How Much Longer Will St. Louis Blues Wait to Resolve Awkward Defensive Logjam?


The St. Louis Blues recently called up rookie Joel Edmundson, but Thursday will be his fourth straight game as a healthy scratch. Should they swap him for one of the veteran d-men at AHL Chicago?

Through the duration of the 2015-16 season, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has sought to create the best possible opportunities for 22-year-old rookie defenseman Joel Edmundson. The 2011 second-round pick had a very strong preseason, and he overcame strong odds to make the opening roster as the regular season began. Edmundson kept his head above water for the most part, and he dressed for 20 of the team’s first 21 games.

He ran into a bit of a bump in the road during early December, failing to get back up to speed after losing his spot to Robert Bortuzzo for three games out a five-game stretch. Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock did what they thought was in Edmundson’s best interest, sending him down to the AHL Chicago Wolves on December 6 while giving another 22-year-old, Petteri Lindbohm, some NHL action. At the time, Hitchcock stated that Edmundson’s struggles were primarily an issue of him getting out of rhythm, and that he needed to be playing regularly with some team, even if that team wasn’t the Blues. Lou Korac of had the quotes from Hitchcock:

"“I just think it’s a young guy and it’s the National Hockey League,” Hitchcock said. “This is one fast league getting faster by the day…Doug (Armstrong) has a philosophy, which I agree with, that if you’re not going to play on a regular basis here, you might as well play on a regular basis and get 25 minutes a night playing in the American League.“One of the problems that happens is when younger players start to sit out, they come back in and they play cautious. You’d like them to play the other way, but it’s not natural to do it that way and they play cautious. Eddie’s not one of those guys that can afford to play cautious. We need them back playing reckless again. If he’s got to go down and spend a little bit of time with Chicago with the Wolves and do that, that’s OK, because that’s the type of player that he is and that’s where he’s going to have his success…So rather than having him fight through it for a month, let’s get him playing again at a top level down there. He’ll look like a very good player in Chicago.”"

Edmundson didn’t exactly have the great success that Hitchcock predicted he’d have in the AHL; through six games, he had no points, an even rating, and 15 penalty minutes. Nevertheless, the Blues showed their continued faith in the young defenseman, recalling him on December 19–just a few days before the NHL’s Christmas break–while demoting Lindbohm, who posted a minus-4 rating in seven games with the NHL club.

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Edmundson jumped right back in the lineup, playing in two away games at Philadelphia and Boston before Christmas. He played relatively well, registering a plus-1 rating, collecting two penalty minutes, getting four shots on net, and averaging 14:17 of ice time. The only black mark on his play was some bad coverage in front of the net on an Evgeny Medvedev game-winning goal for the Flyers in Edmundson’s first game back.

Unfortunately for Edmundson, Robert Bortuzzo had a banner game against Boston while acting as the understudy for Carl Gunnarsson, who sat out after suffering an injury in the Philadelphia game. As a result, Bortuzzo–who had a plus-1 rating and a team-leading seven hits through 13:33 of ice time–earned himself another long-term stint in the lineup, and his strong play has caused Edmundson to be a healthy scratch for the past three contests. Hitchcock said Wednesday that he expects to stick with the same lineup for Thursday’s New Year’s Eve battle with the Minnesota Wild, so that means that Edmundson will be in the press box for a fourth straight game against Minnesota.

When confronted with the issue of Edmundson’s inactivity earlier this week, Hitchcock changed his tune just a bit, but still indicated that something needs to be done in the near future. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford relayed:

"“I think he’s benefiting from being here, but he’s got to play,” Hitchcock said. “Those are decisions we’re going to make here in the next couple of games. I think in the next couple of games, we’ll make decisions that might be a little long-lasting. We’ll see.”"

If Edmundson can get back in the Blues’ lineup soon, then perhaps the issue will become less pressing. It would seem, however, considering Hitchcock’s previous statement that Edmundson was being adversely affected by long layoffs between game appearances, that the only appropriate move for Edmundson’s continued development would be to send him back to Chicago, even if it’s just for another short spell to get him back up to speed in a low-pressure environment.

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After all, the Blues just started doing right by Bortuzzo, an emerging player who they signed to a new two-year, $2.1 million-dollar deal this offseason and expected to be a significant part of their defensive corps. Bortuzzo, who energized the Blues down the stretch with his aggressive play last season, ended up being a healthy scratch for 20 of the team’s first 35 games, and he endured a nine-game layoff earlier this month before finally getting back in the lineup against Boston. Consistently playing Bortuzzo, who shoots righthanded, isn’t necessarily ideal since the Blues already have three elite righthanded-shooting defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Colton Parayko. But since the organization invested in him this offseason, and because he’s almost always played well when he’s been afforded opportunities, Bortuzzo deserves an extended chance to prove himself as a worthy member of the Blues’ regular group of six defensemen.

Though it’s not completely fair to send Edmundson back to Chicago to continue his third AHL season, it’s the best solution for the organization’s glut of defensemen. In addition to creating an opportunity for the 22-year-old to get consistent playing time, it will also grant an opportunity for one of the three grizzled veteran defensemen currently playing with the Wolves to join the NHL club.

Casting aside emotions, finances, and organizational bias, the best candidate for a call-up at this point would be soon-to-be 32-year-old Andre Benoit. Through 30 games, the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder leads the Wolves in points with 23, having scored three goals and contributed 20 assists. Benoit also has a team-best plus-9 rating as part of Chicago’s top defensive pairing this season.

Benoit was actually quite a get for the Blues this offseason, as he signed a two-way deal that will pay him a $600,000 salary while he’s in the NHL and substantially less while he’s in the minors. Prior to this season, Benoit hadn’t played in the AHL since 2012-13, and he had a very solid season for the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-14, registering seven goals and 21 assists with a plus-2 rating in 79 games for the Avs. Benoit wasn’t as good last season for the Buffalo Sabres, scoring just one goal with eight assists and a minus-19 rating through 59 games, but regardless, he spent the full season in the NHL. If recalled, he’d be an ideal candidate for the seventh defenseman role, as he can provide a lefthanded shot if Hitchcock feels the need to have balanced pairings for a certain game, and he’d seemingly be more comfortable than Edmundson with infrequent playing time since he has 11 seasons of professional experience under his belt.

If Armstrong and Hitchcock would prefer to opt for familiarity (and maximization of financial investments), they could recall Chris Butler from Chicago. The St. Louis native was with the Blues for most of the 2014-15 season, seeing action in 33 games while scoring three goals, adding six assists, and earning a plus-8 rating. Butler, who spent nearly a month with the NHL club earlier this season and played in two games, is comfortable filling the seventh defenseman role and would also be a solid candidate to replace Edmundson on the Blues’ roster. In addition, the promotion of Butler might be a comfort to the front office, as they signed him to a one-year, one-way, $675,000 contract this offseason and are currently paying him an NHL salary (albeit, a cheap one) to play in the minors.

Butler has an established rapport in the Blues’ dressing room, and like Benoit, he provides the lefthanded shot necessary for Hitchcock to deploy balanced blueline pairings if he so desires. With that said, Butler has struggled a bit during his time with the Wolves this season, scoring one goal with seven assists while registering a minus-9 rating in 23 games. Those aren’t necessarily disastrous statistics, but it’s unknown how far his familiarity with the team, previous play, and NHL salary will carry him with other players playing better at Chicago.

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The last logical candidate for a call-up would be Peter Harrold, a 32-year-old with nine seasons (274 games) of NHL experience who’s been playing alongside Benoit as part of the Wolves’ top defensive pairing this year. Harrold has played in all 30 games for Chicago, scoring one goal with seven assists and earning a plus-7 rating. Harrold, a stay-at-home defenseman who lacks strong offensive skills, has been a reserve defenseman for most of his NHL career and would presumably settle well into that type of role with the Blues. His only real disadvantage would be that he shoots righthanded, which would give the Blues just two lefthanded-shooting defensemen on their NHL roster.

By the way, all of this discussion shouldn’t suggest that the aforementioned Lindbohm can’t be a trusted contributor to the Blues’ defensive corps at some point this season. It’s just that Bortuzzo deserves an extended chance to prove his worth, and it doesn’t make sense to have Lindbohm sitting as the Blues’ seventh defenseman when he could be developing with the Wolves. It’d be somewhat of a catch-22 situation–either Lindbohm would be missing out on important experience, or Bortuzzo would be unnecessarily sitting to accommodate Lindbohm as he played in every game–so for now it’s best for Lindbohm, along with Edmundson, to continue to get better at the AHL level.