How Crucial Is This Off-Season For St. Louis?
If you asked the St. Louis Blues front office, coaches, players, or fans of what they think of this 2022-'23 season, you would be likely get one common answer from them all. Disappointment.
After last year's post season, many thought the Blues would be in line to have another strong regular season, and likely finish second or third in the central division. It's doubtful you'd find many people who had playing this poorly.
With a record of 27-31-5, the Blues sit ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and the Chicago Blackhawks in what used to be one of the most competitive divisions in hockey. They are the ninth worst team, in regards to points, in the entire National Hockey League.
There were many questions before the season started, that just didn't seem to be answered when the team actually hit the ice. The need to improve defense was there, and Doug Armstrong responded by extending Nick Leddy to a four year, $16M deal. This, in hind sight, was not the right move. Many ridiculed this deal at the time it was announced, as it meant letting fan favorite, David Perron (DET), walk in free agency.
The defensive problem isn't anything new however. Ever since Jay Bouwmeester (cardiac arrest, retired) and Alex Pietrangelo (UFA, signed with Vegas) left the Blues, the defense has been questionable at best.
When the Blues signed Torey Krug, it was clear Pietrangelo wasn't coming back. That being said, I can't think of any who would have expected his deal to be as big of a disappointment as it's been. He's a shell of player who helped lead the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup final back in 2019, and has become more of a liability than a contributor on the back end.
Justin Faulk, despite still being a solid defender, isn't getting any help on the blue line, and as such, has struggled at times as well.
The biggest problem though, is from the quote unquote number one defenseman, Colton Parayko. I don't think many people realized how much he benefited from playing with Bouwmeester during that 2019 Stanley Cup championship run. Bouwmeester was the perfect compliment to Parayko, allowing him to jump up in the rush more while having a partner beside him who can cover for a large chunk of his mistakes. Without Bouwmeester, Parayko has been exposed, and he hasn't risen to the task of being a number one, or even a number two defenseman.
So what do the Blues do next?
Armstrong has made it clear that this isn't the off-season to dip into the unrestricted free agent market, as he isn't interested in signing any long term contracts right now. That being said, there is no question that he has to at least at attempt to fix a very broken defensive core.
Between Leddy, Faulk, Krug, and Parayko, they make a combined $23.5M per season. That is a lot of money tied up into a top four defensive core that can't adequately play defense. So who'd be the easiest to move? Well all four have no trade clauses, and will control where they want to move, if they can be moved at all, so let's break this down.
Realistically, Leddy would likely be the easiest, as he make the least amount per season, and has the shortest contract. The problem, who else is going to want him? Leddy looked pretty good when he joined the Blues last season at the trade deadline but has failed to come close to what he offered the blueline last year. For a player praised for his skating, his speed has all but vanished. Constantly being beaten to pucks, failing to be a factor offensively (2 goals, 14 assists in 59 games played). He's the kind of guy who is okay at some things, great at none. The Blues would likely have to sweeten the pot to get a team to take Leddy's deal.
You can lump Leddy in with Marco Scandella, as players acquired at the deadline just to signed a disappointing long term deal shortly thereafter.
Krug is a frustrating player for many fans to watch. After struggling during his first season with St. Louis, Krug "bounced back" last year, posting 43 points and actually showing some of his offensive flair while being adequate defensively. This season however, the defense has gotten worse, and so has the offense. With just five goals, and 23 points on the year, the strongest piece in Krug's game has faded rapidly. He's not good enough defensively to anchor a top four spot, and with his defense essentially "going out the window", he's now an anchor in the worst way possible. Dragging down his defensive partners, and making Justin Faulk have to cover for the majority of his mistakes. Faulk managed that last year, but this year Krug has really been exposed for being a liability in the defensive zone.
To make matters worse, Krug is only in the third year of a seven year deal. He's set to carry an $6.5M AAV through the next four seasons, and moving that contract is going to be difficult, though not impossible. Again though, it seems like the Blues might have to add to Krug to get a team to take his contract, and with Krug's NTC in place, he will have full say if he accepts a deal or not.
Faulk has without a doubt been the best of the "top four" the last few seasons. Despite his offensive numbers taking a dip this season, he still leads all Blues defenseman in goals (8) and points (33). He's also been the most reliable in the defensive zone. Just as recently as last season, Faulk finished 16th in the Norris Trophy race. Out of the group, he should be the one who stays in St. Louis moving forward.
You want to talk about getting an actual return, and making a statement to the Blues defensive core? Trading Colton Parayko would be the best option. Parayko, who is signed all the way to the 2029-'30 season, was rumored to be in trade talks during the trade deadline. Despite a deal not coming to fruition, the interest in the 6'6, right handed defenseman was there. If the Blues fan find the right return, and find a location that Parayko would accept a move to, then you have to pull the trigger.
There's not question that Parayko's been a disappointment. After the departure of Alex Pietrangelo, Parayko was in line to be the Blues number one defenseman, but he has never lived up to that hype. There is no doubt that Parayko has the talent to be a really solid top four defenseman, though it's looking more and more unlikely that happens in St. Louis.
That being said, there's a strong chance that a team will look at Parayko and see a player who could fit their system and 'return to form' as a top four defender. The Blues need to revamp the defense, and moving Colton Parayko would be the statement move in doing so. However, out of the four defenders listed, he's facing the best competition and the Blues would be better off keeping him over a Nick Leddy or Torey Krug.
The truth is, there is no simple answer. There's no easy way out. We are leaving this season with even more questions and not enough answers. What Doug Armstrong does moving forward, is going to have an impact on the Blues for many seasons to come. He signed these players to their respective deals, and he's going to have to find a way to move them, or live with the consequences of mediocrity for many more years. For the sake of Blues fans everywhere, let's hope this off-season comes with a few departures from the blueline.