From conference finalist to confounding underachiever 47 games into 2016-17, the St. Louis Blues are the Tampa Bay Lightning of the West.
And like the slumping Bolts, the Blues will be one of the most intriguing clubs to monitor as we approach the March 1 trade deadline.
“We’re going to know if we’re buyers or sellers. Right now, it’s obviously not trending the way we need to,” St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong told Hockey Central at Noon Tuesday.
“You want to look at your team mid-February till the trade deadline and believe, are you a contender or not?”
Last season, Armstrong hung to on core forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer for the Blues’ playoff push knowing he’d lose them to free agency on July 1. This season, he’ll face a similar dilemma with impending UFA defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk — the subject of rampant trade rumours.
The executive points to the Washington Capitals, a contender with a trio of valuable UFAs — T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner — who will not be shopped.
“That’s how I felt about the team last year with Backes and Brouwer. We were a good team, and I thought we had a chance to win. You act accordingly,” Armstrong explained.
“If we’re stumbling along like this, then all bets are off. We don’t want to keep players here, hope to sneak into eighth place and get hammered in the first round.”
That’s a juicy notice for competitors eager to rent Shattenkirk, the Blues’ second-leading scorer, for the post-season.
“Kevin’s been a top offensive player for a number of years,” Armstrong notes.
Shattenkirk is a minus-14. Save Dmitrij Jaskin, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Reaves and Paul Stastny, every Blues regular is a minus.
“We have a lot of big minuses. That’s just playing losing hockey,” Armstrong said. “Quite honestly, that’s why we’re not a top team right now. It’s been a tough seven weeks, boys.”
Due to parity, the Blues still hold a wild-card position despite losing three straight and five of their past seven.
Their defence core has been lauded for surrendering just 27.4 shots per game (fourth best league-wide), but their goaltending is in shambles.
St. Louis’s team save percentage of .887 is the worst.
Armstrong kept No. 1 Jake Allen at home for Sunday’s road trip to Winnipeg to give him a chance to reset.
“He’s a big part of our team,” said Armstrong. “We need him to come out the other side.”
Read: The organization already has committed four years and $17.4 million more to the 26-year-old after this season.
“He’s going through a tough stretch, and really what we’re trying to do is support him,” the GM went on. “We don’t need a goaltender to steal us games; we just can’t leave the goaltender on an island.”
Armstrong did not pin the Blues’ struggles on Allen alone; he said St. Louis is often on the wrong side of the puck.
“When you’re in a situation where your team’s not performing, the natural tendency is to become individuals and perform for yourself. That’s what we gotta try to avoid now and play as a collective, as team, if we’re going to get out of this,” he said.
With trips to Pittsburgh and Minnesota awaiting before the all-star break, it’ll be a tall task.
“When things are going bad,” Armstrong said, “the scheduling gods seem to go against us.”