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Under Pressure: Paul Stastny

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This post is part of Blues Day on PHT…

On the opening day of free agency in 2014, the Blues signed free agent center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million contract. It instantly made him the highest-paid forward on the team — since surpassed by Vladimir Tarasenko — and, in announcing the deal, GM Doug Armstrong raved about Stastny’s hockey IQ and how he “thinks the game strong.”

It was expected the gifted playmaker would become St. Louis’ top-line center.

But things haven’t exactly gone to plan.

The Stastny era is now three years old, and the major theme throughout has been health — specifically, his lack thereof. He’s missed 42 contests over that time, and failed to crack the 70 games-played plateau in each of the last two seasons. Unsurprisingly, his production has tailed off. After racking up 60 points in his final year in Colorado, he’s gone 46-49-40 with the Blues, and now heads into a contract year facing a number of major questions.

Among them:

Is Stastny a No. 1 center?

Blues head coach Mike Yeo certainly thinks so, describing the 31-year-old as such when Stastny got hurt back in February.

“He’s usually the first guy over the boards for a power-play faceoff or the first guy over the boards for a penalty-kill faceoff, and those are key,” Yeo said, per the Blues website. “He’s a very important player for us. You don’t take out a top-line center from too many lineups where they don’t feel that.”

The Blues certainly paid him like a 1C. At $7 million per, he’s making more annually than the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares and Jeff Carter. What’s more, the Blues don’t have much depth down the middle. Patrik Berglund has proven to be a decent, if unspectacular, option that scored 23 goals last year, but his ceiling is a 3C that can be pushed into the 2C role in a pinch.

Jori Lehtera, who underwhelmed last season, was flipped to Philly in the Brayden Schenn trade, but the Blues might have the same problem with Schenn that the Flyers did —  is he a center, or better suited on the wing?

Youngsters Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev can also play the middle, but aren’t yet considered full-time guys. Fabbri’s coming off a torn ACL.

So is Stastny a No. 1? Traditionally speaking, maybe not. In St. Louis, maybe so.

Do the Blues want to keep him?

Given what we just laid out, probably. But it would have to be at the right price.

Next July, Armstrong has some work to do and not a ton of cap space to do it with. The most pressing contracts will be for a pair of young RFAs — Fabbri, and d-man Joel Edmundson — while Stastny’s the lone UFA of note.

If Stastny’s willing to take a significant haircut, his return could happen. Signing with St. Louis back in ’14 was essentially a homecoming, as he grew up in the city and went to Chaminade College Prep School. Both his father and brother previously played with the Blues.

The real question, it would seem, is if Stastny fits with the direction of the club. Armstrong hasn’t been shy about turning his team over to the younger generation over the last few years, while cutting ties with veterans in a myriad of ways.

Just consider what happened to Stastny’s former running mates up front. Lehtera was traded Philly, T.J. Oshie was flipped to Washington, while David Backes and Troy Brouwer were allowed to walk in free agency.

Could this be another Kevin Shattenkirk situation?

Two years ago, Armstrong opted to keep Backes and Brouwer — both UFAs — past the deadline, and the Blues responded with a playoff run to the Western Conference Final. But that summer, both assets were lost for no return.

Last year, Armstrong took a different tact, opting to flip Shattenkirk, a pending UFA, at the deadline for a package that included promising forward Zach Sanford and a first-round pick (the Blues later used that pick to acquire Schenn).

“We are not in the business of trading good players for prospects when your team has a chance to win the Cup,” Armstrong said at the time, per the Post-Dispatch. “This team now has to get in on its own. It’s going to be more difficult, but if we get in, you always have a chance to win.”

One wonders if last year’s experience might’ve changed Armstrong’s outlook.

All things considered, the Blues fared well following Shattenkirk’s departure. They finished third in the Central Division, and upended 106-point Minnesota in the opening playoff round before bowing out to the eventual conference champ, Nashville, in Round 2.

The big difference between Shattenkirk and Stastny, though, is the depth at their respective positions. Parting ways with Shattenkirk was made easier by the presences of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, and the emergence of Edmundson and Colton Parayko.

At center, the Blues don’t have such options.

NHL suspends Tom Wilson two preseason games for interference

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Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been suspended for two preseason games for interference, after his late hit on St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas during Friday’s exhibition game.

The incident occurred early in the third period, as Wilson caught Thomas with a heavy and late hit along the boards at the Blues bench.

“Over a full second after Thomas loses control of the puck, well past the point where Thomas is eligible to be checked, Wilson comes in from the side and delivers a forceful body check, knocking Thomas to the ice,” stated a member of the NHL Department of Player Safety in a video explanation of the suspension.

“In addition to the lateness of the hit, what elevates this hit to the level of supplemental discipline is the predatory nature and force of the hit. Wilson tracks Thomas for some time and alters his course to ensure he is able to finish his hit. Then, with the puck long gone from Thomas’ control, Wilson finishes the check with force.”

The Capitals continue their preseason schedule Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. They also play the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday.

Letang set to return to Penguins lineup vs. Blues on Sunday

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For the first time since February, Kris Letang is expected to be in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup when they face the St. Louis Blues on Sunday.

Letang hasn’t played since Feb. 21. He underwent neck surgery in April and missed the entire Stanley Cup playoffs as a result. Despite the absence of their best defenseman, which is a huge loss in Letang, the Penguins were able to overcome that and emerge as champions over Nashville.

According to Pens Inside Scoop on Saturday, head coach Mike Sullivan said Letang will play in Sunday’s Kraft Hockeyville game between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues.

That wasn’t the only Letang news Saturday:

Getting Letang back into the lineup will provide a huge boost to an already strong Penguins team, with his ability to log heavy minutes and act as a catalyst in Pittsburgh’s offensive attack.

“I want to be the same player I was before. I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Letang. “Hopefully everything goes well and I go back to the old way, playing over 25 minutes and in all situations.”

But what is most critical is having Letang healthy, and Sullivan this offseason has stressed to the star defenseman to recognize situations when he should make a simple play rather than risk taking an unnecessary hit.

“When people try to dissect all of that, they make assumptions that they understand, but they don’t,” Letang told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Mike and I have a clear understanding of what he wants me to do. I think I’m tired of hearing people around it because I had a talk with Mike and Jim. It’s just a way of avoiding those unnecessary hits. It’s not going to be reducing ice time or anything like that. It’s taking a different approach on certain plays.”

Related: Letang isn’t interested in getting less ice time now that he’s healthy

Canucks’ Horvat out a week with upper-body injury

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The Canucks will resume their preseason schedule on Thursday, although it appears right now that Bo Horvat will likely not be in the lineup.

Just prior to puck drop against the L.A. Kings on Saturday, the Canucks announced that Horvat is expected to be out a week with an upper-body injury.

Per Dan Murphy of Sportsnet, the injury occurred on a hit from Drew Doughty during the first game of the two-game exhibition series between the Canucks and Kings in China.

The good news for the Canucks is that their regular season schedule begins on Oct. 7, which would give Horvat two weeks to get fully healthy and ready for the opener against Connor McDavid and the Oilers.

The 22-year-old Horvat enjoyed a 20-goal, 52-point season in 2016-17, emerging as the team’s leading scorer and one of the few bright spots during another disappointing season for the Canucks. As a result, he signed a six-year, $33 million contract extension earlier this month.

Related: Horvat believes he is ‘just scratching the surface’

Report: NHL has already made adjustment on slashing, faceoff calls

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The NHL preseason began with the league trying to crackdown on slashing and faceoff violations.

The early results were a lot of confusion, a ton of penalties, and a lot of griping from players, former referees and media about the confusion and the number of penalties.

Former NHL referee Paul Stewart griped on Twitter that it was taking away from the officials ability to call a game by feel and hockey sense. The Winnipeg Jets brought in retired referee Paul Devorski to work with their players in an effort to help them gain an understanding of what the league was looking for and to cut down on penalties.

It was obvious that something was going to have to give.

Either the players would have to adjust to the new standard implemented by the league, or the league would make its own adjustment and scale things back a bit.

In most matters like this in the NHL, it usually tends to be the latter.

That also seems to be the case here as Sportsnet’s John Shannon Tweeted on Saturday morning that the league has already sent a note to its officials to “dial it back” a bit when it comes slashing and faceoff violation calls.

Well, that was fast.

The enforcement of the faceoff rule seemed like a minor thing that really wasn’t going to make much of a difference, but the emphasis on slashing is one that needs to be kept (and extended to interference, holding, hooking or any other sort of obstruction), especially given the way some of the league’s star players are defended where slashing down on their hands or stick seems to be the preferred way of playing them. Not only from a player safety standpoint to help reduce injuries (getting hit with a stick can break bones … or fingers) but because the drop in power plays over the past decade (the “let them play” mindset) has been one of the many factors in the continued decline in goal scoring across the league.

If the NHL is serious about changing this stuff the onus needs to be on the players to adjust, not the officials. Set the standard. Call it consistently. The players will figure out what they can and can not do.

Anything less than that basically just amounts to the league saying, “hey guys, we would really like you to cut down on the slashes” and hoping that the players listen. But as long as they can get away with it, they will not listen.