About a year or so ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Canucks blogger Dani Toth from Benched Whale. We talked about our respective favorite franchises, and she asked what I thought of the Blues’ future. My honest answer: the Blues had a lot of exciting young talent, but did not possess the financial muscle to become a truly elite team and legit Stanley Cup contender. Specifically, in the absence of an owner willing to lose a lot of money, they lacked the wherewithal to acquire what the franchise has missed since Keith Tkachuk hit the wrong side of 30: a go-to goal scorer, particularly one who can dominate on the power play.
The Blues have a lot of supplemental scorers and admirable hard workers with some skill, but no one who can create and finish their own chances consistently (Oshie and Steen, for example, create chances for themselves but neither one is a very good finisher–Steen in particular hits more glass than a window-washer). That’s not necessarily an indictment of the franchise: those guys are pretty rare to find in the first place. When a team does find one, it’s rare that they let them go to hit free agency. And when they do, those players command top dollar. The Blues simply do not have the revenue base to afford to be players for the likes of Kovalchuk or Hossa, and were unfortunate enough to be truly terrible at exactly the wrong time, having the No. 1 overall pick in a year where Erik Johnson was the best available player, and not Sid Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane or Steven Stamkos.
(Irrelevant aside: the best pure scorer in the 2006 draft has turned out to be Phil Kessel, at No. 5 overall, although either Jonathan Toews (no. 3) or Claude Giroux (no. 22) might well be better all-around players.)
(Further irrelevant aside: 2006 was a lousy draft year all the way around. The dropoff from those players mentioned above to the next tier–Jordan Staal, Michael Grabner, Nicklas Backstrom–is pretty steep, and there weren’t more than a handful of players from Round 2 or later who have even made the NHL. Contrast this with 2007, where teams have gotten productive NHL minutes out of late-rounders like Keith Aulie (4), Luca Caputi (4), Dwight King (4), Linus Omark (4), Matt Frattin (4), Jamie Benn (5), Carl Hagelin (6) and Karl Gunnarson (7).)
If the Blues’ offseason strategy thus far in the summer of 2012 is any indication, that won’t be changing any time soon. Tom Stillman is great to have as a new owner, but he can’t magically make millions in TV revenue appear. In fact, the Checketts regime did a pretty darn good job of squeezing money out of the corporate community (“It’s TIME….for an AMEREN UE POWER PLAY!!!!”). Thus, the Blues have worked to re-sign their own players. (A cynic might say that they’ve opted to commit to second-round playoff exits for the next few years.)
Chatting on Twitter with Laura the other day, it struck me: the Blues are the Milwaukee Brewers of the NHL. They rely heavily on internal development, can occasionally stretch to get a decent free agent, but often have to acquire help on the trade market (always more desirable to give up cash than talent, IMO), but will have a difficult time retaining their own superstars (Prince Fielder). And, ultimately, while the team can occasionally get enough breaks to make a bit of a playoff run, will never be perennial contenders and can in no way be considered among the elite franchises.
So the Blues are the Milwaukee Brewers? Is that the best comparison? The Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series a few years back, competing in a division with financial powerhouses Boston and New York–a task not unlike competing with the deep pockets of the Hawks and Wings. The Rays relied on their development system, one key veteran hired gun (Troy Percival), and the best non-LaRussa manager in baseball to make an incredible run, falling just short of the prize. Since then, they’ve made the postseason two out of three seasons, though look to be falling short in 2012.
That would be a nice, achievable future for the Blues: making the playoffs more often than not, mostly with homegrown players and top-notch coaching. If you’re lucky, and the cards fall just right, they might have a deep run every once in a while.