Can Armstrong keep Blues’ Stanley Cup window open?

Can Armstrong keep Blues' Stanley Cup window open?
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For ages, the St. Louis Blues have been all about stability.

From their inception in 1967-68 through a long playoff run that ended in 2003-04, the Blues only missed the playoffs three times.

Have they always been a serious contender during those runs? Not necessarily, but few sports franchises would dream of the Blues’ remarkable consistency.

In most ways, Doug Armstrong’s carried over that legacy as Blues GM. For all of the highs of that Stanley Cup win, there have also been a lot of smaller and medium-sized victories.

It’s not that surprising, then, that the franchise rewarded him with a contract extension on Sunday. He’s been one of the NHL’s best GMs, especially considering that the Blues aren’t merely built off of draft lottery luck.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Armstrong found ways to keep the Blues competitive for most of his latest extension (again, through 2025-26). But is Armstrong right in believing that the Blues’ Stanley Cup window is still open?

Let’s look at the situation in front of them.

Solid (but unspectacular) outlook for the Blues in 2021-22

In short order, PHT will delve deep with a preview of the Blues 2021-22 season. (On Monday, PHT covered the Rangers.)

The short version: it’s not that difficult to picture the Blues making the playoffs. If they get hot again, they could go on a solid run — as long as they avoid the best of the West.

It’s not just that the Blues got swept by the Avalance; it’s that most of those games weren’t even close. The Blues have to hope that they’re closer to that championship team than the 2020-21 version.

Maybe things will break better this season. Consider some of their even-strength stats from Natural Stat Trick, and you’ll realize that things definitely need to be different.

  • They were in the bottom-half of the NHL in volume stats like Corsi For (48.23-percent, 10th-worst) and scoring chances for (48.73-percent, 13th-worst).
  • It’s not something you can explain away as quality over quantity. Their expected goals for percentage was 46.01-percent, seventh-worst in the NHL. Only the leaky Blackhawks’ control of high-danger chances (43.04-percent) dipped below the Blues’ 43.88-percent.

Will the Blues age well, or fall off the map?

Yes, the Blues aren’t that far removed from that Stanley Cup run. Life can come at you fast in sports, though, and it’s possible this is their new reality.

If you want to scare Blues fans and management, merely utter the phrase: “Look at the Sharks.”

Like the Blues, the Sharks consistently ranked among the NHL’s better teams with unusual consistency. While risky, you could talk yourself into Doug Wilson investing in older players, culminating with the Erik Karlsson contract.

Even Wilson likely expected things to eventually sour — but just about no one expected the Sharks’ downfall to be so immediate, and chilling. Now the Sharks’ front office only ranks ahead of the Sabres in fan confidence. Few teams feel more “stuck” than the Sharks.

So, the fear is that the Blues will get stuck much like the Sharks — with things falling apart in a sudden and shocking way.

[2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

The sheer number of long-term contracts, and ones that look dubious, should be troubling for the Blues. Consider $6.5M the magic/poison number.

  • Brayden Schenn, 30, carries that cap hit through 2027-28.
  • Justin Faulk, 29, and Torey Krug, 30, both cost that much through 2026-27.
  • Colton Parayko, 28, costs $5.5M in 2021-22. Parayko ranks among the biggest risks, as his extension (again, $6.5M) expires after the 2029-30 season.

Look, it’s great to have a plan. When you zoom out on how the Blues are built, is it possible that Armstrong sometimes jumps the gun?

The entire Justin Faulk situation revolved around preparing for Alex Pietrangelo‘s likely departure. In the long run, though, the Blues doubled the risks of aging defensemen (Faulk and Krug), are paying $13M combined for the two, and took a step back on defense.

Schenn’s fine, but considering his rugged style, that contract might age poorly. Jordan Binnington costs slightly less ($6M), but is 28, and who knows what kind of value he’ll bring through 2026-27?

For every player the Blues wisely walked away from (David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk), they’ve made risky investments in solid-but-unspectacular players. Each of these moves add more risks to the Blues roster, and makes them less flexible.

Which makes two upcoming decisions all the more important.

Two keys: ROR and Tarasenko

Ryan O'Reilly, 30, seems headed for a raise from that $7.5M after 2022-23. Meanwhile, it seems like a matter of time before Vladimir Tarasenko, 29, gets traded.

Theoretically, the Blues could picture Pavel Buchnevich (26, $5.8M through 2025-26) as a Tarasenko replacement. (By that logic, Brandon Saad slots into Jaden Schwartz‘s spot.) In some scenarios, ROR simply gets a small raise, and the puzzle pieces fit.

It’s key for the Blues to be flexible here, though.

In a lot of ways, they’ve boxed themselves into committing to O’Reilly. After all, this is an aging roster, and ROR is their most obviously great player.

Again, though, he’s already 30. If the Blues sink like the Sharks, would they be honest enough to acknowledge their situation?

Will Armstrong & Co. be willing to admit they’ve made mistakes, and switch gears? Or will they dig in, and make matters worse if things go south?

Can they innovate if needed?

And, really, are they equipped to rebuild/reload if their window truly closed? The makeup of their front office makes that seem dubious.

The rise of Peter Chiarelli doesn’t inspire maximum confidence.

Granted, you could joke that the Blues don’t even have Tyler Seguin/Taylor Hall-type players to trade away for pennies on the dollar. Elite Prospects ranked the Blues’ pool at 26th, while The Athletic’s Corey Pronman placed them 24th.

But it’s still unsettling if Chiarelli hasn’t learned from mistakes. It’s not just about the meme-generating blockbuster gaffes, either.

Chiarelli consistently made groan-inducing value judgments. Forking over two first-round picks for Griffin Reinhart? Rough. Seeing one of them pan out to be Mathew Barzal? Almost art.

(The parting gift of Mikko Koskinen‘s brutal contract seems like trolling as much as anything else. Are we sure that wasn’t what he was doing?)

[PHT’s Power Rankings]

All ribbing aside, Chiarelli brings a wealth of experience. Ideally, the Blues form a sage-like front office with Chiarelli, Armstrong, and Ken Hitchcock.

Is that really a group that would be agile enough to change course if the Blues underwhelm, though? Chiarelli and Armstrong are both 57, and Hitchock turns 70 in December.

From the look of their front office, there isn’t much interest in analytics, either. At least publicly.

In a way, the Blues’ front office echoes their roster. You can find good in both, but each group could also age very poorly. Every sports team battles Father Time. The Blues, though? They’re hiding Father Time’s newspaper, and stealing his slippers. The backlash could be severe.

None of this means the Blues are doomed, mind you. Doug Armstrong just might need to pull off his best work yet.

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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