The St. Louis Blues were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, marking the second consecutive year that the Blue Notes have bowed out early in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the second consecutive year, St. Louis entered the playoffs as a dark horse to win it all, but fell to a team that was just simply better than them. Not much needs to change for St. Louis for next year, as their core group of players have shown they can do what it takes to bring the team into the playoffs. However, the big topic of debate in the offseason will be the goaltending, and whether the St. Louis Blues feel comfortable with Ryan Miller in net after the postseason he had.
Miller was the marquee name during this year’s trade deadline. After years of putting up elite-level numbers behind a poor Buffalo Sabres team, Miller announced to the Buffalo organization that he would not be a part of their rebuilding plans and asked for a trade. Months of rumors and speculation finally ended in late February, just a week before the trade deadline, when the St. Louis Blues acquired Miller in hopes that he would be their final piece for a deep playoff run. On paper, it appeared to be the ideal matchup. St. Louis already had plenty of depth in the forward and defense corps, so an elite goaltender should have put them over the top.
Instead, Miller never carried his elite play from Buffalo to St. Louis. He posted a below average .903 save percentage (SV%) during the regular season after the trade, as the Blues dropped from solidly in first place in the conference to barely clinging to third. They lost a chance at a relatively easy matchup against the 8th seeded Dallas Stars and instead had to face the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the first round. Despite winning the first two games in the series, Chicago answered back with four straight wins, taking the series with relative ease. Somehow, Miller managed to look even worse in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, posting a .897 SV% and letting in some backbreaking, and easily stoppable, goals in the series.
That is not to say goaltending was completely to blame for the Blues’ early exit. Losing their captain, David Backes, to injury after a questionable hit by Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook certainly seemed to take the wind out of St. Louis’ sails. Backes’ physical presence on the ice, not to mention his ability to generate offense, was noticeably missed after he left the series. Had that hit not happened, the series could very well have ended up in St. Louis’ favor. Unfortunately for the Blues, it did happen, and now they have a long offseason to debate a few topics.
The most important decision St. Louis has to make is what to do with Ryan Miller. They paid quite a hefty price to acquire him from Buffalo, and that price could become even higher, depending on their actions over the next couple weeks. St. Louis sent Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a first round draft pick in 2015 and a third round draft pick in 2016 to Buffalo in exchange for Miller and forward Steve Ott. If the Blues decide to re-sign Miller to a new contract before the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, the third round pick in 2016 becomes a first round pick in the same year. After Miller’s poor performance during his short stint with the team, it seems unlikely St. Louis will pay that additional price. However, if they do not, they will be one of the many teams that will be on the hunt for competent goaltending in the offseason, and other teams, like Winnipeg or Calgary, may be willing to pay more than St. Louis can afford.
If there is a silver lining for the Blues this year, it is the development of their young players. Both Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have shown to be dangerous scorers with the puck and good enough defensively without it. Add the play of the surprisingly-still young defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who just missed out as a Norris finalist, and the team has a core group of young players that will ensure the team gets multiple attempts at the Stanley Cup over the next decade. This Stanley Cup run may have ended far too short for the St. Louis Blues, but once they settle the goaltending debate in the offseason, the team will surely be back next year, stronger than ever.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner