On August 3, 2005, the St. Louis Blues announced they had traded Chris Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers. The impact of that trade would be felt immediately, as the cornerstone of the franchise was gone and the Blues found themselves headed towards a last place finish.
That season earned the Blues the first overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft and with that pick, Erik Johnson became a Blue. As the Blues open up their final 33 games of the 2010-2011 season, the month of February has become as critical a decision-making period as the stretch leading the previous ownership group to the disastrous decision of trading Pronger.
The Blues begin the month’s schedule with a postponed game against Colorado and now open the final 33 games with a home game against Edmonton. After 49 games, they have a record of 22-20-7, 51 points, an identical record as last season after 49 games. Last season the Blues sat six points out of the eighth playoff spot with no games in hand and finished the final 33 games, with an 18-12-3 record. Despite a finishing push at six games over .500, they netted a one-point gain and finished five points out of the playoffs. It adds perspective to what must happen this season if the Blues are going to make the playoffs.
February 2011 now has the Blues playing seven road games and five home games. The NHL trade deadline is February 28th. How the Blues play leading up to the deadline and where they sit in the playoff hunt will dictate a lot.
General Manager Doug Armstrong said he is expecting to receive a good amount of calls and make some of his own. He has the tough task of deciding what moves will make the team better not only for the remainder of this season but also setting up the next few years. This season’s budget plus how the budgets could be structured for future seasons based on restricted free agents and other needs must be part of the equation.
On top of what is going on at ice level, Blues Owner Dave Checketts is still working to finalize a new investor structure for the organization. Assuming the ownership structure takes care of itself, the focus heads back to the ice.
Making the playoffs is right there for the taking. To accomplish that, the winning ways on home ice must continue. The Blues will have to play much better on the road and be a better than .500 road team in their final 18 road games. Special teams must become more consistent. The penalty kill, which has been top 10 the last two years has struggled and a big factor has been the save percentage of the goalies on the penalty kill. It has to improve. The power play has not been a difference maker since the 2008-2009 season and will have to find itself immediately. The lack of quality special teams has put an immense pressure on the teams 5 on 5 play and it’s hard to win that way regularly in the NHL.
The decisions facing Armstrong at the end of the month can be aided or hindered by the team’s play over the next 12 games. What does he do with some young players? Do you improve the team by moving any of them? Are you a better team by keeping them another season? Who can you get by making any moves? The assessment of the Blues young talent becomes a critical factor in those decisions. A lot comes down to whether or not Blues management believes some of the young players can and will continue to develop into what they hoped they would become. Some veteran players are in the final year of their contracts. Are there moves to be made with them that can improve the Blues?
If like two seasons ago, the Blues find their stride and team chemistry fuels another playoff run, the group may stay intact, with a few tweaks. If they don’t show progress this month, look for some changes. In the end, it’s a business about wins and losses and last season Dave Checketts made it very clear that it’s time for these young players to start winning. Any way you break it down, the decision to move some pieces of the current puzzle will be based on how things go the next 28 days.
Can those decisions impact the organization, positively or negatively, as the decision to trade Chris Pronger? They just might, and therefore, the month of February this season has become as critical month for the St. Louis Blues as August 2005 proved to be.
Chris Kerber, the radio play-by-play voice of the Blues, hosts “The Sports Hub” from 9pm-12am on KMOX.