Rutherford: Start of the Blues' offseason shows 2024-25 could be another playoffs-free season

From chairman Tom Stillman to general manager Doug Armstrong, everything the St. Louis Blues organization has communicated this summer indicates that it wants to remain competitive during the retool and return to the playoffs as soon as possible.

That could happen in 2024-25. It’s wise for everyone to remember that the offseason is the entire offseason — not just the weekend of the NHL Draft and the first day of free agency. A couple of trades in July or August could give this roster a better look than anyone envisions right now and restore the faith.

But early on, it’s hard to see.

The trade of Kevin Hayes to the Pittsburgh Penguins may have made the Blues better by subtraction, though at the expensive cost of a second-round draft pick to get the Pens to take on the final two years of his contract.

Alexandre Texier, who was acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets and signed to a two-year, $4.2 million contract, might be a decent player. But while he’s got upside, he’s a flier.

And then on the opening day of free agency Monday, there was a head-scratcher: Kasperi Kapenen is returning next season. The pending unrestricted free agent was signed to a one-year, $1 million contract, and yeah it’s cheap, but Kapanen looked like he was trying to play his way out of the league in 2023-24.

Kasperi Kapanen didn’t look likely to return to the Blues after a 22-point season. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

I’m going to get to the possibility of a trade or two helping the Blues in 2024-25, but before I do, let me ask: How could this team contend for a playoff spot next season unless you’re just counting on the same group that surprisingly put up 92 points last season and narrowly missed the postseason to do even better?

For many people, it’s not the end of the world if the Blues are not competitive and not in the playoffs. Those folks are eyeing a higher draft pick and better days ahead. That’s understandable.

The Blues have flat-out said themselves that their focus continues to be on the future, and that’s fine. But by their own words, too, they want to be in the mix, and when looking at the improvements made in the Central Division this week, you’d have a tough time making the case they are.

The Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche finished as the top three teams in the division last year, respectively, and there’s no reason to doubt that they’ll be back strong.

The Nashville Predators, who finished as the top wild card in the Western Conference, loaded up Monday, signing free agents Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault. Even teams that finished below the Blues in the standings have made significant additions this offseason, with the Seattle Kraken landing Brandon Montour and Chandler Stephenson and the Utah Hockey Club trading for defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and John Marino.

The Blues tried to improve the roster, inquiring about Stephenson. Last week, I wrote that a perfect week for the Blues would include him signing a four-year, $24 million deal ($6 million annual average value) with the club.

Well, I was close on the AAV, but Stephenson wound up getting a monster seven-year, $43.75 million contract ($6.25 million AAV) from the Kraken. He’s a good player who could’ve helped, but the Blues were right not to engage in term anywhere near that length.

Many of the prices in free agency were astronomical on Day 1, and Armstrong’s approach has never been to throw dollars at players during this period. In fact, despite having $16.3 million in salary-cap space, he was abundantly clear in an interview with The Athletic last week that the Blues likely wouldn’t be active until the second or third day.

“I never say never on anything, but you’re realistic,” Armstrong said Saturday at the NHL Draft in Las Vegas. “We’re going to be understanding of where we’re at. I liked the way (Zack) Bolduc played last year. I liked (Zach) Dean and I want to give them opportunities. We’ll see how we can augment that group.

“I think you have to consider everything, but we have acquired these assets and we have younger players coming. We have to look at the whole landscape on how to improve our team.”

The problem with trying to find players in free agency later this week is that the vast majority of the top ones signed Monday, and the cupboard is starting to look bare — even for ones who could help just a little bit.



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That’s perhaps why the Blues re-signed Kapanen, who had just six goals and 22 points in 73 games last season, which he labeled himself as the worst of his career. Of course, he’ll be no more than a depth piece, but his return speaks to the situation the team is in.

Armstrong did not speak with the media on Monday but is expected to at some point this week.

When he does, as he did at the draft last week, Armstrong will likely mention the possibility of trades this summer. He made a good point that having as much cap space as the Blues do could allow them to acquire players who surprisingly become available because clubs are looking to create cap space. He used the Tampa Bay Lightning’s decision to trade Sergachev to Utah and Tanner Jeannot to the Los Angeles Kings.

“There might be other people that want to move money, and we have assets,” Armstrong said last week. “So we have the ability now to talk to teams about things that maybe we didn’t before.”

That could still happen, but in situations like the one in Tampa, the Lightning were looking to clear room to sign free-agent forward Jake Guentzel. They traded a 2025 third-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for Guentzel’s rights Sunday then signed him to a seven-year, $63 million contract.

Now that the early free-agency frenzy is over, how many teams will be looking to unload players such as Sergachev later this summer? It’s possible, but probably not many.

Trading one of the Blues’ defensemen — a move that could both change the look of the roster and unlock other potential moves — also isn’t a guarantee. Internally, the team is aware that it may have to return the same unit.

“They’re all under contract,” Armstrong said last week. “We’re just going to wait and see how it goes in July and August. That’s all I can really say.”

There’s nothing new or necessarily wrong with where the Blues are after Monday.

Everyone knew that the Blues’ eyes this summer would be on the future. Most knew even with a lot of cap space that they would stay out of the high-priced spending in free agency. Those being realistic with themselves see that you can’t snap your fingers and, poof, a big defensive contract is gone.

The blueprint for what they want to do moving forward is still in place, and they’re not deviating.

However, if you’re concerned about the Blues missing the playoffs for a third straight season and finishing in the murky middle again next year, you have every right to be at this point.

(Photo of Doug Armstrong: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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