The St. Louis Blues decided to trade Paul Stastny at the deadline this year, despite still being within striking distance of the playoffs. That marked the second consecutive season that GM Doug Armstrong traded away a star on an expiring contract, after dealing Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals in 2017. In doing so, and not re-signing Stastny to a contract extension they’ve left themselves with something of a hole up the middle for next season. After Brayden Schenn, the team doesn’t have a clear second-line center unless one of their young forwards comes in and impresses in camp, or someone like Alex Steen or Robby Fabbri is moved back to the position.
That’s where GM Doug Armstrong comes in, who recently spoke to Mike Zeisberger of NHL.com and confirmed that the team would be going after a center in trade or free agency. Armstrong’s been given the financial backing from ownership, and is on the lookout for some help up the middle:
We have Robert Thomas there, but is he ready to enter prime time as a second-line center? That’s a large chore to ask for a 19-year-old. Probably adding to our depth in the middle would be a goal. Alexander Steen has played center before, Robby Fabbri has played center before, Jaden Schwartz has played center before, so if we have to circle back in, and the players we’re looking at don’t hit free agency or choose different paths, we’d have to adjust to that. But I would say center ice would be an area we’d look to do something in. But like we are at the Draft, in free agency we’re always looking at good players.
The question that will invariably come up after answers like this is how aggressive the Blues will be when it comes to John Tavares. The New York Islanders superstar is the obvious choice for any center upgrade this summer, and St. Louis could afford to fit him into their salary structure. The team projects to have around $18MM of cap space depending on where exactly the upper limit lands, and though they have free agents of their own to re-sign they’re not locked into big-money contracts just yet.
If it’s not Tavares, then Zeisberger lists Joe Thornton, Stastny and Tyler Bozak as the center headliners on the free agent market this summer. Whether the Blues would have any interest in those three is unclear, but there is obviously a plan in place to improve the middle of the ice in some fashion.
It is interesting that Armstrong would mention Thomas, as he’s in the precarious situation that faces many top young players. Thomas won’t turn 19 until July 2nd, meaning that he can only play in the NHL or CHL next season, not the minor leagues. There’s no seasoning to be had for him in the AHL before assuming the second-line center role, meaning he would have to really impress the team in camp. That’s not impossible, as Thomas has taken huge steps forward since being selected 20th-overall last year, and could be ready to step into the lights of the NHL right away. More likely though is that the Blues go out and find another option, perhaps even one on a very short-term deal, to give Thomas and others another year of development.