St. Louis Blues – Traded G Jaroslav Halak, RW Chris Stewart, LW William Carrier, a 2015 first round draft pick and a conditional pick in the 2016 draft to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for G Ryan Miller and C/LW Steve Ott (Feb. 28, 2014)
Tied for the lead in points in the Central Division – although with two games in hand from their main competitors from Chicago – there is no time like the present for the Blues to go for it. Not counting the long defunct California Golden Seals, the St. Louis Blues are the only team remaining from the first round of NHL expansion in 1967 to have never won a Stanley Cup. It is also fair – if sad – to say that they have not had as clear a shot at finally taking the title since the first few years of their existence when the playoffs where set up such that an expansion team had to reach the finals, where they would play – and eventually lose – to one of the Original Six. The Blues made it to the final round in each of their first three years and have not returned since. In fact, since those halcyon days, they have only twice even made the Conference finals, and not since the 2000-01 season. In other words, they really want this.
The obvious point of interest in this trade is the upgrade in net from pending UFA Jaroslav Halak, to pending UFA Ryan Miller. The fact that both are on expiring contracts is an important point in any analysis of the deal in that contract status cancels out and we can judge that aspect of the trade on purely hockey grounds. Halak put up 7.7 GVT in 39 games (.197/game) with a .917 save percentage. Miller has contributed 14.6 in 39 games (.374/game) with a .923 save percentage. At even strength, their save percentages were practically even, with Halak holding a marginal edge, .928-.927. Vukota had the two netminders projected to roughly equal value on a per-game basis, with Miller getting the overall lead due to more expected games played. Considering that they have roughly equal ice time, but Miller has double the GVT, we can regress the remainder of the season such that 75% of expected value will be in line with season-to-date performance and the other 25% will be in line with the Vukota line. The Blues have 23 games remaining since the change went into effect. Let’s give 20 of those games (resting only when the Blues play two games in two days) to our new goalie. We should expect 6.5 GVT from Miller through the end of the regular season. Halak, on the other hand, could be expected to contribute 4 GVT. In short, that difference equates to maybe one extra point in the standings – which, in a close race, could be the difference between a #2 or #3 seed for the playoffs and home ice advantage in the second round. Not trivial.
Of course, the stated intent of upgrading in net was not for an extra point in the regular season, but rather to improve their likelihood of advancing in the playoffs. Granting that the Blues have not hidden their general lack of confidence in the incumbent tandem of Halak and Elliott, the Slovak Olympian has just as much postseason success on his resume as does the American Olympian. In fact, Halak’s .923 career save percentage in 23 postseason games dwarves that of Miller, who has stopped 91.7% of shots in 47 playoff contests. Halak shepherded one long run and Miller has two. As such, it is hard to really buy any analytical take that suggests that Miller is a better bet for the playoffs than Halak and so we are left with soft factors; The Blues did not trust Halak, but they trust Miller. There is value in that, but not the type of value that we can quantify with any reliability. I can be comfortable attributing an extra 2-3% chance at raising the Cup simply through extra confidence in their netminder, but no more than that.
On the other end of the deal, the Blues get third line grinder Steve Ott, a pending UFA who can play up the middle or on the wing, and give up Chris Stewart, who has one more year at a reasonable price under contract, a young prospect in William Carrier who was thought to be one of the top handful of prospects in the St. Louis system, a first round pick in a stacked 2015 draft and a conditional pick that would be a 2016 first rounder if the Blues make the Conference finals or re-sign Miller, and a third rounder if neither occur. If we can give a slight win to St. Louis for the first half of the deal, the back half looks like a complete loss.
Going back to soft factors, Chris Stewart was firmly entrenched in coach Ken Hitchcock’s doghouse for much of the season. Even though the young veteran was the Blues’ leading scorer last season and plays with more grit than most snipers, he found himself benched for lengthy periods of time. His seasonal average ice time of 13:42 per game is more than two minutes fewer per game than he received last season, and represent his fewest since his rookie season with Colorado in 2008-09.Even relegated to a bottom six role, Stewart can score, as his current 14% shooting percentage is in line with his career figure of 13.5%. We cannot say the same for Steve Ott, who has only once surpassed the 20-goal mark. Instead, what Ott will provide is a player that Hitchcock can be more comfortable rolling out for close and late shifts. Ott has never shown the need for shift protection, starting more than his share in his own zone (this extends back to before he joined a Sabres squad that starts in its own zone no matter who is on the ice) and used to playing top shelf competition, while Stewart has typically required an abundance of shifts beginning in the offensive zone to make his mark on the game.
At best, the Blues can hope to not lose out in terms of production over the remainder of the season and the playoffs with Ott taking the roster spot and ice time of Stewart. At worst, a team without any top shelf snipers* has one fewer weapon for the playoffs.
*This means that we expect regression to hit Alexander Steen hard – as hard as his single goal in his past seven games. His 28 goals this season are already banked, but that goal scoring pace will not continue.
When we throw in Carrier and the two picks – potentially high picks – it all adds up to a big gamble for the normally budget-conscious Blues. If this team does not emerge victorious from the murderous Western Conference, a barren farm system without two high picks will portend lean years ahead. If they can reach the Holy Land – even if they were almost as likely to get there before the trade as there are after it – it will all be worth it. Flags fly forever.
Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.