The biggest question for Blues GM Doug Armstrong in the next month concerns the future of Kevin Shattenkirk. (File)
By Nicholas Hand

The Blues enter the All-Star break with 53 points (24-20-5) holding a one point lead on one of two wild card positions in a Western Conference filled with parity.

Much has been made of the Blues goaltending struggles with Jake Allen and Carter Hutton who have nearly identical statistics including a .897 and .896 save percentage, respectively.

St. Louis is last in NHL save percentage and has the fourth worst goals against average (3.08) ranking 27th in the league.

But goaltending has only been part of the problem. The Blues have suffered from porous team defense which has exacerbated the netminding issues. St. Louis has been plagued with lackadaisical play and poor puck decisions throughout the roster for the first 49 games.

This is uncharacteristic of a Ken Hitchcock-run team during his tenure in St. Louis and must be the biggest change for the Blues to have consistent success in the second half of the season.

Improvement defensively should benefit the goaltenders as Allen looks to regain the number one role and erase a first half which featured the worst performance of his professional career.

The Blues aren’t looking for Allen to be their savior. They just need stable and consistent goaltending that will give the team an opportunity to win each night he starts.

While the Blues have struggled defensively, the Blues offense has been the positive surprise of the first half. St. Louis is fourth in the Western Conference and 11th in the NHL averaging 2.80 goals per game.

Seven players have already surpassed 10 or more goals . As expected, Vladimir Tarasenko is the driving force offensively with 21 goals despite having goal scoring slumps that lasted eight and seven games.

David Perron has proven to be a valuable free-agent signing, having produced 11 goals at the break in the first year of a two-year, $7.5 million contract.

The 28-year-old Patrik Berglund has also scored 11 goals in the final season of his current contract and has been one of the Blues most consistent two-way forwards.

Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen have respectable numbers offensively but must provide a more consistent two-way game in the second half.

The biggest disappointment up front has been center Jori Lehtera, who despite centering offensive threats including Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Fabbri, has only produced five goals and nine assists.

Lehtera’s regression has come at the worst time for St. Louis in the first year of a three-year contract with an average annual cap hit of $4.7 million.

The biggest storyline after the break will be what moves general manager Doug Armstrong can make to improve the club between now and the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 28.

Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is one of the biggest pending unrestricted free agents in the league and is the prime candidate for the Blues to trade with his expected contract demands.

Shattenkirk’s 33 points are second on the team with 11 goals and 22 assists. However, his inconsistency in his own zone prevents the gifted offensive blueliner from being considered an elite top-pairing defenseman around the league.

While Shattenkirk is a valuable power-play threat, he also has the second most secondary assists in the league at 17 while only having five primary assists. That is the largest margin of secondary assists to primary assists of any player in the NHL.

In addition, the Blues are loaded on the right side of their blueline with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, making Shattenkirk a luxury asset that needs to be transferred towards a greater need for this club.

This is where Armstrong’s creativity must come into play. He cannot allow the Blues to lose the asset of Shattenkirk in the off-season without receiving value back.

This situation is unlike last season, when Armstrong and the Blues retained pending free agent David Backes for a run that helped the Blues reach the Western Conference final.

Unlike Backes’ minutes last season, the Blues can absorb Shattenkirk’s power-play and five-on-five minutes with current players on the roster for the remainder of this season. The move will also open up the third pairing role on the right side of the defense to talented prospects in the Blues system starting next season.

The key for Armstrong is to improve the Blues at the center position or find players at the deadline who can duplicate what the Blues lost in free agency last off-season in Backes and Troy Brouwer.

The Blues and Armstrong were correct in making the fiscally responsible decisions not to overpay for Backes or Brouwer, which would have burdened their salary cap for multiple seasons with declining production.

However, with significant cap space available by trade deadline day and one of the most valuable trade chips on the market in Shattenkirk, Armstrong has every tool at his disposal to improve the Blues.

Ideally, his acquisitions will make the Blues a better team both this season and for years to come. Armstrong might be forced to balance between short-term versus long-term improvement.

Either way, Armstrong’s most important month as general manager of the Blues is approaching, and standing pat can’t be an option this time around.

Follow Nick Hand on Twitter @Nick_Hand