Big off-season questions loom for St. Louis Blues

The San Jose Sharks prevailed in the Western Conference over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, and shook hands after a hard fought battle.

“I see the devastation in our locker room right now. Guys aren’t even able to speak.” —Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues coach

The St. Louis Blues, forever a Round 1 doormat, finally, wonderfully got the monkey off their back this spring. They defeated nemesis Chicago and bested Dallas, the West’s best, only to discover that the sting of defeat deepens the longer it takes to lose.

So after they shook hands with the Stanley Cup Final–bound Sharks, the gutted Blues forced teary interviews, knowing full well that changes to their core are coming.

“I’m not going to talk to them for a day or two. They need their space with each other,” Hitchcock told reporters in the wake of heartbreaking defeat. “They’ve bonded together here better than any team I’ve coached in the last 10 years…. Right now they need to be with each other.”

Many on this contending squad should remain together. Grade-A players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Jake Allen give St. Louis enviable pillars that could keep their perennial playoff status open for years to come.

But the unknowns here are plentiful, as so many stars and integral role players to the Blues’ 2015-16 campaign are scheduled to hit free agency in the next 14 months — including the coach.

“You don’t want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block,” Hitchcock said.

Then reality smacked.

“In this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don’t know where you’re going to be a year from now.”

Is Ken Hitchcock coming back, again?

The head coach is not yet employed for 2016-17. He and GM Doug Armstrong danced around last off-season for weeks before coming to terms on a one-year deal. Hitchcock went public earlier this month on his contract strategy moving forward.

“I want to stay on one-year deals,” he told Hockey Central. “I don’t want to be sitting ripping off a team and taking money when I’m not doing anything. I just feel comfortable taking one-year deals to be honest with you.”

Surely, the decorated Hitchcock will land a contract significantly better in term and dollars this summer than the one-year, $1.2-million deal he’s wrapping up now.

Is Armstrong satisfied with two series wins? Is the GM comfortable renegotiating with his bench boss every summer, as the cost of hiring a good coach rises?

The captain’s last stand?

The glassy-eyed speech David Backes delivered after Game 6’s loss (watch above) will snap your heart, even more so with the knowledge that the captain’s 10-year run with the club that drafted him may be over.

Backes, 32, hits the open market on July 1. According to beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford, he had previously turned down an extension worth about $5.5 million per season. His price should only go up after his sixth 20-goal season and his greatest post-season: seven goals, 14 points, three game winners.

The sweater Backes will wear next fall is as much a mystery as the “something” Steve Ott gave him so he could play Game 5.

More key free agents will walk

Showtime winger Troy Brouwer, 30, was a wonder in these playoffs. The impending UFA scored eight goals (one fewer than team leader Tarasenko), added five assists and gave St. Louis a double dose of grit and experience.

Not unlike Joel Ward last summer, Brouwer will be coveted by contenders and could see a raise from his current $3.67-million cap hit. He said he would love to return to St. Louis, but there’s only so much dough to go around — and a chunk of that should go to RFA Jaden Schwartz, in need of a raise from his $2.35 million salary.

Ott and bargain forwards Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak are all free agents this summer as well.

The summer of 2017 will be even trickier

Even if Armstrong wanted to keep some of his UFAs in the fold, long-term planning will prevent it.

Alexander Steen, 32, is beloved in St. Louis and is a strong candidate to assume the captaincy if Backes departs. He turns UFA in 2017. So does centre Patrik Berglund, 27. Neither will be looking to take any less money than they are making right now.

Look to the blue line, and you’ll see a monster pay day for the stellar Parayko, who could become the Blues’ highest-paid defender in the near future.

Kevin Shattenkirk‘s deal ends in 2017, too. And with top-four defencemen Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester holding no-trade clauses, Shattenkirk is the presumptive odd man out.

The 27-year-old carries a reasonable $4.25-million cap hit and zero trade protection, meaning he could be traded as early as June. Shattenkirk will get paid big-time on July 1, 2017, so prospective trade partners tight to the cap might look at him as a rental. (The New York Rangers, Larry Brooks reports, aren’t interested, though.)

Who’s the goalie of the future?

Veteran Brian Elliott had the regular and post-seasons of his life at age 31. The Blues wouldn’t have reached the final four had it not been for his prowess in net (.921 save percentage).

But before he got injured, this was supposed to be young Jake Allen’s year to grow into the team’s 1A.

Both Elliott ($2.5 million cap hit) and Allen ($2.35 million) are underpaid for their talents. Both are due new contracts in 2017.

Do the Blues stick with one of the NHL’s best tandems for one more season, then let Elliott walk in free agency and pay Allen starter bucks? Or does Armstrong act early and try to get a decent return for one of his netminders from a team weak in net, like Calgary or Toronto?

So as the Blues’ bittersweet spring leaves players, coaches and management searching for answers, all that can be found are more questions.

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