Tarasenko, Binnington, and defense: Blues still have some unanswered questions
Since winning the Stanley Cup back in 2019 the St. Louis Blues have taken a couple of steps backwards in the playoffs the past two years.
They were upset by the Vancouver Canucks in the bubble in 2020, losing in six games to a team that was a heavy underdog. That was followed this past season by a somewhat disappointing regular season and a decisive four-game sweep at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche where they were never really competitive.
Part of that was the fact Colorado is a great team and played about as well as it possibly could have played. And part of it was the Blues having some significant flaws exposed in a short series.
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The Blues have had a fairly busy offseason and made a handful of changes to their roster. Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman left in free agency, Vince Dunn was lost to Seattle in the expansion draft, while top-six forwards Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich were acquired. Saad and Buchnevich look like very strong additions, as Saad brings solid two-way play and an elite possession driver to the offense while Buchnevich should be one of the best finishers on the roster. Add them to Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Brayden Schenn, Jordan Kyrou, and Robert Thomas and there is some nice talent at forward.
But for as nice as the Saad and Buchnevich additions are, there are still some big questions lurking that might keep the Blues from being a serious contender again.
The Vladimir Tarasenko situation remains unresolved
Tarasenko requested a trade earlier this offseason. To this point he has not been traded. The Blues left him exposed in the expansion draft, daring Seattle to take him and the remaining two years of his contract. Seattle did not bite and instead took Dunn. That leaves the Blues and Tarasenko in limbo right now where nobody really knows what is going to happen next.
A trade remains complicated because Tarasenko is still owed a lot of money over the next two years, is coming off two injury shortened seasons where his production plummeted, and nobody really knows what sort of player they are going to be getting. So there is probably not a ton of demand for a player that as recently as two years ago was one of the most feared offensive players in the league.
It is entirely possible -- and at this point maybe likely? -- that the Blues open the season with him on the roster, which may not be the worst thing in the world. He is still Vladimir Tarasenko, and if he is healthy he could still make an impact and maybe rebuild some trade value. But as long as his $7.5 million salary cap number is on the books it does crowd the team’s salary cap situation while they still have to re-sign Thomas and hope to still re-sign Tyler Bozak.
The defense is suddenly a concern
For years the Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, and it was a major calling card of their 2019 Stanley Cup team.
That changed in a significant way a year ago as the Blues dropped to the bottom half of the league in most major defensive categories, from goals against, shots against, chances against, expected goals against, and penalty killing. Then the bottom fell out on them in the First Round series against Colorado when they could not stop anything.
A year ago they lost longtime standout Alex Pietrangelo in free agency to the Vegas Golden Knights and replaced him with Torey Krug. Krug is a good player, but it was a downgrade on the ice.
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Colton Parayko was injured last year and took a step backwards.
Justin Faulk, their big-money addition two years ago, has been okay while being paid to be great.
Now they lost Dunn, who was one of their more effective defenders when they actually let him play.
They have not done anything this offseason to address the mounting shortcomings on defense and instead seemingly hoping on bounce back years from all of Parayko, Krug, and Faulk.
Which Jordan Binnington will they get?
Then there is the position that can make all of the other questions almost meaningless. Goaltending.
The Blues believe in Binnington so much that they signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract that begins this season even though he is still somewhat of a mystery. He was outstanding in his rookie season and helped carry the team to a championship. But he has been extremely inconsistent the next two seasons and has had back-to-back disastrous playoff performances (though, to be fair, he did not get much support this season in front of him).
The only backup behind him the roster is Ville Hussu who was, statistically, one of the worst goalies in the league a year ago. So with no depth behind him and some significant questions on defense a lot of the Blues’ success this season is going to sit on Binnington’s shoulders.
If he is good, they should be a dangerous team. If he is not, the problems could add up quickly.