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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    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

    Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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    DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

    Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

    Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

    Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

    The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

    The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

    He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

    The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

    Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

    Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

    The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

    Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.

    HE BROKE THE CUP

    It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

    “It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

    NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

    Avalanche: Host Anaheim.