ST. LOUIS -- The end of the Dave Checketts' era in St. Louis is still undetermined as the Blues remain on the market. But after they wrapped up the 2010-11 season Saturday night, time expired on the proverbial five-year plan under the team's chairman.
Hoisting a Stanley Cup in the time since Checketts bought the NHL's last-place team in 2006 was perhaps unrealistic, but the Blues have only advanced to one postseason -- and they were swept by Vancouver in that 2009 first-round series.
The Blues' philosophy of building through the draft has been well received by fans, and today many NHL insiders still agree that the team remains on the right path. But some question how long the club's plan is taking, and if ownership has done enough to speed up the process.
The Blues ended the season in 11th place in the Western Conference, and other than their sixth-place finish in '08-09, they've closed no higher than ninth.
"It became obvious that the job was going to be tougher, even tougher than I thought because of where our starting point was," Blues President John Davidson said. "When I look at the team we had when we first got here, there wasn't a lot there. We had to find a way to get as many draft picks as we could.
"But then it's making the deals to get the picks, relying on your scouting staff to do their work, and then get the players into the league. That's what we had to go through, and it's taken a long, long period of time.
"We actually did win more games than I thought we would, to be honest. We at least did as best as we could, in my opinion. Frustrating at times, yes. But I think that you've got to go through a lot of pain in this league to rebuild from where we were. It's been painful, but I also know that we're in a much better place than when we first started."
Only two players remain in the Blues' lineup that were part of the 2006-07 club -- Barret Jackman and David Backes. Of the 22 players that finished the season on the roster Saturday, 10 were drafted by the Blues, nine were acquired in trades, two were signed as free agents and one was picked up on waivers.
Management has continued to follow through on its blueprint of building a core through the draft. The club is the second youngest in the NHL with an average age of 25.8, and several of its drafted players are below that age, with Roman Polak (24), T.J. Oshie (24), Patrik Berglund (22), David Perron (22) and Alex Pietrangelo (21).
The success of those players will determine the Blues' fate in the coming seasons. That was thought to be the case with Erik Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but the organization traded him to Colorado for Stewart and Shattenkirk. The early production from those two players has erased much of the disappointment in the Johnson situation, but now fans are hoping they weren't sold a bill of goods on the other youngsters.
"I don't think they've overhyped them," said an NHL Eastern Conference scout on the condition of anonymity. "Obviously not all of them are going to pan out. But I think they have enough good young players to say that they are going to develop a core here.
"What I see here is that they're developing that core. It's on the verge. It's on the verge with Oshie, Berglund ... I've seen big strides from Berglund this year. I would have questioned, 'Is this guy going to be what he should be' last year. But I've seen him take big strides this year toward being one of those core guys.
"Might a couple of those guys fall by the wayside next year? Yeah. But they've still got a lot of high draft picks that are going to start feeding up."
Davidson debates the notion that the Blues' inability to contend quicker is because of the slow progression by those core youngsters.
"Absolutely not, zero, don't even think about it," he said. "Here's how you can go test it. Go look at what (Vancouver's) Henrik and Daniel Sedin did their first three years in the league. Any of those younger players who have become good players, go look at their statistical climb as to what they did. We're right on cue.
"You can see Berglund coming along. Unfortunately, Perron didn't have that experience this year. Pietrangelo looks like he should. Just because we drafted some guys in the first round, people want them to be superstars in their first or second years. It takes experience. This is a man's league."
While waiting for their draft picks to mature, the Blues have elected not to do much in free agency. In the past four offseasons, the Blues have signed only six significant free agents, most notably Paul Kariya in '07. They added Keith Tkachuk, Mike Weaver and Brad Winchester in '08 and Ty Conklin and Darryl Sydor in '09.
"You do have to sign free agents," said the scout. "I'm a big believer that it's got to be a mix (of draft picks and free agents). It's certainly going to take longer to do it from within, but I do think the chances of it lasting longer are better."
And the Blues insist that's their goal, building a roster that will be a perennial playoff contender.
"We don't just want to be a team that squeaks into the playoffs and not belong there," Davidson said. "We want to be a team that's in the playoffs, belongs there and does some damage. So we've been using that approach with decisions that we've made."
SPENDING AND SUCCESS
Evidence shows that NHL teams that spend money are more likely to punch their playoff ticket.
According to club salaries provided by USAToday.com, 12 of the top 15 spending clubs in 2009-10 advanced to the postseason, and 11 of the top 15 moved on in '08-09. The Blues were an exception to the rule in '08-09, making the playoffs despite the seventh-lowest payroll in the league ($45.5 million).
But the correlation is clear. Combining the team payrolls for the last five years, the Blues have the third-lowest average payroll in the NHL at $39.8 million, ahead of only Atlanta ($37.3 million) and the New York Islanders ($34.3 million). And thus, the Blues are one of eight teams to have made either one or no postseason trips in the last five years. None of the teams with a payroll in the bottom eight this season will be in the playoffs, and none among the bottom nine payroll teams last year made it.
Davidson noted that this year's salary-cap floor ($43.4 million) is greater than the cap ceiling ($39 million) in the year after the lockout.
"Obviously business is good in the NHL, but it's changed dramatically the finances of the (sport)," he said. "I believe in whenever we're given a budget, we deal with our budget and we do the best we can, and that's the end of the story."
Injuries haven't helped the Blues' situation. Perron missed 72 games this season because of a concussion, Oshie was out 31 with a broken ankle, Polak sat for 24 with a severed tendon in his wrist and Andy McDonald missed 24 with a concussion.
"The Blues were right there," Nashville general manager David Poile said. "They were as good as anybody in our division, our conference. It just went the wrong way, and I think it's all because of the injuries. You can certainly see that now "they're just about healthy and look how well they're playing."
The Blues hope to get Perron back next season, and they also hope to retain the fan-base that helped sell out all 41 home games this season, a far cry from the sparse crowds that gathered before Checketts bought the team. But with much uncertainty surrounding the sale of the club, few know what to expect next season.
"It's too late for this year, but I don't think there's anybody that doesn't think the Blues are a playoff team," Poile said. "I would be very happy if Doug Armstrong wanted to call me about a lot of his players, but I don't think that's going to happen. They're certainly a team that's trending upward. I'm sure they thought it was going to be this year, and it sure looked like it, but when you get things that you can't control, it becomes a fine line between getting in there and not."