Can Blues contend for a Stanley Cup after Pietrangelo’s departure?

After the smoke cleared in 2020 NHL Free Agency, the Blues indeed said goodbye to Alex Pietrangelo. Blues GM Doug Armstrong can be wily, though, and he reminded us by unexpectedly signing Torey Krug. That swap of defensemen serves as the most important change to the Blues during this offseason, but this seems like a good opportunity to ponder where the 2019 Stanley Cup champions stand heading into 2020-21.

With Pietrangelo out and Krug in, can the Blues contend in 2020-21? Let’s ponder what’s changed, what they’re up against, and their room to maneuver.

Blues lose Pietrangelo, but could make up some of difference on D

On the bright side, Torey Krug can replace some of the value the Blues lost in Pietrangelo’s free agent departure. While Krug isn’t as dominant defensively, he’s an offensive dynamo, and his all-around game is probably a little underrated.

Theoretically, the Blues could replace Pietrangelo’s value by committee, too.

To start, Krug could meet (and maybe even exceed) Pietrangelo’s offensive output. Although the Bruins’ firepower augmented Krug’s production, he has the skill to run a power play. And, for as much of a too-clever-for-their-own-good move it was to add Justin Faulk, Faulk could also help on the PP.

Above all, big defenseman Colton Parayko may stand as the biggest reason why the Blues decided they could afford to say goodbye to Pietrangelo. If anything, Pietrangelo might have obscured Parayko’s potential as a true No. 1.

Also, can the Blues — or someone — actually realize how useful Vince Dunn is?

Dunn Parayko Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

While it’s important to account for Dunn getting cushier assignments, you’d think the 23-year-old RFA would gain a little bit more attention. Consider this Evolving Hockey RAPM comparison between Dunn and Parayko at 5-on-5:

With that in mind, it’s a little puzzling that Dunn might find himself behind Marco Scandella on the Blues’ depth chart, as he’s listed by The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford (sub required).

(Frankly, if I were running most/all of the other 30 NHL teams, I’d be scheming to try to pry Dunn loose, and maybe sign him to a bargain deal.)

Anyway, the point is: losing Pietrangelo hurts. Even so, the Blues have the goods to be quite good on defense, nonetheless.

Why the Blues could get off to a bumpy start

Starting with the growing pains of moving on from Pietrangelo, it’s possible that the Blues might start 2020-21 slow. Beyond that reason, consider:

  • Vladimir Tarasenko could begin the season on LTIR. While this offseason was a wise time to go under the knife, it doesn’t mean he’ll be ready whenever 2020-21 starts. As well as the Blues played without Tarasenko last season, he’d be missed.
  • Their goaltending situation looks thinner.

As disappointing as Jake Allen had been the previous two seasons, he was fantastic in 2019-20. He clearly outplayed Jordan Binnington, who wasn’t disastrous, but also wasn’t a revelation like in 2018-19.

Shipping Allen out made plenty of sense from a salary cap perspective. That said, now the Blues must lean on Binnington, as Ville Husso currently stands as his likely backup. Being that Husso’s 25 and hasn’t played a minute in the NHL, that’s an unstable situation.

While the Blues’ cap situation is snug, I almost wonder if a Ryan Miller reunion would be in order? Sure, making him a trade deadline addition didn’t pan out, but he’s settled in nicely as one of the NHL’s more competent backups. Just spitballing here, folks.

As it stands, the Blues could be in tough if the 2020-21 season demands several back-to-backs.

Blues Stanley Cup chances Robert Thomas
Robert Thomas brings big expectations. (Photo by Joe Puetz/NHLI via Getty Images)

A smooth transition?

When you look at the Blues’ roster, you may note that the core isn’t getting any younger. Even after waving goodbye to 30-year-old Pietrangelo. These aren’t ancient players, but most of them are approaching age 30. Maybe Ryan O'Reilly‘s cerebral game means he’ll age like Patrice Bergeron; maybe ROR’s limited wheels will eventually slow him down too much.

But, either way, the Blues are built to win now. That said, they should also emphasize getting more out of at least one key young player.

That player is Robert Thomas.

You’ve probably heard about him before, but his development could have a big impact on the Blues’ ceiling. As highly as I thought of him, I must admit I was surprised to see Thomas ranked 20 on Corey Pronman’s list of the top 155 NHL players under 23 years old (sub required).

As far as career outlook goes, Pronman ranked Thomas ahead of Nico Hischier, Mikhail Sergachev, and Charlie McAvoy. Wow.

Whether Thomas finishes behind those strong players in the long run or not, it’s up to the Blues to get the most out of his talents. They may very well lean on Thomas in a bigger way in 2020-21, possibly lining him up with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz.

Thomas isn’t the only young Blues player of note. Jordan Kyrou is intriguing in his own right. But we’ve already seen the Blues put some trust in Thomas, including during their Stanley Cup run, and now might be the perfect time to truly see what they have in the playmaker.

Fighting for second?

In 2019-20, the Blues won the Central Division, beating the Avalanche by a narrow margin. Even if the Blues kept Pietrangelo, they probably wouldn’t be favored to finish first in the Central ahead of Colorado.

That said, if the NHL’s current divisional format sticks — not a guarantee – then the Blues are in a solid position to at least finish in one of the top three spots. Consider that the Predators bled depth, while the Blackhawks embraced a rebuild. The Stars stood in place, while the Jets got a bit better. Finally, the Wild … are kind of all over the place.

Overall, the Blues appear to be in a favorable situation to grab a playoff spot, even if a higher seed maybe be tough to come by. Really, this team is built to win in the playoffs, so the key is to get there as healthy and fresh as possible.

Are they still true contenders in the West? That remains to be seen.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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