Vladimir Tarasenko is just one of several Blues facing questions as this off-season begins after seeing a drop in his offensive production and overall play this season. (File)

By Nick Hand

After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Blues are facing another critical off-season for general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Mike Yeo.

The 2017-18 season highlighted a number of flaws on the team’s roster which were further exacerbated by significant injuries. The biggest flaw, as expected when the season began, was the lack of offensive production by the Blues forwards.

St. Louis averaged only 2.72 goals per game, eighth worst in the NHL. The bottom 13 teams in scoring all missed the playoffs this season, and only one team in the top 10 of NHL scoring failed to qualify for the playoffs, the New York Islanders, which allowed the most goals against per game at 3.57.

On the flip side, the Blues were sixth best in the league with a 2.71 goals against average per game.

The Blues season was sunk by sporadic team scoring after a red-hot start to the season by Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko that masked deficiencies in secondary scoring. After Schwartz suffered a broken ankle in December, the offense and team play was never the same the remainder of the season.

Injuries to Robby Fabbri, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund throughout the season also played a large role in further damaging the already weak secondary scoring output by the team’s second and third lines.

While playing the entire season on a line centered by either Schenn or Paul Stastny, Tarasenko had his worst offensive production since the 2013-14 season, his first full 82-game regular season in the NHL.

After two previous seasons of 39 and 40 goals, Tarasenko scored 33 this season while averaging more than 19 minutes of ice-time a game, the highest amount in his career. Additionally, Tarasenko produced only eight power-play goals and five game-winning goals, both the fewest since the 2013-14 season.

While his production dipped, the greater concern for the Blues moving forward is Tarasenko’s lack of consistency in his effort and play away from the puck. Tarasenko’s production faltered in the 2017-18 season while having the best linemates of his career.

Tarasenko’s dislocated shoulder in the final game of the season further complications issues moving forward. After an expected recovery time of four to six months, the biggest question is which Tarasenko will return for the Blues in the 2018-19 season?

The Blues need Tarasenko to duplicate his play of previous seasons in which his commitment away from the puck was emerging towards a franchise-forward level. Without that commitment, the Blues will have a tough decision to make going forward.

Could Tarasenko’s trade value provide the Blues a return that is too good to pass up? While it is unlikely any time soon, especially this off-season due to his shoulder-surgery recovery, the lack of a no-trade clause in Tarasenko’s contract until the 2019-20 season makes it a possibility that cannot be dismissed.

Armstrong knows he must find more scoring depth up front to ensure the Blues have three legitimate forward lines that can produce offensively next season. As he suggested in Tuesday’s press conference, he cannot rely on the return of Fabbri and the likely additions of promising forward prospects Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou to round out the top-nine and call it an off-season.

Armstrong has the tough task of trying to upgrade the current forwards with additional offense through trades and/or free agency. And it is likely a restructuring of salary allocation will need to occur to make that possible.

Despite many in St. Louis thinking otherwise, Armstrong can likely trade any forward with two-plus years of term remaining this off-season without having to retain any salary on the Blues cap.

After this season, are Steen, Berglund, and Vladimir Sobotka for example, still viewed as important pieces for the Blues in the upcoming 2018-19 season?

Armstrong is likely of the belief that the Blues current makeup features too many similar players that could be unloaded for draft picks allowing Armstrong to use that cap allocation towards another top-six forward.

This could also open at least one forward spot in the top-nine for one of the prospects with additional young forwards gaining experience when inevitable injuries occur. This will allow the Blues to develop their prospects with NHL experience throughout the season without relying on expected production at the beginning of the season with little depth behind them.

On the blueline, the Blues enter the off-season with a solid top-six and organizational depth. Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson will enter training camp after respective hip and knee surgeries. Alex Pietrangelo was easily the Blues best and most consistent player in the 2017-18 season.

Joel Edmundson is a restricted free-agent and his signing will likely go to the brink of arbitration before both parties agree to a new contract. Vince Dunn gained valuable experience in his rookie campaign and his offensive abilities including power-play responsibilities will likely expand next season while Robert Bortuzzo remains a solid sixth defenseman.

The largest question for the Blues on defense is Colton Parayko. After receiving a five-year, $27.5 million contract last off-season, Parayko’s game failed to reach another level in his third NHL season. Despite a booming slapshot, Parayko scored just two power-play goals while having trouble getting his shots both off and through from the point.
His 35-point season matched last season’s production, but the Blues had to be expecting more out of Parayko after locking him up to the five-year extension.

Even more concerning is that Parayko’s defensive play regressed this season. Due to injuries, Parayko faced harder matchups throughout the season and he was unable to elevate his own-zone play to neutralize the opposition’s top lines with regularity.

With that said, Parayko is a month away from turning 25 and there is nothing to suggest that his overall game is not capable of reaching another level as he approaches the start of his prime years as a defenseman – a position where progression continues (especially own-zone play) throughout the late 20’s.

However, could the Blues upgrade both their blueline and offense in a trade for Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson during the off-season?

The Blues and Senators were rumored in trade talks at the deadline with many believing St. Louis’ target was forward Mike Hoffman, but the Senators were also entertaining offers on Karlsson but failed to reach a deal that fit their asking prices on either player.

Now, Karlsson is under contract for only next season at $6.5 million and is looking for a massive extension. Ottawa, a budget-team, cannot afford to let Karlsson walk and will likely be looking to maximize his remaining trade value this off-season.

Karlsson produced 62 points this season despite little off-season conditioning following a significant ankle surgery that featured a partial removal of a bone. The prior season, Karlsson scored 71 points in the regular season and 18 points in 19 playoff games leading the Senators to within one game of the Stanley Cup Final.

Armstrong is in the terrific position of having the necessary assets to pull off nearly any trade for players available on the market this off-season. Could a multiple-asset package centered around Parayko land Karlsson and change the dynamic of the Blues?

It would be a high-risk move from Armstrong, but after two stagnant seasons in which Armstrong admitted the current formula isn’t working, creativity and risk is necessary to make this roster a legitimate Cup contender. The Senators would likely be intrigued in acquiring Parayko, a cost-certain asset for the next four seasons that better fits their rebuilding timeline, along with other assets compared to Karlsson.

It is certainly one trade possibility to follow as the Blues enter June’s NHL Draft in Dallas or later in the off-season.

In goal, it is simple for the Blues. The organization needs Jake Allen to be more consistent next season. In speaking with former NHL goaltenders, including those who have coached the position at the highest-level, consistency is often the last piece a number-one goaltender develops. Succeeding while enduring the mental and physical grind of 55-60 starts a season is only developed with experience.

Allen, who turns 28 in August, now has two years of that experience and must rely on that experience to prevent and eliminate prolonged stretches of mediocre goaltending in the 2018-19 season. There is no question Allen possesses the physical skills to be a top-ten starter in the league.

It was also a difficult season for Blues goaltenders in terms of lack of goal support. As suggested by Armstrong and Yeo on Tuesday morning, the Blues lack of scoring coupled often with far too many defensive breakdowns, applied too much pressure on both Allen and Carter Hutton throughout the 2017-18 season.

Regardless of improvements in this area, it is on Allen to progress and develop a mental makeup of consistency in his goaltending regardless of the Blues skaters collective performance around him. If he can do that, questions regarding his future as the Blues number-one goaltender will go quiet.

Lastly, the final major question that remains for the Blues heading into the off-season is will Yeo make the necessary adjustments behind the bench to get the Blues back to the level Ken Hitchcock had the franchise in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After the Blues fired Hitchcock, Yeo benefited from the “new voice” effect as the players bought into his adjustments with the foundation laid by Hitchcock’s system.

But the Blues system that put an emphasis on puck management at the bluelines and forcing opposing turnovers in bad areas of the ice creating offense for the Blues deteriorated this season. And little accountability in terms of ice-time was demonstrated by Yeo throughout the season when it was clear that forwards, including Tarasenko, were lacking in effort and attention to detail in their game.

The only established forward Yeo did that with was Berglund, healthy scratching him against a home contest against the Red Wings on Feb. 28. Following that move, Berglund was one of the most productive Blues forwards scoring nine goals in 16 games to finish the season.

Is Yeo scared to hold the more-established core accountable for fear of suffering a similar fate as he did in Minnesota with the Wild?

Even if that is the case, Yeo should be more worried of two alarming trends that have followed him from Minnesota: his inability to get a team out of a prolonged losing streak and a poor power play.

Yeo’s campaigns as the Wild’s head coach featured prolonged losing streaks in the middle of the season, and Yeo suffered from the same in St. Louis this season. The Blues had a 2-7-0 stretch in December and a 1-7-2 stretch from mid-February through the first week of March that included seven games In a row without a win.

Those two stretches knocked out the equity the Blues built from a blistering start and were the biggest culprits in their failure to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Causing even more concern is that Yeo has never had a power play ranked higher than 15th in the league in any full season as a head coach. The Blues power play dipped from 21.3 percent under Hitchcock and Yeo in the 2016-17 season (eighth best in NHL) to a pathetic 15.4 percent this season (second worst in the NHL, 30th overall).

Yeo’s power play percentages as a head coach in the NHL is as follows:

Minnesota 2011-12 – 15.1 percent (27th overall)

Minnesota 12-13 – 17.9 percent (16th overall)

Minnesota 13-14 – 17.9 percent (16th overall)

Minnesota 14-15 – 15.9 percent (27th overall)

Minnesota 15-16 – 18.5 percent (15th overall)

St. Louis 17-18 – 15.4 percent (30th overall)

If this was a one-season anomaly, it wouldn’t be as alarming. But this is a consistent pattern and without a productive power-play in the NHL, a team is not going to have a consistent offense when teams have no fear to take away scoring chances by negating it with a penalty. And it certainly is no deterrent to prevent teams from taking liberties on your top players and you certainly can’t be labelled as a Cup contender in the postseason.

Yeo stated on Tuesday that the ineffectiveness on the power-play is something that is “on him” and will be a “huge focus” to correct in the off-season. However, given the prolonged lack of success, why wasn’t that a “huge focus” in any of his previous five seasons as a head coach?

In addition, his response for having it be a huge focus included “looking at everything … going to school on the rest of the league, what makes the best power plays successful compared to us,” and “analyzing everything that’s gone wrong.”

The question is why adjustments weren’t attempted throughout the season? In addition to surrendering numerous shorthanded goals, the Blues stayed with stagnant zone entries on the power-play that were easy for opponents to break up, and lacked any sort of creativity.

Further, Yeo and his staff continued to utilize Tarasenko and Steen on the points of power-play units despite it creating little in terms of production, except for shorthanded odd-man rushes for penalty kills.

Any adjustments to the Blues power-play didn’t occur until after the trade of Stastny to Winnipeg and the reliance of Tarasenko’s power-play position made him a stationary player limiting his ability to find “quiet ice” that elite snipers in the NHL consistently find.

In the video pre-scouting world of today’s NHL, there is no need to wait until the off-season to examine successful power-play structures and attempt adjustments to your power-play units during the season when it is clear the new results couldn’t produce a worst result of ineffectiveness and shorthanded opportunities.

The Blues current coaching situation reeks of similarities of the 2011 off-season when Davis Payne was entering his second full season as head coach, coming off a 2010-11 season where the Blues missed the playoffs (the last time the Blues missed the playoffs before this season).

Payne, known as a “players-coach”, replaced Andy Murray, known for being difficult on the players with his attention-to-detail style, and finished the 2009-10 season with the Blues going 23-15-4. The Blues finished out of the playoffs in the 10-11 season under Payne with 87 points and after a slow start in 2011, Payne was replaced by Hitchcock.

A “player’s coach” in Yeo replaced Hitchcock last February, the Blues finished the second half strong qualifying for the postseason reaching the second round. Now, the Blues narrowly missed the playoffs and the pressure is on both Armstrong and Yeo entering the 2018-19 season. If Yeo and the Blues get off to a slow start, will history repeat itself next season with a mid-season replacement for Yeo?

Unless significant progress is shown, history suggests it will. And remember Armstrong’s quotes on Tuesday regarding being tethered with Yeo and Yeo being a “hell(of a) coach who will learn from this”?

Also remember this Armstrong quote about the 2017-18 season: “the responsibility is on my shoulders.”