Thank you for everything, Ryan O’Reilly.
Good luck, Vladimir Tarasenko.
And a round of enthusiastic applause for Blues manager Doug Armstrong. He’s making trades without blinking, or lapsing into sentimental bunkum that would leave the Blues drifting deeper into mediocrity. With a hardened heart and uncluttered mind, he’s pulling away from the past and powering into the future.
How should we characterize this?
Is Armstrong reloading? Rebuilding? Retooling? Refurbishing? Resetting?
None of the above. I prefer to call this a “renewal.” By acquiring valuable draft picks, Armstrong has started the process of clearing the rot. He’s selling pieces that still have value on the market to collect new materials to resupply and refill the Blues.
This was never a tough call for the GM, no matter how many fantasy scenarios were concocted by the media about O’Reilly re-signing and staying. Please. There was never any doubt; he was already gone. It was just a matter of time and destination.
There was nothing agonizing about this; Armstrong runs a business and is appropriately callous and cold-blooded. For all of the media pearl-clutching over O’Reilly’s future – with an excess of forced melancholy – Armstrong had made his final decision weeks ago.
O’Reilly is an aging center with many, many miles on his body. And while he’ll likely perk up in Toronto, the fact is O’Reilly had 19 points in 40 games and a minus 24 even-strength goal differential for the Blues this season. His leadership had declining influence. It made no sense to ignore O’Reilly’s likely future trend by paying him for his past.
Did we learn anything about how the Blues handled the David Backes situation as the captain entered free agency before the 2016-2017 season? The Blues said thank you and goodbye and were happy for Backes when the Bruins signed him to a five-year, $60 million deal they soon regretted.
O’Reilly will get paid and land a substantial contract, anyway. The looming center free–agent market is terribly thin, and hockey people are comically impulsive. Armstrong had one obligation here: put nostalgia aside and do what’s right for the future of the franchise. His decisiveness was crucial.
“In a league with more than a few teams still determining if they want to buy or sell at the NHL trade deadline, you have to respect Armstrong’s brutal honesty through these trades,” wrote Greg Wyshynski of ESPN.com.
Armstrong was smart to make the big moves early in the trade-deadline cycle to avoid deal-killing injuries to Tarasenko and-or O’Reilly. The three-game winning streak during O’Reilly’s final six days as a Blue meant absolutely nothing. Army knew his team all too well after spending months watching careless play and half-hearted effort. It was beyond stupid to think Armstrong would stay the course just because an enigmatic team showed up for work and gave a damn for a week.
Only one thing matters: the long-term future. And Armstrong intervened before the Blues reached the bottom. This will make it easier to raise them up, even if it means missing the next postseason or two. That short-term frustration is much better than having this franchise stuck in the NHL mediocre middle for a much longer period of time. But if Armstrong uses some of the picks to swap for an established and respected (and youngish) NHL veteran, that could speed up the forward progress.
In trading Tarasenko and defenseman Niko Mikkola to the Rangers, and moving captain O’Reilly and center Noel Acciari to the Maple Leafs, Armstrong acquired a load of draft capital. He can keep the assets and draft prospects. He can bundle some of the draft slots to acquire higher-level NHL talent.
By trading pending unrestricted free agents who were in their final weeks as Blues, Armstrong is hardly burning down the house. It’s the opposite. He’s put the Blues into position to do a targeted renovation.
The combined return for Tarasenko and O’Reilly (plus the other two Blues) was a very nice package consisting of two first-round picks in 2023, a second-round choice in 2024, a third-rounder in 2023, a conditional fourth-rounder in 2024 that could become a No. 3. Also coming home as part of the Tarasenko transaction is former Blue Sammy Blais — and, from Toronto, forward prospects Mikhail Abramov and Adam Gaudette.
There is hard work to be done, including a thorough clean-up in front of the Blues’ net where Armstrong installed too many overpaid, underperforming defensemen. That’s all on him, and it’s been the most glaring failure during his time in office.
Armstrong has a chance – not right away – to mitigate this serious problem and it won’t be easy. But he’s made creative deals as the boss of the Blues, now he’s back at the crossroads again.
The first step was to recognize the End of an Era, and act accordingly. As we acknowledge (again) that Armstrong has made mistakes, he has the opportunity to reaffirm that he’s one of the best managers in the NHL.
Since the start of the 2011-12 season, and through the end of the 2021-22 season, the Blues were tied for third in the NHL for most points, ranked fourth for most wins, and had the league’s fourth–best goal differential.
Over the 11 seasons only Penguins (11) qualified for the postseason more times than the Blues (10.) Only five NHL teams competed in more postseason games than the Blues, and only six had more postseason wins than St. Louis.
As Armstrong took over as Blues GM in the summer of 2010, the franchise was still in a free fall – about to miss making the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons and ranking 28th among 30 NHL teams in wins during that span.
The Blues quickly turned things around, and competed in 10 of the next 11 postseasons and won the Stanley Cup in 2019.
In his first two years as the GM, Armstrong had to give the Blues a new look and a new start. He did it then, and now it’s time to do it again. But there is a difference now: Armstrong must restore the trust that he’s lost during this unruly season. With these two trades, he’s off to a good start.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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A new “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals is available, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. We recorded it on Monday, Feb. 20. Access it through your preferred podcast platform, or 590thefan.com, or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used here were sourced from Hockey Reference.