posted on January 08, 2014 09:52
Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.
After years of being hindered by pedestrian goaltending, the St. Louis Blues find themselves with a bonafide logjam between the pipes. It’s certainly an enviable position to be in, but with two of those goalies set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the year and the third—projected by many as the squad’s future netminder—toiling away in the AHL, it’s an issue that will eventually require the front office to take some sort of action.
Unfortunately, there’s no real easy solution.
Let’s start with what (we think) we know. While there is not necessarily a set timeline, Allen is being groomed to take over as the team’s starting goaltender. That leaves Halak and/or Elliott—both of whom will be UFAs at the end of the year—as expendable pieces, potentially via mid-season trade.
But if a move were to be made, who would be moved?
The most logical answer would seem to be Halak, who will likely be playing elsewhere next season, regardless of whether or not the Blues choose to trade him. The 28-year-old Slovakian never really met the organization’s expectations, squandering numerous opportunities to become the their definitive number one goaltender. They even gave him a shot heading into this season, despite his disappointing (and injury-riddled) 6-5 finish to last year’s strike-shortened campaign.
But once again, Halak has failed to capitalize.
For the season, he’s 17-6, but has a goals against average of 2.40 and a save percentage of just .907. He’s also struggled mightily of late, having allowed three or more goals in six of his last eight starts (3.23 GAA, .885 SV% for December). Illness has kept him sidelined since Dec. 28, when he was lifted after allowing three goals on 13 shots in the first period against Chicago.
Halak's skid and subsequent illness has coincided with the rise of Elliott, who is a perfect 6-0 with a .928 SV% since Dec. 28—a mark which includes the final 45 minutes of the Chicago game and a shutout on Jan. 2 against Los Angeles.
Unlike his teammate, Elliott has taken full advantage of his opportunities for extra playing time. However, he is still extremely volatile between the pipes. It happened in 2011-12: he rattled off a ridiculous stretch from October through mid-December, then lost five of seven from late December through January. He came back with five more wins in a row, then lost five of his next six. Don’t discount what happened at the beginning of last season either—he was sent down to Peoria after losing his first 10 starts before finally righting the ship and finishing strong.
As for Jake Allen’s involvement—it’s remains to be seen whether or not he’s cut out to be this team’s number one goaltender, but for now he’s better off playing on a regular basis with Chicago than making spot starts with the NHL club in place of either Halak or Elliott.
That circles us back to the original question: What should the Blues do about their surplus of goaltenders?
Personally, I fall in line with the apparent majority, subscribing to the belief that if any of the trio is going to be moved, it will be Halak. He’s been underwhelming as a Blue and is the least likely to be retained beyond this season, but the team can sell him (along with a prospect or two) to interested teams based on his potential.
That begin said, with no glaring needs, there’s no reason for this team to make a move just for the sake of making a move.
The defensive corps is one of the best in the NHL, while the depth at forward is simply ridiculous. They might as well continue to ride Elliott while he’s hot and rely on the defense to continue masking Halak’s deficiencies between the pipes. Maybe—maybe—if Alexander Steen will be out for months instead of weeks, the Blues will need to look into acquiring another forward, but with how well Jaden Schwartz is playing and the pool of talented players waiting anxiously in the AHL, the Blues can afford to give Steen as much time as he needs to recover from that concussion.
I’m on board with keeping both Halak and Elliott, if nothing else as an insurance policy in case one of the two goes down.
However, if an opportunity to acquire a top of the line goaltender presents itself, the Blues should, at the very least, explore their options.
Buffalo’s Ryan Miller is at the top of most people’s wish list and, upon further examination, it’s not too far out of the realm of possibility. The Sabres are in rebuild mode and the Blues boast a plethora of talented prospects. For as stingy as GM Doug Armstrong is when it comes to moving his assets (he got Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary for a No. 1 pick, defenseman Mark Cundari and the rights to a European goaltender), the possibility of trading Halak along with a prospect or two in exchange for Miller may be too good to pass up. The maneuver would clear extra salary cap space for re-signing Miller, who is at the end of a 5-year, $31.25 million contract (an expensive proposition, but a must if St. Louis does go after a goaltender — they need more than a rental player) and would cut down on the number of prospects/draft picks the Blues would have to ship to Buffalo (current market values Miller at about three prospects and a No. 1 pick).
If the Sabres were to ask for the three prospects and a pick instead of Halak, the Blues would have to move him (and probably a draft pick) to another team as part of an old-fashioned salary dump (the only scenario where they move Halak without receiving a package of quality players in return is if it’s setting the table for another deal).
With Halak out of the picture and Elliott likely on his way out at the end of the season, Allen is once again left as the odd man out. He would definitely serve as Miller’s back-up in 2014-15, but after that, the 23-year-old becomes a restricted free agent and I doubt he’ll want to spend the next 2-4 seasons as the team’s clearcut second-string netminder.
Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller could be an option—albeit not a very attractive one, but keep an eye on the Carolina Hurricanes. Cam Ward is out indefinitely with a lower body injury, which has opened the door for 27-year-old Anton Khudobin. For his career, the former 7th round draft pick is 19-5-1 with a .935 SV%. He’s been very good this season, posting a 5-0 record with a 1.99 GAA and .940 SV% in six starts. Khudobin was victorious in nine of his 14 starts last season with Boston, with a 2.32 GAA and .920 SV%. With rumors circulating that Carolina is looking to move either Khudobin or Justin Peters, the Blues would be wise to take a flyer on the former, especially considering how inexpensive he’ll be to re-sign at season’s end (he’s an unrestricted free agent coming off a 1-year, $800,000 deal).
I have one final name to float out there: Toronto’s James Reimer. The 25-year old is 8-5 this season with a .923 SV%, but has been buried behind Jonathan Bernier (his appearance against New York on Jan. 4 was his first sine Dec. 21). With him set to become a RFA at year’s end, the Leafs will be looking to move him, which should drop the asking price a bit for the Blues, who could feasibly ship a couple forward prospects north of the border in exchange for him.
Taking all of this into consideration, I’m still of the belief that the Blues should hang onto Halak unless a top-of-the-line starting goaltender becomes available via trade. The only realistic scenario where the Blues would move him without getting anything of substance in return would be if they’re clearing salary and setting the table for another move. Otherwise, don’t try to move a goalie just because there’s a surplus and one is playing better than the rest.
Don’t fret over the possibility of not getting anything in return for one or both players if they decide to test the free agent market at the end of the season.
The pieces are finally in place for the St. Louis Blues. It’s time to take advantage of the assets they’ve accumulated and focus on winning now.
In addition to writing weekly Blues columns for InsideSTL, Brian Haenchen also covers SLU and Mizzou basketball. You can find his game stories, as well as photos from most Billiken home games at HanksSportsBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Haenchen