The St. Louis Blues are one of the best—if not *the* best—teams in the NHL this season. They have arguably the top defensive corps in the league, the second-most prolific offense at 3.26 goals per game and some quality goaltending backstopping the entire operation.
After Friday night's blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres, none of that has changed in the least.
And that's the problem; the Blues pulled off a trade of epic proportions, and they didn't improve their chances of winning a Stanley Cup, if at all.
BREAKING: The Blues have acquired Miller & Ott from Buffalo for Halak, Stewart, Carrier & two picks. INFO >>> http://t.co/NGLbm5mwxT— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 1, 2014
Buffalo receives a first round pick in 2015 and a third round pick in 2016. #stlblues— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 1, 2014
The big names are goaltender Ryan Miller and Jaroslav Halak, as the Blues executed a deal that delivers the loud and clear signal that they didn't have confidence in their No. 1 goaltender and needed to upgrade.
"We weren't looking for a goalie; we were looking for Ryan Miller," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said during an interview with NHL Network. "If it wasn't Ryan Miller, we were very content with Jaro and (Brian) Elliott. They've got us right now with the best winning percentage in the NHL. We're very comfortable.
"If it wasn't Ryan Miller, we weren't in the goalie market for anyone else."
Both goaltenders will be unrestricted free agents after the season, but logic dictates the Blues would not have parted with their No. 1 goaltender, a top-nine forward, two picks and a prospect if they did not intend to sign Miller long term.
Miller, 33, was a one-man show with a Buffalo team that was inept in every way. The discrepancy between his goals-against average (2.72) and save percentage (.923) speaks volumes about the 34.2 shots per game the Sabres were allowing this season, an abundance of them quality chances. As awful as the Sabres have been this season, they'd have been twice as worse without Miller.
Among goaltenders with at least 30 starts this season, Miller ranks ninth in even-strength save percentage at .927. No matter how you want to slice it, Miller put together a splendid season under harrowing conditions.
''It's definitely humbling and flattering that they would make that kind of move and bring us in with the intention of giving them some help to push for a Stanley Cup,'' Miller said to reporters in Buffalo. ''We're excited for the opportunity there. But also, it's about the responsibility we have to that organization to show up and get up to speed and compete as hard as we can to live up to the trade.''
The 28-year-old Halak, meanwhile, was having a fine season in his own right that was beginning to trend in an upward direction.
He had been plagued by injuries in recent years—he missed the final seven games of the 2012 playoffs because of a lower-body ailment—but has been healthy this season. In 40 games, he was 24-9-4 with a 2.23/.917 split, but in his past 12 games, he was 7-3-1 with a .936 save percentage.
In Miller's past 12 games, he was 5-5-2 with a .915 save percentage.
Halak has been slightly better than Miller in even-strength save percentage, posting a .928 figure although he has faced far fewer shots behind an excellent Blues defense. SportingCharts.com provides heat charts for goaltenders, and it's plain to see Miller has faced the far more difficult opportunities this season than Halak.
The regular season is almost inconsequential to the Blues at this point, so what have Miller and Halak done in their careers during the postseason?
Their numbers are similar, but Halak has been a little bit better.
In 47 career games, Miller is 25-22 with a 2.47/.917 split; in 23 career games, Halak is 10-11 with a 2.42/.923 split.
Miller reached the conference finals twice, in 2006 and 2007; Halak got there once with the Montreal Canadiens in 2010. In 12 conference finals games, Miller is 4-8 with an .899 save percentage; in five conference finals games, Halak is 1-4 with an .884 save percentage.
These two guys appear to be apples and oranges. It comes down to which piece of fruit you prefer, and Armstrong clearly likes them apples (Miller is the apples in this metaphor).
The Steve Ott/Chris Stewart portion of the deal appears to a wash too. Ott, a UFA after the season, is very good on faceoffs and will help the penalty kill, but the Blues weren't hurting in either of those departments. Stewart has underwhelmed with 15 goals in 58 games, and his departure is negligible, although the Blues did rid themselves of the final year of his deal and a $4.15 million cap hit.
The Blues are in it to win a Stanley Cup this year, and the difference between Ott and Stewart isn't what will be the difference between winning and losing in April, May or June.
The issue with this deal is the negligible difference between Miller and Halak. Miller has been slightly better than Halak so far this season, but there are no guarantees that he will continue to be the better goaltender over the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. Heck, Halak was playing better than Miller in the month leading to this trade.
Cup contenders address weaknesses at the trade deadline. The Blues were a supermodel who had plastic surgery to remove a small beauty mark on their back.
Can the Blues still win a Stanley Cup? Absolutely. After giving away the volume of assets they did Friday, their chances should've improved a whole lot more than they did.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
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