Martin St-Louis has been a ghost in these playoffs. Is it age or a hidden injury? Either way, it appears he’s wearing down after a long, successful career.
American Thanksgiving must feel like a distant memory for Martin St-Louis.
During a Friday matinee Nov. 28, with his New York Rangers battling the Philadelphia Flyers, St-Louis recorded career point No. 1,000. It was a remarkable accomplishment for someone who had to overcome biases against his small stature time and again just to reach the NHL. He racked up 905 of those 1,000 points after turning 27. And with a Stanley Cup, a Hart Trophy, two Art Rosses, three Lady Byngs and a gold medal to his name, that last big milestone all but confirmed his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
St-Louis hasn’t been the same player since then, however, even though his Rangers skyrocketed up the standings in the New Year. His one-goal, one-assist effort Nov. 28 gave him nine goals and 19 points through 22 games, close to his typical point-per-game production, adjusted fairly for his advanced age and the fact he no longer had Steven Stamkos for a center. After Nov. 28? St-Louis had as many goals in December, January and February combined as he did in November. St-Louis recorded 12 goals and 33 points over his final 52 games of 2014-15. And that’s despite playing with Derek Stepan or Kevin Hayes as his center most of the time. That’s an alarming drop in production, and we can’t blame it on the knee injury that cost St-Louis eight games, as that happened in March.
Especially scary for St-Louis? Puck luck can’t be blamed. He scored on 14.6 percent of his shots on goal, a higher rate than his career average of 13.6 percent. His 144 shots constituted his lowest total for a season in which he played at least 74 games since 2000-01. His presence on the Rangers’ third line with Hayes and Carl Hagelin made for a dynamite unit but also signified St-Louis’ slide down the depth chart. He was outside the top six forwards for the first time in a decade-and-a-half. He averaged his lowest amount of ice time, 17:34, since 2000-01.
The Rangers had a top-three offense in the NHL this season. In the playoffs? Fifteenth out of 16 teams at 1.88 goals per game. Not a misprint. The only team New York has outscored on a per-game basis is the one it eliminated in round 1, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blueshirts’ attack has become rather arid at an inopportune moment. Derick Brassard is the only Ranger forward with more than two goals after eight games.
As for St-Louis? Zero goals. Give him 22 and 60 points over 93 regular season games as a Ranger, and eight goals with 17 points in 33 playoff ventures. It’s natural to correlate age with the nosedive in his production, which occurred not just from Tampa Bay to New York but also year over year. Sure, the decline in overall shot attempts can partially be attributed to playing less and lower on the depth chart, but even the fact he’s being deployed differently is a bad omen for his future.
St-Louis, a pending unrestricted free agent, has said nothing to suggest he plans to retire after this season. In fact, stated less than a month ago he wants to play another year and finish his career as a New York Ranger. But a couple factors could change his fate. For one, do the Rangers want him back? He’d likely accept a pay cut from his $5.625-million salary cap hit, but he’d still cost a relatively pretty penny to employ. And it’s telling, as Larry Brooks points out, that GM Glen Sather locked up his other UFAs, Cam Talbot, Mats Zuccarello and Marc Staal, while leaving St-Louis’ future cloudy. The Rangers’ payroll sits right around the cap, and they have to re-sign restricted free agents Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller this summer. St-Louis hasn’t turned into a scrub overnight by any means, but he did not resemble a top-line NHL winger for much of this season, and he’s been a non-factor so far in the playoffs. When Mats Zuccarello is healthy, St-Louis also keeps one of Miller and Fast out of the top nine. Eventually, coach Alain Vigneault will want to move them up full-time.
Hayes and Chris Kreider become RFAs at the end of next season, creating even more of a need for the Rangers to squirrel away cap space. So if St-Louis returns, a one-year deal will make the most sense. The Rangers would be wise to walk away if St-Louis won’t take less money, leaving him to try his hand with a winger-hungry team. Pittsburgh?
Another potential wrinkle in St-Louis’ plan to wear Ranger blue: a 2015 Stanley Cup. What if New York rallies to oust Washington and ends up winning it all? It’s not a pipedream considering this team was the consensus favorite entering the playoffs. Put yourself in St-Louis’ shoes at that moment. You’ve just turned 40, you’ve reached 1,000 points, you’ve won your second Cup and your contract just ended. Your game has noticeably declined this season. Do you still want to come back? Isn’t this the perfect time to hang ’em up?
Whatever he decides, we’ve at least seen the end of St-Louis as we know him. He’s no longer a dynamic force who consistently dominates games with his creativity and quickness. And that’s OK. Marty had an outstanding career, but everyone has to age at some point. We’re witnessing that. And while he’s still more than good enough to play in the league, he’s a questionable fit for his team of choice next year and beyond. All he and the Rangers can do is live in the moment and hope he has enough magic left to start scoring when they need him most.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin