I was reading a trade column from Pierre LeBrun yesterday and it confirmed one of my increasing fears this season from a rebuilding Blackhawks’ perspective.
The St. Louis Blues are a problem. And not in the way most likely thought they would be in September.
Looking at the current NHL standings, it’s striking that St. Louis has been so awful. They’re drop-dead last in the division on Friday morning, three points back of Nashville and five behind the Blackhawks. They won on Thursday night, ending an eight-game losing streak.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has already expressed some concern about the direction of the team, though we haven’t heard the seat under head coach Craig Berube is hot enough to warrant putting money on him being the first head coach to get the axe this season (yet).
If this is truly going to be a lost season for the Blues, it’s an issue for the Blackhawks in two regards.
First and foremost, we’ve all been salivating over the prospects at the top of the hyped 2023 draft class for months under the assumption the Blackhawks would be in play for a top-three pick (still possible). If Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli or Matvei Michkov wound up in St. Louis it would be a worst case scenario powder keg.
The second problem might be more immediately impactful for the Blackhawks’ rebuild plans.
St. Louis, like Chicago, has two big ticket pending unrestricted free agents at the end of this season: Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko. And, unfortunately, they’re both less expensive ($7.5M AAV) than the Blackhawks’ big name players who are supposed to be on the market at some point; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have matching $10.5M cap hits.
And they’re both younger than Kane and Toews.
Here’s what LeBrun said about O’Reilly’s situation — which sounds awfully familiar to the guys on the Blackhawks’ roster.
The preseason plan was for the Blues and O’Reilly’s camp, led by veteran agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports, to circle back to each other in the New Year regarding an extension. But if the Blues’ season gets out of reach to save, and considering Armstrong’s comments last week, it’s hard to envision an extension in that scenario for O’Reilly, who turns 32 in February.
O’Reilly doesn’t have any no-trade protection, so the Blues would have an open field to work with if they decide to go down this path in a few months. On the other hand, his $7.5 million cap hit wouldn’t be easy to absorb with so many playoff contenders right at the cap. The Blues would have to be willing to eat 50 percent of that and/or to bring in a third-party broker team to further minimize the cap hit.
The lack of a no-trade for ROR further complicates matters, though his performances to date — two points and a minus-12 rating in 12 games — is nowhere close to the start of the season Toews has had.
But, like Toews, he’s a center who LeBrun describes as “coveted target” as a strong, two-way center.
LeBrun goes on to put Toews and O’Reilly in the same conversation about veteran stars with a postseason track record of success who could be viewed as closers for teams in need of an impact center late in the year. He specifically talks about how much one of them could mean to the Avalanche, who are still trying to find a replacement for Nazem Kadri as their second line center.
But if I were Avs GM Chris MacFarland and were looking to bolster my lineup for a chance to repeat, O’Reilly and Toews are the two guys I’d zero in on closer to March 3 — two captains who have won and understand what it takes come playoff time.
We’re still almost four full months away from the trade deadline, and LeBrun points out that Colorado’s cap situation would require a third team to help make the financial gymnastics work out for either Toews or O’Reilly. And, as I’ve talked about at length since the summer, we still don’t know if Toews even wants to leave — or if the Blackhawks will ever get to the point they ask him if he’s interested. But his strong play early this season will certainly increase the number of teams that at least kick the tires on the possibility of adding the future Hall of Famer at some point before the deadline.
One other noteworthy component to the potential for the Blues to be more aggressive sellers at the deadline this year is their unexpected need to change course quickly. The Blackhawks have added a bounty of draft picks in 2023 (and ’24 for that matter) over the past few months and now have six picks in the first three rounds. St. Louis traded their second-round pick in ’23 to Detroit to get Nick Leddy last year. Right now, the Blues only own their first and third-round picks to start next summer’s draft.
Add to that the fact the Blues already gave long-term extensions to two young forwards (who have underwhelmed to start this season), Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, and the Blues haven’t approached the transition to their next generation as honestly as the Blackhawks did when they traded away Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach leading up to the draft this past summer.
The Blackhawks and Blues have been rivals since the inception of the St. Louis franchise. And with the Blackhawks openly rebuilding and the Blues’ play potentially forcing their front office to make some tough decisions to move in that direction, this year’s trade deadline could shape up to be a war between two teams that hope for a brighter future.