Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Blues need a top defenseman to elevate their game

By Andrew Allsman| Posted: March 6, 2013| Contact  |

With two young, exceptional defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk manning the blue line for the Blues, one wouldn't guess that the team’s biggest problem this season is defense. In fact, the easiest excuse for the Blues’ inconsistencies would be injuries. The team has been without Jaroslav Halak for a stretch of time and is now missing three of their top players in Vladimir Tarasenko, Andy McDonald, and Alex Steen. Yet, the Blues played similarly inconsistent with those players in the lineup. The problem is not injuries, but rather one that the Blues were worried about in the offseason; the lack of another top defenseman.

 The same problem that the Blues are faced with this season existed for stretches of last season. Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk are simply too good to be paired with an average defenseman. Last year Carlo Colaiacovo was paired with Pietrangelo when he was healthy enough to be in the lineup, but he simply couldn’t compliment the star’s game consistently.

The Blues opted to not re-sign Colaiacovo, hoping that Ian Cole could handle the position. Unfortunately, the results were unsatisfactory and Blues general manager Doug Armstrong signed veteran Wade Redden in hopes of having enough depth in the event that Cole’s inconsistencies continued to be a problem. With little over half of the season remaining, the Blues’ inconsistencies have yet to be solved. But there is no easy solution.

The Blues’ best opportunity to better their team was in the offseason with several top defensemen on the market. Armstrong was unable to land any of the desired candidates because the price was too high. The price still remains high, which means the Blues may be forced to either stick with what they have or part with a member of the team’s core. Both are undesirable options, putting Armstrong in a hard position, but one that he is not new to.

The April 3 trade deadline is fast approaching and Armstrong has to decide if pulling the trigger on a deal in a shortened season is the best option.

There were rumors last year that the Blues had interest in Phoenix’s Keith Yandle and Calgary’s Jay Bouwmeester, but either the asking price was too high, or the players’ respective teams simply weren’t interested in parting with them. But those two defensemen are examples of the quality blue liners that the Blues must target if they want to have success.

The team’s defensemen this year have yet to find chemistry within their pairings. Pietrangelo has been paired with either Ian Cole or Wade Redden for most of the season. Lately, the team has experimented by putting Barret Jackman with Pietrangelo, but the results aren’t much better. It’s in the team’s best interest to find someone that can compliment Pietrangelo’s style of play, while being able to effectively defend if Pietrangelo gets caught deep in the offensive zone. But the important question is: are the Blues ready to part with players to meet what is sure to be a high asking price?

The price would vary from team to team but it’s plausible to say that the asking price would be a good, young forward and a high draft pick. The Blues have a wealth of skilled forwards so giving up one would not be a huge issue for the right return. However, the majority of the team’s forwards have huge upside and it’s always hard to part with players of that caliber. Whether or not the Blues are willing to do that remains to be seen but it takes two to tango.

In a shortened season, teams aren’t going to blow up their roster because they run the risk of not making the playoffs. It’s simply not as important of a season to most. Not to mention, it’s hard to get a read on players in a 48-game season. Armstrong simply may not have many options. If that is the case, the team will just have to find a way to make what they have work for them. Not making the playoffs is still inexcusable with the skill the Blues have, but if the inconsistencies continue, that is a real possibility.

The Blues need a top, left-handed defenseman to take their game to the next level. There is no way around it. Armstrong knows it too. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been shopping for one for the better part of a year now. Armstrong won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal that works for his club, even if it means parting with a core player. However, Armstrong is nothing if not patient. He has shown this in the past. While fans may call this year a disappointment thus far, Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock still believe in their team but it’s hard to see the Stanley Cup coming to St. Louis in the foreseeable future without a top defenseman arriving first.