Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

Blues Outlook #2 - Into the Future

The big news in St. Louis today was the announcement that neither Doug Weight or Keith Tkachuk would have their contracts bought out.

"That's just cash thrown into the river as far as I'm concerned," [Blues President] Sauer said. "Let's not sugarcoat this, this isn't a fantasy sports league here. That's real money being paid. Some teams are being forced to do that. Thank goodness we don't have to do that."

It might not be fantasy hockey, but the Blues are still in a bind and still haven't made a decision on the future of Chris Pronger. If the Blues qualify Pronger at $7.6million, they will have just 14 players and a payroll of US$ 31.7 million!

Management will present owners Bill and Nancy Laurie with a '05-06 budget this week, and Sauer said several times Monday that it won't be anywhere near the $39 million salary cap.

"We're not trying to figure out, nor should we, how to spend to the max," Sauer said. "We're trying to figure out, 'How do we stay flexible? How do we get this team more stable financially? How do we prepare for a very complex set of circumstances?"
So, how can the Blues sign Pronger and 8-9 other players without coming near the cap or going over? It will be nearly impossible unless the rest of the roster is filled with Budweiser filler making the league minimum.

The logical theory is that one of Pronger, Weight, or Tkachuk will HAVE to be traded before the season starts or very early on in the season. The Blues cannot possibly hope to 'survive' giving 3 players a large chunk of their payroll.

The problem is, why would other NHL teams want to trade for a player that will take so much of their cap space? I can't see too many teams making offers when they can sign good Unrestricted Free Agents for cheaper salaries. The Big 3 would be perfect mid-season trade options as half or more of their salary will be paid for the year, so the Blues may be stuck with all 3 for awhile.

Now, the Blues, like all other clubs, need some cheap prospects to earn their promotion and bring a positive impact to their pro roster. If the Blues are so hamstrung by 3 large contracts, they will need some of their cheaper players to be well worth the money.

It doesn't help that the Blues farm system is weak in most areas and presents the Blues with no real great short-term solutions to this year's roster.

Hockeysfuture.com ranks the Blues #22 in their Organizational Rankings, and the pickings are slim. Here's a little rundown of the 'good' prospects the Blues have.

Strengths: The Blues have quality at the goaltending position with former first round picks Marek Schwarz and Jason Bacashihua as their top two prospects. The Blues' forwards include solid two-way players Jay McClement and Michal Birner, a pure skill player in Alexei Shkotov, and potential power forwards such as David Backes and Carl Soderberg.

Weaknesses: The Blues system lacks a true top-pairing defenseman, with Roman Polak as the top rated blueliner, and the talent on the wings as a group lags somewhat behind that of the crop of centers and goalies.

Top Prospects: Marek Schwarz (G), Jason Bacashihua (G), Jay McClement (C), Alexei Shkotov (RW) and David Backes (C)

Neither Shkotov nor Backes are really 'good' prospects, and McClement is pretty much looking like just a good 'role player'. There isn't one single forward in the Blues system that could step in for the Blues as a top-6 forward for at least 2-3 seasons, and even then the prospects are weak.

Marek Schwarz, G - Regular readers of this blog will know all about Marek by now. After a disappointing season with the Vancouver Giants, Schwarz is returning home to Sparta Prague and has lost a lot of his lustre. As great as he is on the International ice surface, his angle reads on the smaller ice were very poor and he was often far out of his net, allowing opponents easy rebound goals. Schwarz won't be able to help the Blues for at least 3-4 seasons.

Jason Bacashihua, G - When Dallas selected him in the first round a few years back, I touted this as one of the better value picks in the draft. The Blues dealt fellow first rounder Shawn Belle in exchange for "Cash" in a rather strange trade. Jason has great potential, but his development has stalled in the past 2 seasons and he's not yet ready to assume a backup role in the NHL. He could be a good #1 goalie some day, but that is at least 2-3 years away, if not more. Cash is a long-term solution, but the Blues are OK in goal at the moment with Lalime, Divis, and Sanford.

Jay McClement, C - The Blues 2nd round pick in 2001, McClement has never put up big offensive numbers at any level. Still, the former Canadian World Junior silver medalist is great in the defensive zone and has developed and progressed well in every single season. Last year, McClement led the Worcester IceCats with 51 points in 79 games.

McClement has good skating ability and is quick on the draw. He won't be more than 3rd line defensive specialist, but he could be a plus player in that role. He will be a regular player for the Blues next season, even if temporarily shifted to the left wing. Think of a smaller, but faster, Mike Eastwood.

Alexei Shkotov, RW - Of all of the Blues forward prospects, Shkotov is only one of two who has top-6 potential at this point in time. After lighting up the QMJHL for 61 points in 36 games during 2003-04, Alexei split last season between Russia (7 points in 21 games) and Worcester (12 points in 23 games). At 5'11" and about 160 pounds, Shkotov is quite easy to knock off the puck, and has to rely on his great speed to generate offence. If he doesn't elect to stay in Russia like a lot of Russian players are probably going to do, he could help the Blues in about 2-3 seasons. For the short-term, he has to get stronger and develop his scoring touch in the lower pro leagues.

David Backes, C - 6'2" 200lbs centerman from Minnesota State, Backes has played well in the NCAA and racked up 40 points in 38 games last year along with 55 PIMs. The book on Backes is that he is kind of soft for his size, needs work on his skating, and is a bit of a project. His defensive play is solid and he is good on faceoffs. Hmm, perhaps we have Michael Eastwood Jr? Again, Backes looks like a 3rd line type who could develop into a 2nd line winger if his offence translates in the pro ranks.

Peter Sejna, LW - There were some heavy hopes for Sejna when he signed with the Blues as a free agent after winning the Hobey Baker award in 2003. Sejna started the 03-04 season on a line with Doug Weight, but absolutely bombed in a 20-game stint (just 4 points and a lot of defensive misreads). Sejna faired OK in the AHL that season, but regressed offensively in 04-05 with just 38 points in 64 games.

It really looks more and more like Sejna will not become the scoring threat that he was touted to be when he ripped apart the NCAA with the Colorado College team. Sejna will turn 26 early in the NHL season, and he probably has almost peaked in terms of his pro potential. If he were plunked onto the Blues this season, it is doubtful he could generate enough offence to justify a top-6 spot.

At the very least, Sejna did improve greatly on his defensive zone play. Sejna wouldn't look too far out of place on the 3rd or 4th lines...it's just that he was expected to do so much more. His star has fallen, but Sejna just might (hopefully) be able to surprise us with some of that offence we used to know and love. For now, pencil Sejna in as a 'maybe' on the Blues roster, and perhaps the default 2nd line Left Winger.




After that, the Blues prospect ranks are quite thin and there isn't much else that will excite Blues fans. Other than in goal, the Blues lack quality and quantity of useful prospects that could plug in holes and make a positive impact. With the lottery giving the Blues the 24th pick in the first round of the upcoming 2005 Entry Draft, it looks bleak for the Blues to improve in this regard as they won't get one of the Blue Chip boys.

Woe is the Bluenote.. :(

Comments:
One theory that's been suggested by a colleague of mine (saskhab) suggests that the reason the Blues are cutting a perennial Norris-trophy candidate loose is b/c they're for sale. The current owners won't want to spend money on someone when their contract is up anyway, whereas Tkachuk and Weight's aren't - it would cost them 2/3 of the balance to buy out two guys... as seen on offthepost.net (http://offthepost.net/viewtopic.php?t=8728)
 
Agreed with that theory. The owners don't have a ton of money to throw around and their payroll is high enough as it is right now. Cutting Pronger loose is the only thing they can do.

BTW - There was a report a while back that Mark Cuban was interested in the Blues. That would be great for the franchise. He might be a little too public with the Mavs but he is a smart business man who wants to win, a great combo.
 
I think the fact that the Blues owners aren't willing to swallow almost 10 mil to rid themselves of Weight and Tkachuk is bad news for Blues fans, but I understand it from the owners perspective. I't's their money, even if they do have 100's of millions of it.

So there's absolutely no way they'll qualify Pronger. I'm sure they'd like to keep him, but they'll let him go UFA and hope his injury concerns scare off other teams, so they can sign him for 3-4 mil. That's his only chance of staying in St. Louis.

Failing that (or even including it), I think management is hoping they can squeak into the playoffs to make a little playoff money, and then be rid of Weight and Tkachuk for free in 06-07. After that, stockpile picks, sign a few cheap youngish UFA's and let the rebuilding begin - a lot of NHL GM's are going to be singing from the same hymnbook.
 
I appreciate the comments and banter.

Bill Laurie picked an odd time to sell his franchise, that is for sure.

It is obvious that he doesn't want to spend money for 'nothing' if he is about to sell the team. If the Blues had a long-term owner, they might be willing to buy out one of those contracts.

As for Pronger, I wonder if the Blues might want to try a sign-and-trade type deal with another team. Pronger may be able to get the max or near the max with another team on the UFA market (since he is one of a few elite players), but the Blues have given no indication yet.

Pleau and Laurie are playing their cards very close to their chest...Weight and Pronger have complained that the Blues have not been communicating at all with their agents... I know the Blues don't want to tip off other GM's, but the lack of leadership shown by the management sector is leading fans to believe that we'll have a lame-duck team this season.

I'd be utterly shocked if the Blues sniffed a playoff spot this year. They are already in a poor spot in regards to the cap and they have no offense on the wings. I expect the Blues will look to trade Weight and/or Tkachuk as the trade deadline approaches...barring a miracle.

As for new ownership, the only rumoured buyer was a gambling website...and even that wasn't considered a serious offer (more for publicity).
 
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