For the fourth straight season, the St. Louis Blues exited the playoffs rather unceremoniously and well before many had expected them to be heading home. And for the third year in a row, there are more questions than answers.
Say what you will about the coaching of Ken Hitchcock or the lack of scoring shown by the Blues in their first-round, six-game defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Wild, but, simply put, what it all boils down to is that they haven’t had a goaltender that can win them games. For three straight seasons, while clubs like Chicago and Los Angeles have dominated the Western Conference thanks to goaltenders that perform well enough to propel their teams through the playoffs, the Blues, once again, exit early because of the inability to keep the puck out of their net.
The problems arose for St. Louis early this season when Brian Elliott, then having one of the best seasons of his career, was sidelined with a lower body injury. The Blues, desperate not to lose ground in the Central Division, went out and snatched up veteran netminder Martin Brodeur and inked him to a bonus-laden contract. The signing of Brodeur was, in a way, St. Louis’ way of showing they weren’t yet ready to trust young goaltender Jake Allen with the starting duties and that Jordan Binnington, the Blues’ option in the AHL, wasn’t ready for the bright lights of the NHL quite yet.
As many are aware by now, the Brodeur experiment failed in spectacular fashion. Over the course of seven games in goal for the Blues, Brodeur went 3-3, allowed 17 goals against, and posted a goals-against average of 2.87 and a .899 save percentage. What followed was Allen being forced into the starting role out of necessity and Brodeur fading out of the picture and into the front office when Elliott returned.
Down the stretch, Elliott, who before injury had a .931 SP and 1.90 GAA, saw his SP slide and his GAA inflate to season-ending numbers that weren’t exactly inspiring. By the time he had played his final game of the regular season, a 23-save victory over Minnesota, Elliott had a .917 SP and 2.26 GAA. Compared to Allen’s .913 SP and 2.28 GAA, however, many would have expected it obvious that Elliott, who closed out the year with a win over the Wild, would shoulder the load in the post-season.
Instead, entering round one against Minnesota, Allen was given starting duties while Elliott, who one season earlier had lost his starting job twice (first to Jaroslav Halak and later to Ryan Miller), was forced to watch from the sidelines.
In 2013-14, with Miller between the pipes in the playoffs, St. Louis posted the post-season’s second worst even-strength SP of .898. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were swept by the Montreal Canadiens, fared worse. This year, Elliott looked on as the Blues posted an even-strength SP of .920, the fourth-worst total as of Sunday. Elliott didn’t see the ice until the series’ final game, when he came in relief after Allen allowed two goals that had no business finding the back of the net.
That’s been the running theme for St. Louis, though: good teams thwarted by subpar goaltending. As much as Elliott could possibly take the blame for not performing well enough to earn the starting role in the post-season, it’s hard to knock a goaltender who has seen but one half-game’s worth of playoff action in the past two seasons while being pushed aside for other options. And it’ll also be hard to knock Elliott should he want out of St. Louis, the team with which he inked a new three-year extension last off-season.
If Elliott does ask out – and, again, who would blame him? – then things get tricky in St. Louis moving forward. If Allen is the goaltender the Blues want to go with in the future, they’ll need to lock him up this off-season, as he’s a restricted free agent and will likely garner some semblance of a raise over his current $850,000 salary. If Elliott remains with the Blues, that would give St. Louis the same tandem with which they failed to reach the second round this season. Should he request and be granted a trade or possibly be bought out, then the Blues will need to find a starting netminder or a second keeper to work a 1A-1B scenario with Allen.
The best option, and even that might be an overstatement, is Niemi. He’s been to the final and won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. He has been consistent if nothing else over his past several seasons in San Jose. And he’s also just two years removed from a .924 SP, 2.16 GAA season with the Sharks. Numbers like that, if coming at the right time, would definitely be enough for the Blues to at least get through one round.
In today’s NHL, the next good starting goalie can be right around the corner. The Blues watched it first hand, as Dubnyk handed them a series defeat mere months after being acquired from his backup role in Arizona. But getting a known commodity – a starter that is near certain to win a team games – costs money, money that the Blues don’t quite have.
Consider that between this off-season and next, the Blues will see the following players become either UFA or RFA: David Backes, Jori Lehtera, Steve Ott, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Porter, Dimitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie, Barret Jackman, Chris Butler, Carl Gunnarsson and Allen. Depending on demands, that doesn’t leave a lot of money to shore up a rocky goaltending situation.
Frankly, no matter how good a team is, they’ll only go as far as their goaltending can carry them. Look no further than the Wild – once thought to be victims of a season lost to goaltending ineptitude, they recovered with Dubnyk and are playing into the second round. The Blues could have been doing the same had they fixed what ailed them before the post-season rolled around.
But with little money to spare and a roster that is built to win now, they don’t have time to wait on Binnington or Ville Husso to round into form in the AHL before making the jump to the big league. In three to four years, the Blues’ window will be closing and if they don’t rectify their goaltending situation before an already excruciatingly long 46-year Stanley Cup drought only stands to get longer.