The St. Louis Blues centers have been desperately lacking depth ever since Ken Hitchcock took over the team and Andy McDonald hung up his skates. 15 of their 62 draft picks since 2010 were considered centers when they were drafted. This is tied with defensemen for the highest-picked position in that stretch. Among these St. Louis Blues centers picked are Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, two of the most anticipated prospects in the league.
When you look at what the Blues already had in place, all the effort going into getting young centers seems a bit redundant. In fact, they’ve lost a lot of centers that have gone on to have great seasons with their new teams. Three of them stand out amongst the rest.
The Three Lost St. Louis Blues Centers
Career in St. Louis
Paul Stastny signed with the St. Louis Blues during the 2014 summer. He was leaving the Colorado Avalanche after eight seasons. Fans were very excited. Stastny is the son of Hall-of-Famer, Peter Stastny. Paul grew up in St. Louis after his dad moved there for the last two seasons of his NHL career. He even played Triple-A hockey with the St. Louis Jr. Blues. Stastny was a hometown kid coming back.
Stastny was one of the vital St. Louis Blues centers. He played 267 games over four seasons. He ranked top three in scoring for two of his four seasons in St. Louis. The two seasons he didn’t rank were his first and last, where he ranked sixth and seventh respectively. He was easily one of the best players on the team, both on the ice and in the locker room. It’s hard to argue Stastny’s heart. He wanted to win every game he played and did a great job of assuring it in St. Louis.
After the Blues
With all of that said, it was a huge shock when the Blues dealt away Stastny in January of 2018. In return, they got Erik Foley and a first-round pick. With Winnipeg, Stastny was electric. He ended up scoring 13 points in the remaining 19 regular season games. In the playoffs, he was even better, with 15 points in 17 games.
This amazing performance made Stastny one of the hottest free agents over this past summer. He ended up signing a modest contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. He’s missed most of his debut season in Vegas with a leg injury. In the seven games he has played, he’s scored three points.
Stastny was the best player in recent history to man the top-line center role in St. Louis. He had a great faceoff percentage of 56 percent (including 58 percent in 2015-16) and averaged 0.66 points-per-game. Judging by the way he’s played with Winnipeg and Vegas, it seems like he was only improving with age.
David Backes shared one big thing in common with Stastny, Blues fans loved him. He was the team’s captain from 2011 to 2016 and did a great job leading the team. Under Backes, the Blues made the playoffs every single season. In fact, Backes has made the playoffs every single year since 2012.
Backes was drafted by the Blues in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft. He made his debut in the 2006-07 season and played nine more after it. In total, he netted 460 points in 727 games. He also totalled an impressive 969 penalty minutes, including five seasons of over 100. This was one of the best stats to summarize his play. He was a strong net-front presence who was notoriously physical. He was also a prolific playmaker, usually head-manning the power-play. During his first year as team captain, Backes ranked second among forwards in power-play assists with nine. He also ranked second the year prior, with 10.
Backes’ large stature and physical play made him a great defensive player as well. The captain ranked in the top five in Selke Trophy voting every year between the 2011-12 and the 2014-15 seasons. He ranked seventh in 2010-11 and 14th in 2015-16.
Time in Boston
His reign with the Blues ended in the summer of 2016, unfortunately. He went on to instead sign a five-year contract, worth a whopping $6 million a year, with the Boston Bruins. The 2018-19 season is his last with a full no-movement clause. After this year, he’ll have a modified no-trade clause for the last two years of his deal.
Backes’ contract is a bit much but it made a bit of sense when he signed it. Finding a top-line center in free agency has been notoriously hard in recent years. Backes had five years of over 50 points and netted 45 in the 2015-16 year. With his prowess on special teams and strong defensive play, he was a very attractive free agent during the 2016 summer.
All signs show that the Blues might’ve made the right choice in letting Backes go. He’s continuously declined since signing with the Bruins, scoring 38 and 33 in his first two years respectively.
A Look at His Play
Backes showed a bit of light in recent play. He’s only tallied nine points in 30 games so far this year. Of those nine, six have been assists. Of those six assists, three have come in his last five games alone. He’s also seen an increase in ice time, save for Saturday’s game where he lost a few minutes due to the return of Patrice Bergeron. Still, the Bruins seem to be slowly coming around to using Backes a bit more, after he’s averaged an even, and career-low, 14 minutes of ice time so far this year.
Backes’ heart is still there and he shows flashes of his old self. While he isn’t deserving of a top-line center role with how everything currently is, he clearly comes to play with increased minutes and can heavily benefit a strong offence.
Lars Eller is completely different from the first two players on this list. Not only is he younger by three and five years respectively, but he also only donned a Blues jersey for seven games.
Time with the Organization
He was drafted by the team in the first round of 2007. He spent the next two seasons in Sweden’s top league, notching a fair amount of points in the process. After that, he moved on to the AHL in the 2009-10 season, playing for the Peoria Rivermen. The Rivermen, with players like Ryan Reaves and Danny Richmond, were a notoriously physical team. Eller embraced this by totalling 84 penalty minutes, fourth highest on the team. He combined this uncanny amount of penalty minutes with the fast-paced and skilled style of play that he always harnessed. It resulted in him getting the most points on the team, with 57, in the 70 games he played.
Looking back, Eller wasn’t remembered in Peoria for being a so-called ‘grinder’. He was instead a fan-favourite all year. It felt like he was always a step above any other player and he did what he had to do to win. He was a dominant playmaker, racking up 39 assists, while also being one of the most reliable forwards in the defensive zone. Everyone in Central Illinois knew he’d be a consistent NHL player and had very high expectations for the then 20-year-old.
After St. Louis
Eller played seven games with the Blues during the 09-10 season. He scored twice, a promising look for his supporters back in Peoria, but otherwise wasn’t noteworthy. The Blues dealt him to the Montreal Canadiens a little over a week before the 2010 NHL Draft. Ian Schultz was the other half of the package, with goaltender Jaroslav Halak coming back the other way.
Eller hasn’t seen a single game of minor-league hockey since the trade, save for when he spent the first half of the 2012 lockout playing in Finland. He was a staple for the Canadiens, seeing a moderate amount of ice time each game. For the minutes he saw, Eller was doing a good job of meeting expectations. He scored around 30 points each of his six seasons in Montreal.
The Canadiens dealt Eller away during the 2016 NHL Draft, sending him to the Washington Capitals. In return, the Habs got two second-round draft picks. The two picks have been pretty useful in getting Montreal two good prospects but Eller has continued improving in Washington.
With the Capitals, Eller has stayed around the 30 points mark. In last season’s Stanley Cup-winning season, Eller scored a career-high 38 points in 81 games. This ranked him sixth on the team in scoring during the regular season. He followed up the solid 38 points with an amazing performance in the 24 game-long playoff run. During that stretch, he scored 18 points. This again ranked him sixth on the team in scoring, which goes to show how great the Capitals were in the playoffs.
The Capitals amazing 2018 playoffs are beside the point. Looking at Eller’s NHL career, he’s been a very reliable center for both the Canadiens and Capitals. Now, at the age of 29, he’s turning it up a notch and starting to emerge as a top-six forward. While some of his advanced stats aren’t necessarily ideal, he’s continuing his scoring prowess with 16 points in 35 games so far this year.
The point with all three of these examples isn’t to show players the Blues should trade for, but more to show the much-needed talent they’ve sent elsewhere. The team has had completely justifiable reasons for ditching each player mentioned, be that making space for off-season moves, saving money, and filling another much-needed role respectively. Still, all three players could heavily benefit a St. Louis Blues roster that is struggling to find consistency and offence, despite being one of the best team’s on paper. On top of their unique skillsets, Stastny, Backes, and Eller are all strong leaders and bring a lot more value outside of their play.
Looking at these examples doesn’t solve much, though. The Blues can simply claim, “hindsight 20/20” as they continue to draft, and trade for, strong centers with the hopes that they can provide the spark needed to make the team Stanley Cup contenders.