The St. Louis Blues have had a rough season and there are many trade rumors around the possibility of trading Vladimir Tarasenko.
As the 2018-19 season passes the halfway mark, it would appear as though St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong will have the eyes of the other 30 NHL general managers watching him closely over the next month. As the Blues’ season continues to tailspin (they currently sit 13th in the West and 25th overall), rumours have already begun to swirl regarding what the Blues will or won’t do before the NHL’s trade deadline on February 26. We have already seen big names such as Colton Parayko, Brayden Schenn, and even team Captain Alex Pietrangelo floating around as possible trade targets. With an expiring contract, it appears almost certain that center Brayden Schenn will be shipped out sooner than later as a rental, with teams such as the Coyotes and Jets (Paul Stastny 2.0) apparently in the mix. Beyond Schenn, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the Parayko discussion, with the asking price likely sky-high for a 25-year-old right-shot defenseman; meanwhile Pietrangelo seems to be somewhere in the middle, bouncing between trade-target and core-piece.
One name that has recently been picking up attention, and whom may carry the most intrigue, is right-winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The 27-year-old Russian has been with the Blues since the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season, providing consistent offense from the wing, but with the Blues facing a rebuild there is some thought that the time to move on from Tarasenko is now. So, while the rest of the hockey world sits back and plays ‘will-he-won’t-he’ with GM Armstrong’s roster, let’s dive into a list of Pros and Cons behind trading away the Blues’ most potent offensive weapon.
Tarasenko has not followed the traditional path when it comes to a young star in the NHL. Before he debuted in North America, Tarasenko spent over five seasons playing the KHL prior to joining the Blues as a 21-year-old. Aside from the lockout shortened season, Tarasenko has never failed to record less than 20 goals in a season, with 30+ each of the past four seasons, along with a 40-goal performance in 2015-16. And while the 2018-19 season has not been kind to Tarasenko, he is still considered to be one of the top natural goal scorers in the league on a team that has hung around the bottom of the league all year-long. Those types of players are rarely ever made available, and as a result, the Blues should be able to rake in a fortune and start to get the ship righted.
The case for moving Tarasenko revolves around the idea that the Blues need to strip things down and start the rebuild. However, there is a strong argument to be made that this team isn’t as far off as some would have us believe. Sure, there are a few pieces that Armstrong would no doubt like to move on from: Tyler Bozak has yet to pan-out, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Steen are nearing the ends of their careers, and it’s becoming more and more evident that Jake Allen is not the goaltender of the future.
That being said, this isn’t exactly an aging roster whose glory days are fading into the sunset. Pietrangelo and Parayko should be able to anchor the backend for the foreseeable future, while up-front guys like Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, and Jaden Schwartz continue to produce. Mix in some up and comers such as Robert Thomas, Vince Dunn, Jordan Binnington, and Jordan Kyrou, and it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to see the Blues back in the mix sooner than later. Why subtract Tarasenko now if this team is ready to turn the page?
How ready are these Blues though? The goaltending is still the number one issue when it comes to the successes and failures of this club. It’s time for GM Armstrong to find a suitable replacement for Jake Allen, and while Jordan Binnington’s recent success is a good sign, he may not be the guy the Blues want to hang their fortunes on, based on five career NHL games. Unless Armstrong can find a diamond in free agency (Sergei Bobrovsky, anyone?), he may be faced with moving someone out-of-town to bring in the goaltender of the future. One begins to wonder what type of goaltender Tarasenko could fetch.
Following the 2014-15 season the Blues rolled the dice and decided to bet on Tarasenko. Rare was it, at the time, to see players coming out of their entry-level contracts and sign a long-term/big-money deal. Instead of opting for a bridge deal or holding out on their young sniper, the Blues handed Tarasenko an eight-year deal worth $7.5 million a season. With the added bonus of a no-trade clause appearing in the final four years of the contract, the message appeared clear: The Blues were investing in Tarasenko to continue to develop into a premier player.
At the time, the cap-hit was about right, and prior to the start of this season, it was starting to look like an absolute steal. But if Tarasenko truly is on the block, it poses the question, what kind of message does this send to the other young players on the roster (or any potential free agent targets) if the Blues decide to bail on Tarasenko less than half-way through their eight-year investment?
Did I pose that last question simply to set-up the answer? Maybe, but let’s tackle one issue at a time. Fans like to get behind the concept of loyalty between teams and players exists to the point where our favourite players will be with us until they retire (and ultimately transition into a front-office position). But if last summer’s John Tavares saga taught us anything, the NHL is a business at the end of the day, and Doug Armstrong will need to act as a business man in certain situations. One such situation involves Tarasenko’s fore-mentioned no trade clause, which will kick in July 1st of this year, meaning if the Blues management group does feel they need to start the rebuild they have less than six months to orchestrate a deal.
They say, “never trade from a position of weakness”. Tarasenko’s impending NTC is just that, and it’s no secret around the league. Every other GM around the league should be looking to take advantage of that fact by trying to handcuff Armstrong during trade negotiations and/or wait until the 11th hour when the price could drop. Whether or not that strategy works out remains to be known, and it’s easy to see a GM believing that Tarasenko could be the final piece that puts their team over the top and pulls the trigger on a deal next week. But for now, Armstrong may find it difficult to acquire the sort of top-package Tarasenko could have fetched six months ago.
We mentioned earlier about some of the exciting young pieces the Blues have in the system that could help keep them relevant in the coming years. The only problem with having valuable young pieces is that, one day, GM’s will have to pay the bill for their services. If the Blues can find a way to trade Tarasenko’s $7.5 million cap hit, it may allow them to retain some of their other young pieces that will need new contracts in the coming years. The Blues currently have twelve contracts on the roster that will be expiring come July; an extra few million dollars to play with may be more valuable to management than four more years of Vlad.
Finally, the Blues putting Tarasenko’s name on the market may be exciting, and it may lead to a slew of rumours or articles such as this one, speculating where he might end up, or what the Blues could get for him. However, at the end of the day, how many teams are realistically going to be able to bring in a contract like Tarasenko’s? If Tarasenko was a pure rental option, on an expiring deal, it would likely be a foregone conclusion that a team would gamble on him returning to form, and potentially even over pay to get him.
The problem in this case, though, is that Tarasenko’s contract continues for another four years. Even if we agree that his current deal is a bargain in terms of value, there are few teams that are walking around with that kind of cap space available, and even fewer that are in serious contention for the cup currently. According to capfriendly.com, there are roughly seven teams that could take on Tarasenko for the remainder of his contract. Of those, the Flyers, Devils, Canucks and Hurricanes aren’t what you would consider contending teams, so adding an elite 27-year-old forward wouldn’t seem to do them much good. Better for those clubs to stay on the path of rebuilding with the pieces they have and avoid giving up any assets.
Where Might Tarasenko End Up?
That leaves us with the Avalanche, Islanders, and Canadiens; three teams that are sitting within the playoff bubble and could legitimately consider taking on Tarasenko’s contract. The Islanders would appear to be out of the running based solely on their own contract situation following the season, with new deals due for guys such as Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Anthony Beauvillier with Mathew Barzal to follow in 2020. That leaves the Blues with two realistic trade partners and roughly six weeks of time to figure out a deal that would entice them enough to send their Russian star packing.
Personally, if we see a deal for Tarasenko, I think we’re looking at something developing closer to his NTC kicking in, perhaps over draft weekend. Ultimately, I think it’s more likely we see Tarasenko in a Blues jersey for a few years to come, helping lead the team back into contention in the Central Division (assuming Armstrong gets on that whole goaltender situation, that is).
stats from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com and eliteprospects.com
featured image photo credit – James Cole