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In market of over-spending, Blues find value for cheap

Going into 2011, it was nearly unanimously agreed that this was going to be one of the weaker free agency pools in recent memory. Outside of Brad Richards, there wasn’t really a top level talent on the market and it led to him, as well as other players, going for above market rate. A talented, but very injury prone center Tim Connolly went at a price of 4.5 Mill, Buffalo paid their way straight to salary cap max by acquiring Ville Leino, Robin Regher, and Christian Ehrhoff, and Richards was signed to a mega contract with the New York Rangers directly after they bought Chris Drury out of a previous mega contract that they grew to regret. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues lacked ownership certainty, and were going to be limited to around the cap minimum.

And in spite of that, the Blues still managed to acquire players that filled their needs to a tee.

Most people seem to judge free agency on the name value of the players your team has acquired. Personally, I think that mindset is foolish. When you go into free agency, smart teams try to address needs and due so in a manner that either helps them in both the short and long term, or helps them in the short term but doesn’t hurt you in the long term. So, naturally, the first thing we should do when we look to evaluate the Blues off-season is to look at their needs going in.

The St. Louis Blues were a team who traded away their top Penalty Killer in Jay McClement in order to acquire Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk (I’m pretty sure there’s another player involved in that trade as well, come to think of it…), as well as their former captain Eric Brewer, who had a very solid argument for being the Blues best defensemen last year, and their Penalty Kill had suffered because of it, falling to 18th in the league. The Blues were also terrible on the faceoff dot, finishing a dreadful 28th in the league. The Blues backup goaltending also needed to be addressed: Ty Conklin had a poor season, and the Blues at least needed someone to push talented youngster Ben Bishop for the backup role. But, more than anything on the ice, the Blues needed some veteran leadership. The only players on the Blues roster over 30 were Andy McDonald and Barrett Jackman. Most everyone was of the mindset that the Blues needed a few more voices in the locker room that had seen any situation their young core could face.

Breaking down the problems one at a time, let us start with Penalty Killer/Faceoff Specialist. Scott Nichol is one of those players that nobody notices except for the team he plays for, much like Jay McClement was for the Blues. The 5’9 sparkplug has a few things that give him value. In 135 games with the Sharks over 2 seasons, Nichol had 340 hits, an incredibly high total, especially for someone of his size. He was considered a solid PK guy in San Jose, and has a reputation of being a master in the faceoff circle, with a winning percentage over 60% in the 09-10 season, and with a 288 out of 485 mark last year (59.4%). Nichol by all definitions fit their need for a Checking line center perfectly, and was perhaps the top player available at this role.

To address a potential need for another penalty kill capable defensemen, the Blues signed Kent Huskins, another former Shark. To be quite blunt, you don’t expect to get a “big name” when you’re looking for a 3rd pairing defensive defensemen. And Huskins isn’t one. But to be fair, neither was Mike Weaver when the Blues acquired him, and I’d argue that Weaver proved to be a very solid player on the Blues roster for 2 seasons. And I have to assume and hope Huskins will be a guy like Weaver: A guy who plays physical, is willing to block shots, and doesn’t make misguided turnovers. While his hit totals haven’t matched up what you’d probably like, he has only been a minus one year of his career (his rookie season), so we shall see how well this move pays off. If Huskins isn’t what the Blues want him to be, the bright side is that Ian Cole, who will most likely start the season at the AHL level, who has shown he can play at the NHL level already.

To address the goaltending situation, the Blues added Brian Elliot, in what I would describe as a buy low move. In the 09-10 season, Brian Elliot was positioning himself to be the Ottawa Senators starting goaltender after posting very solid numbers (29-18-4, 2.57 GAA, .909 Save Percentage, and 5 Shutouts), but that all came crashing down after an awful 10-11. 15-27-9, 3.34 GAA, and a horrid .893 Save Percentage between 2 teams was bad enough that he could rank as certainly one of the 5 worst goalies in the NHL last year. Still, in spite of that, I personally think this was a good signing. While he was awful last year, he has proven he can play at the NHL level before. It is possible that last year was just an aberration. However, even if the worst case (and most likely) scenario is proven true, it’s a 2-Way contract, so we could just send him down to play backup to Jake Allen in Peoria if Elliot fails to beat on Ben Bishop for the backup job.

Of course, the biggest weakness to address was veteran leadership, and while Nichol and Huskins are vets who have played in key games, they are here just to be minor pieces, and have not been major building blocks on teams that have gone on major runs. And then the Blues made two splashes on the same day, signing Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, two players who have had careers that have are linked together all the back to Arnott’s goal to give the Devils a Stanley Cup victory over Langenbrunner’s Stars in 2000. Since then they have been traded for each other, been teammates, and been captains of playoff teams, and both have been key contributors to teams who have won the Cup. Arnott is someone most Blues fans are probably familiar with, having been the captain of division foe Nashville in recent years. Arnott was still as solid player splitting time between New Jersey and Washington last year and is almost unanimously agreed upon to fill the Blues 3rd line Center role. While his production has slipped progressively each of the last 3 years, I think expecting Arnott to get to at least 15 goals and 20 assists isn’t unreasonable, especially with generally positive reviews for him once he was into a Capitals jersey.

Langenbrunner also held the C in recent years while under the employ of the New Jersey Devils (He also wore the C on the US Olympic team in 2010) and as recently as 08-09 he had a 69 point season as part of a very formidable line with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. Langenbrunner had built up a solid streak of 60 point seasons in recent years, until a very ho-hum 10-11 which resulted in only 32 points over 70 games. The big question about Jamie is whether or not this is a one year aberration, or if it’s the start of a permanent slide. If Jamie has another year in the 30 point range, he’ll probably end up competing with D’Agostini and Sobotka for time on the 3rd line. If he even returns to 45-50 point range, let alone 60, he will fit either as a 2nd line forward, or a really good 3rd line forward.

The Blues have made other moves that look to affect the Blues AHL affiliate the Peoria Rivermen for the upcoming season more than it does the Blues themselves, but even those moves are rather strong. First, the Blues traded for young Russian enigma Evgeny Grachev from the Rangers. Grachev has been a very well thought of prospect, and was once considered the best young player in the Rangers system. Still, Grachev has been at least a solid AHL forward, is still young, and has all the skills to be an impact player at the NHL level. Even with downside (if things don’t go well for him this year, don’t be surprised if he jumps back to the KHL and we never hear from him again), this was still a no risk acquisition for only a 3rd round pick, and I’m optimistic. The Blues also signed AHL star Brett Sterling, one of the more productive players at the AHL level over the last few years. Sterling did get a call up to play on the Penguins, who gave him a shot to play with scoring lines, and he delivered 5 points in 7 games, so he figures to be a tremendous injury replacement. And the most interesting of the bunch is probably the Blues signing of former 50 goal scorer Jonathon Cheechoo. It is widely known that Cheechoo’s career has absolutely fallen of a cliff in recent years due to his deteriorating knees, but one thing that hasn’t changed is he still has an incredibly powerful, quick, and accurate shot. Best case scenario, Cheechoo’s legs show some signs of improvement so he can make a quick move to get of his shot, and he does it at the NHL level for the tune of 20-30 goals. Much more likely scenario, he does what he does last year: Have a productive season at the AHL level, where at the very minimum he can help teach the Blues young forwards like Grachev and Phillip McRae how to finish at the NHL level.

The Blues re-signed everyone most Blues fans wanted re-signed (You could make arguments that Nicolas Drazenovic would have been a solid guy to keep around, but it will probably not be a major mistake or anything), and addressed most needs you can really point out, while signing a bunch of players who have been on winning teams and can hopefully help carry that attitude to St. Louis. And while doing that, the Blues did not dish out a single long term contract that even now fans could tell they’d regret in a few years. The Blues currently are 19th in the NHL in total salary, still nowhere near the top of the league, with an estimated 11.6 million free from the cap max. That is very good, because they have their roster filled, with enough money left over for cap flexibility in the future. While the Blues off-season wasn’t spent throwing around big contracts to show how they are making drastic moves to get better, I think they did something even better: They signed players to affordable contracts that fit the teams needs perfectly. At the end of the day, I’ll take that over mass spending in a heartbeat.

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