As the NHL trade deadline expired Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues sent a clear message to their fans: We care about the future of this franchise.
The subtext of that statement, however, reveals a chilly side: We don’t care about the playoffs this year.
Team president John Davidson and the Blues organization sent their leading goal scorer, Bill Guerin, to conference rival San Jose on Tuesday and told fan favorite Keith Tkachuk to pack his bags for Atlanta on Sunday.
Davidson has given up. He looked at his 11th-place Blues and realized that a playoff run was unrealistic.
Even if the Blues, who have been playing better in the second half of the season, were to limp into the eighth seed, Davidson knows that an early exit wouldn’t help his team’s future.
This represents an interesting departure from the “win now” mentality that plagues many owners. In football, making the playoffs at any price means big bucks for an owner and usually (unless you’re Marty Schottenheimer) contract extensions for coaches.
But in hockey and basketball, where 16 teams make the playoffs, it’s a little different. In those sports more than others, teams are accused of battling for last place to augment their chances at receiving top draft picks (see: Boston Celtics).
The Blues, who were in last place earlier in the season, could actually help their future by losing a few more games. That would fit their new future-conscious behavior.
If the ice of a franchise is cracking and melting, most members of management decide to send the Zamboni out to gloss over it. This might mean adding some veteran players from teams looking to dump high salaries.
But St. Louis’ front office decided that a Zamboni just repairs the surface. Instead, they reworked the entire intricate cooling system to fix the problems for good.
In being forward thinking, Davidson and his staff allowed two aging NHL veterans to abandon ship for a pair of sixth-place Stanley Cup contenders.
The trades leave St. Louis with a roster with just a couple of well-known names (like Doug Weight and Petr Cajanek) but an enticing collection of draft picks.
In the Tkachuk trade, the Blues picked up two picks for 2007, and the Guerin deal brought in another.
If the Blues don’t trade any of those picks before the draft in June, they’ll have three first-round selections. What might be even better, though, is if they traded all three for the first overall pick.
That would mean adding an almost surefire future superstar like Angelo Esposito, widely considered to be the best North American prospect.
In the 2006 draft, the Blues had the top overall pick for the first time in franchise history and chose defenseman Erik Johnson. Johnson is now a freshman at the University of Minnesota, where he is honing his powerful slapshot and salivating about the prospect of joining the Blues and becoming a future star.
Who will join Johnson in this team of the future?
All we know is that the Blues organizations from past years knew how to put a strong team on the ice, and we hope that this edition of the front office can do the same. This is a down period for the Blues, but sports are characterized by never-ending cycles of success and failure.
The Blues had more than their fair share of triumph when they reached the playoffs 25 years in a row — a streak that ended in 2004.
Because of the organization’s awareness of long-term success, it is safe to assume that this short period of failure is nearing its end.
Working for the future is a frustrating proposition for fans of any sport, but loyal supporters are rewarded for their patience. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Cleveland Cavaliers are formerly laughable franchises whose teams rose from the ashes around superstars to become legitimate contenders.
The Blues don’t have a superstar. The two they did have were traded away this week, but two players with a combined age of 70 weren’t going to be around for much longer anyway. With 15 players under 30 and more to come in June, the Blues will be back on the league’s radar in no time.
The St. Louis Blues decided to make a long-term, low-risk investment in the future of the franchise. In doing so, they might lose a few more games than usual and probably won’t be playing in the postseason. But any sane sports fan will gladly trade a few years of shame for decades of fame.