. By the time the 2019 playoffs rolled around, the Blues had a big, beefy team that just obliterated their opponents in each playoff round.

While we laugh about it, the reality is that if the San Jose Sharks had somehow knocked off the Blues in the conference final, they would have been missing a big chunk of their roster to play for the Stanley Cup. St. Louis just wore them out to the point where their bench was either half empty or looked like a walking MASH unit.

When the Final rolled around, the Blues didn't push Boston around quite as much, but they still won more with grit and goaltending than skill or speed. It was still wave after wave of relentlessness instead of blowing by the Bruins on the rush.

To Armstrong's credit, he kept the same team going into 2019-20 and they were focused on a second title. That may have happened if not for the pandemic, but the Blues couldn't regroup for the tournament in the bubble.

After that, it all went the other direction. The Blues have continually gotten smaller and less physical.

In 2023-24, the Blues had seven full-time roster players that were 6' tall or under. You look up and down the Blues roster and there's no more physicality.

I love these guys as players, but when Colton Parayko and Brayden Schenn are your grittiest star players, it's a problem. When 5'11 Jake Neighbours and Sammy Blais, with his 53 games, lead your team in hits, it doesn't reflect well on the rest of the team.

Armstrong hasn't been dealt the greatest of hands. He had contracts for the wrong players come up at the wrong time. If the pandemic never happens, the salary cap goes up and we might be looking at a vastly different roster.

However, as any man in charge will tell you, the buck stops with them. The shift toward speed and skill has not worked for the Blues.

Not only have they not quite hit the mark as they wanted, but the problem is the rest of the league actually copied them. When the Blues won in 2019, the rest of the league started stocking up on big guys.

That is not to say teams like Vegas, Tampa and Colorado aren't loaded with speed and skill - they are. However, they are also some of the bigger teams in the league.

Colorado had a big mix. They could both blow by you with their speed, but also had some big bodies on both offense and defense.

Tampa was very similar. They have some bigger bodies, but also just came at you in waves and rarely let you rest.

Love them or hate them - they give you plenty of reason with their salary cap circumvention - but the Golden Knights might have been the most like the Blues. Vegas probably had more top-end talent than St. Louis, but they won because they had some monsters on defense that just stifled all their opponents.

So, while the Cup winners had copied the Blues blueprint, St. Louis went the other way. The entire defensive core feels small, even with Parayko on the team.

Guys like Nick Leddy and Justin Faulk do a pretty good job, but they can't handle everything. I contend Torey Krug is not nearly as bad as he has looked in his St. Louis tenure and Scott Perunovich can still be a good NHL defenseman. The problem is Krug could shine in Boston because he had Zdeno Chara with him and Perunovich also does not have that stalwart that can cover him.

Armstrong needed players and took the best that was available at the time, given his salary cap restrictions. But it felt like he didn't trust what had worked for his franchise and kept trying to keep up with teams like Edmonton.

You don't want a bunch of lumbering behemoths that can't keep up with anyone. But, you also can't completely change the complexion of your team in a vain attempt to copy teams that have not won or aren't winning solely based on speed.

Twice, both after making a conference final and again after winning a Cup, Armstrong has spoken publicly about getting faster. There's nothing wrong with that, but size is still winning just as the Blues won with size before that.

Teams that can wear down the opponent through four, grueling rounds of playoffs are still winning. The Blues have been transformed into a team that can only wear out the fans' patience.

There may not be much opportunity to transition back to bigger bodies, but the Blues best bet is a mental shift back to what worked. If we can get more players to buy into the attack mode and get your nose dirty mentality like Neighbours and Zachary Bolduc, the team will be ok.

Armstrong needs to stop sacrificing toughness for quickness though. Sometimes sticking with what works for your franchise is better than trying to do what the neighbor is doing.