Even with 20/20 hindsight, there haven’t been too many reasons for Blues fans to criticize the Ryan Miller trade. Could a 21-year-old Buffalo Sabres forward soon change that?
Back in late February of 2014, the St. Louis Blues made a blockbuster deal for All-Star, Olympian, and Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller, who was expected to be a dominant force in net as the Blues fought to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. The Blues had made two straight playoff appearances without being able to make that next jump and get deep into the postseason, and a dominant goalie like Miller was supposed to help the team do just that. Winger Steve Ott also came to St. Louis as Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak and forward Chris Stewart were shipped to Buffalo.
For those who closely followed the Blues’ prospect pipeline, though, the elements of the trade that didn’t immediately affect the NHL roster were more disturbing as soon as the deal occurred. In addition to Halak and Stewart, the Blues sent their 2015 first-rounder, 2016 third-rounder, and prospect William Carrier to Buffalo. The Blues were considered to be stacked with NHL forward depth at the time, but perhaps even more than now–since they hadn’t yet drafted now-NHLer Robby Fabbri or top forward prospect Ivan Barbashev–there was reason to be concerned about the future.
Carrier was considered the organization’s top left wing prospect, and at least until Fabbri was selected, the cupboard was left rather bare at that position when the Blues decided to trade him.
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He didn’t immediately produce and twist the knife in the wound for Blues fans scarred by Miller’s collapse in the 2014 postseason and subsequent departure. But two-and-a-half years after that blockbuster deal, Carrier is now beginning to come into his own at the tender age of 21.
Carrier was sent back to the AHL for the third straight season to begin 2016-17, but after collecting three goals and an assist through his first seven games, he finally received a promotion earlier this month. He was recalled on November 4 as the Sabres chose to swap him with winger Justin Bailey, and he made his debut on November 5. Blues fans will have an opportunity to see him up close for the first time in the NHL on Tuesday as the Sabres visit Scottrade Center.
Carrier still doesn’t have a point through five games, so it’s way too early to say that trading him is going to haunt the Blues for years to come. But he’s brought such a high level of intangible skill to the Sabres’ lineup that he’s now been promoted to their top forward line (he played a career-high 11:57 in Saturday night’s game). He’s got a mix of size (6-foot-2 and 212 pounds), speed, and tenacity–as Ken Hitchcock would say–that the Blues’ lineup sure seems to be missing right now:
The Blues have been forced to rely more on young forwards in 2015-16 after veterans David Backes and Troy Brouwer departed in free agency during the summer. Some of the Blues’ struggles during the early part of the season are surely attributable to the team’s lack of an identity–they relied largely on size and physicality last season, then decided over the summer that they wanted to play a speed-and-skill game without actually acquiring players who knew how to play that style.
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A large part of the problem, though, is that the youth movement hasn’t necessarily worked out well, as quite a few of the team’s most inexperienced forwards are underperforming.
After a fantastic rookie season during which he scored 18 goals with 19 assists in 72 games, Fabbri came out of the gates slow this season, collecting just three assists with no goals over 12 games before scoring three goals in his past three games. He was also a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career on Thursday.
23-year-old Dmitrij Jaskin has looked more polished as of late, but it appears that his ceiling might be that of a bottom-six player, rather than the top-six role that was envisioned for him two seasons ago, when he scored 13 goals in 54 games during his first extended tour of NHL duty. He’s a noticeably slow skater, and he just doesn’t seem to find any of the opportunities to score that he somehow created back in 2014-15.
At this point, it feels pointless to even mention winger Ty Rattie, who has been talked up as a future NHLer ever since Carrier was still in the system, but still has yet to break through the glass ceiling to full-time NHL duty after three-plus seasons of fill-in work. Rattie has seen just 8:02 of NHL action this season and recently went on a three-game conditioning stint in the AHL in an attempt to stay sharp.
It now seems that you can throw winger Nail Yakupov into that group as well. The former number one overall pick, who was acquired by the Blues from the Edmonton Oilers just before the regular season got underway, has been a healthy scratch three times through the team’s first 16 games, was benched for the last period-and-a-half of the Blues’ 8-4 loss at Columbus on Saturday night, and looks like a prime candidate to return to the press box on Tuesday night.
Barbashev is still somewhat intriguing–despite the 20-year-old’s lack of size and strength, he does have 11 points through 13 games for the AHL Chicago Wolves and appears to have a natural scoring touch–but other than him, the Blues don’t really appear to have any legitimate forward prospects on the horizon. 2016 first-rounder Tage Thompson is probably their best long-term forward prospect, but he’s currently playing collegiately at the University of Connecticut and appears to be a ways away from the NHL.
For all we know, guys like Jaskin, Rattie, Fabbri, and Yakupov may end up doing more for the Blues than Carrier will ever do for the Sabres. But that big trade brought the Blues nothing more than inconsistent goaltending from Miller, three assists and a minus-12 rating from Ott (the three goals, 11 assists, and minus-11 rating over the following two seasons cost the Blues an additional $5.2 million), and an exit after six games in the playoffs. Things are only going to get tougher, as the Blues could lose talent in the expansion draft and face free-agent decisions on Patrik Berglund and Scottie Upshall next offseason, and their need for young forward depth is only going to become greater.
Sure, the trade of Stewart and decision to allow Miller to walk gave the Blues some extra funds to sign Paul Stastny. But as a 21-year-old with years ahead of him begins to see everything click in Buffalo, it’s difficult not to wonder what could have been in St. Louis.