We’re back with the latest edition of the THN Hot Seat file, a continuing series of THN.com columns where we identify one member of each NHL franchise who will be working under intense pressure in the 2022-24 season. Our choice for the Hot Seat could be an NHL player, head coach, team owner, or GM.
On this day, we’re examining the St. Louis Blues.
BLUES HOT SEAT: RYAN O'REILLY, CENTER
WHY: The Blues have made several key roster changes following their 2018-19 Stanley Cup-winning season, bidding farewell to key veterans including Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron, Jake Allen, Vince Dunn and Pat Maroon. But St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong has held hard to his core. Because of his patience, the Blues have remained competitive and even gave the 2021-22 Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche a scare in the playoffs before losing in six games.
Still, Blues fans are expecting more than just a second-round post-season appearance. And that’s because they’ll know that the salary cap crunch that has hamstrung virtually every NHL team will affect St. Louis sooner than later. For instance, the Blues’ captain and top center Ryan O’Reilly and star winger Vladimir Tarasenko are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2022-24 campaign, and both will earn the same salary ($5.9 million) that will be the highest of any Blues player to start the season
Some may suggest putting Tarasenko on the Hot Seat, and the logic bears out – the Russian winger is coming off a very strong 2021-22 campaign, with a team-best 34 goals and 78 points. If Tarasenko does still want out of the Blues organization, there’s going to be ample opportunity before the NHL trade deadline
However, as for O’Reilly, his goal totals have been in a consistent decline since he netted a career-high of 28 that he matched in 2018-19. Last season, he scored 21 times in 78 games, and he had a solid playoffs, with seven goals and 12 points in as many games,
The problem with O'Reilly is he’s got a lot of miles on his personal odometer, In the past four seasons (all of which came as a Blue), O'Reilly has appeared in 287 regular-season games and 51 playoff games. Given his robust physical style of play, O'Reilly is in real danger of pushing himself too far and winding up on the injury list for a long stretch of time.
The Blues need a good year out of starting goalie Jordan Binnington, who was excellent at times for them last season. But with former No. 2 netminder Ville Husso traded to Detroit, Armstrong filled the secondary goalie role with journeyman Thomas Greiss. In an increased-time job, Greiss likely would show why he’s bounced from team to team in recent years.
But if O’Reilly goes down, there is no adequate replacement for what he brings to the table. Few NHLers have the drive and determination he has, and even if someone did have those qualities in one or two individuals, they’re likely not going to trade one of them.
The bottom line for the Blues is that they need O'Reilly to lead the way and be a consistent contributor of offense. He isn’t flashy, like Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, or Toronto’s Auston Mathews, but O'Reilly just goes out there and gets the job done. St. Louis needs him to at the very least maintain the pace he put on last year – and, ideally, improve on it. With the Avs sitting and waiting for them in the Central Division, the Blues will require all hands on deck, and O’Reilly’s hands will have to be front and center.