Strauss: Blues make up for past mistake

2014-07-02T10:05:00Z 2014-07-10T23:55:27Z Strauss: Blues make up for past mistakeJoe Strauss • jstrauss@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Badly needing to change the conversation following another spring letdown, the Blues have embraced their town’s tried-and-true marketing pitch: Buy local.

The Blues didn’t merely sign free-agent center Paul Stastny on Tuesday to a four-year, $28 million deal. They corrected a draft oversight, brought a family’s story full circle and hopefully acquired a talent able to breathe life into a maddeningly inefficient offense.

Bet heavily on the Blues banging the “coming home” drum. Stastny, after all, attended Chaminade College Prep. His father, Peter, finished his prolific career with The Note. Older brother Yan also played pieces of three seasons here. Still, those family ties weren’t enough to move the Blues to select Paul in the 2005 draft. The Blues hit on T.J. Oshie at No. 24 before missing badly on defenseman Scott Jackson at No. 37, seven picks before the Colorado Avalanche grabbed Stastny.

Only two players selected outside the ’05 draft’s first two overall picks have netted more than Stastny’s 160 NHL goals. Only one, Nashville winger James Neal, was available when the Blues selected Oshie.

The Blues atoned lavishly. They’re paying a premium in return for Stastny agreeing to a shorter-term contract that allows him to re-enter free agency in four years, when he’ll be 32. The deal also shoves the Blues against the league salary cap, meaning the roster is virtually set barring a trade.

“I was in a good position,” Stastny understated during a Tuesday afternoon conference call.

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More important is how Tuesday positions the Blues, a franchise that hasn’t escaped its conference semifinals since Stastny attended Chaminade.

General manager Doug Armstrong acquired Stastny as the second half of a center combo. In something of an intelligence coup, the club signed Finnish center Jori Lehtera, its third-round draft pick six years ago. Armstrong gauged Lehtera’s interest in leaving the Kontinental Hockey League during the Sochi Olympics. Lehtera, 26, negotiated out of his KHL deal, signed a two-year pact with the Blues and may now rejoin his former teammate, Vladimir Tarasenko.

“I’m obviously betting a lot of money we’re more difficult to defend than we were two days ago,” quipped Armstrong.

That would be a good thing. The Blues have a knack for getting bogged down offensively in the postseason. During Armstrong’s watch they have managed 14, 10 and six goals in elimination series lasting six, six and four games. Center play has received heavy scrutiny. David Backes was compromised by a severe hit during April’s Game 2 against the Blackhawks. The Blues got one goal and eight assists from their centers during the series. The team scored on one of every 16 shots on net, never mind the ones that were too wide or too high.

The status quo was not an option for a team that challenged for the Presidents’ Cup before ending the season on an injury-assisted, six-game losing streak. A franchise that has renovated its business operations was running out of ways to sell hope. Even the best jingles eventually change.

Armstrong famously attempted the Goalie Gambit with Ryan Miller, who became the city’s most disappointing athletic import since the Cardinals signed Tino Martinez more than 12 years earlier. The Blues got no further with Miller than they did the previous year with Brian Elliott, who was not considered an option this postseason but returned via a three-year extension in May.

The Blues’ goalie tandem boasts six career playoff wins, all of them Elliott’s.

Last season’s attempt to fortify the team from the goal out didn’t work. The Blues rarely played from ahead. The Blackhawks literally skated circles around them in Game 6.

Armstrong, who first attempted to deal for Ottawa center Jason Spezza, described Stastny as a patient, selfless player who gets the most from his wings. Stastny offered a similar description: “I try to slow it down and find the open guy.” A player who has averaged 22 goals and 40 assists during the NHL’s last four 82-game seasons also scored 10 points, including five goals, in the Avalanche’s seven-game April playoff ouster. Stastny has converted 19 percent of his shots on net in 22 career playoff games.

We’ll withhold judgment on whether Tuesday’s moves are enough to push the Blues beyond the first round of the playoffs. Who can say whether it makes them a more viable matchup for the Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings? (By subtraction, one would think it a double-edge against the Avalanche.) The Miller tease should remain an instructive moment when assuming facts not yet in evidence. However, bringing in an engaging still-young talent familiar with the community and enthusiastic about his new employer can’t hurt.

Armstrong had to do something, and he did. There should be an undeniable instant gratification. There assuredly has to be a civic connection. To be determined is how it translates on ice.

Stastny and Lehtera make the Blues deeper and hopefully more potent up front. Their arrival creates intrigue about how Backes and Patrik Berglund will look on the wing. Coach Ken Hitchcock’s line permutations should become even more fascinating.

Best of all, Stastny declined to play the over-the-top pander card. He acknowledged his familiarity and appreciation for the area but declined to say it was the overriding factor in his decision.

“I know the lay of the land,” he said, which certainly includes knowledge of this franchise’s legacy of postseason frustration. He referred to his verdict as “a hockey decision.”

More relevant, Stastny cited this roster’s capacity to create four balanced lines or two dominant ones. He senses a window of opportunity opening, not closing. “There are so many good players available.”

Blues fans had better like this roster because it’s pretty much in place for 2014-15. If it meets with approval, July 1 should be remembered as the day the conversation changed.

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