This was Lee Stempniak's last home game in the Bluenote. Could he come back as a free agent?
This summer's free agency period has been strange and slow to an almost unprecedented degree. Short of Nashville's contract to Matthew Lombardi, the Rangers' signing of Vaclav Prospal and Minnesota's accepted offer to Matt Cullen, no other unrestricted forward has signed a contract over $2 million per year. The vast majority of free agent forwards have signed contracts similar to Brad Winchester's $700,000 deal with St. Louis.
What has happened is that a large group of productive forwards have been waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen. One theory is that once Ilya Kovalchuk finally signs somewhere, a virtual signing levee will break and players like Marek Svatos, Mike Comrie, Petr Sykora, Alexander Frolov, Paul Kariya, Maxim Afinogenov, Raffi Torres and Alexei Ponikarovsky will quickly find new homes.
Personally, I find that theory flawed, as the suitors for Kovalchuk (believed to be down to Los Angeles and New Jersey) aren't going to fill the hole left by not landing the $10 million one trick pony by signing several of those less talented but still valuable forwards listed.
Instead, it seems as if every team in the league is pulling the same trick on every scorer who wants to get paid this summer as the interested teams have pulled on Kovalchuk: it isn't collusion if it's unofficial, and every team seems to be hard-lining Kovalchuk and his cheaper forward bretheren.
Of all of the second tier scorers who are still available, one of the most intriguing is Lee Stempniak. Blues draftee and our breakout player of the year back in 2006, Stempniak was the first face of the post-lockout Blues' youth movement. He was homegrown and he was young and he could score. But as the rest of the roster filled out with other youthful players in scoring roles and free agency and trades brought other top line players like Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald to St. Louis, Stempniak found himself marginalized here.
When Stempniak was traded to Toronto in November 2008, Blues fans were sad to see him go, but not nearly as heartbroken as they would have been a year or two earlier. It just seemed like it was time for him to move on and hopefully get a chance to play on a scoring line with the struggling and thin Maple Leafs. That didn't happen exactly, as he struggled to score there too. When he was traded at the deadline this season to Phoenix, the change of scenery reinvigorated stempniak and he looked like the player that Blues fans loved back in 2006 through 2008, scoring 14 goals in 18 games in the desert.
Now, Stempniak remains without a contract. As he told ESPN in an interview, he's still in contact with the Coyotes and they admit that they'd like to have him back "at the right price." The Coyotes have room under the cap, but they already have 11 potential NHL forwards under contract and two other RFA players left to sign, meaning that bringing back Stempniak squeezes out someone else. Plus, coming off a contract that paid him $2.5 million last year, one wonders how serious the Coyotes really are.
But what of the Blues? Would they consider floating an offer to Stempniak? Would he consider even talking to the team?
The Blues, practically speaking, still have to spend $3 million more just to reach the cap floor this year. That will clearly be eaten up when David Perron and Erik Johnson are re-signed in the coming weeks, but the Blues will then have 13 NHL forwards under contract. If Stempniak was offered a contract, the Blues could likely afford it, but would they be able to make space on the roster?
The addition of Stempniak would mean that the Blues would have to pay him in the area of $2.5 - $3 million a season and they aren't going to sign him up for that kind of contract to play on the third line. His presence means that guys like Cam Janssen and Matt D'Agostini and Brad Winchester are going to lose playing time. That a guy like T.J. Oshie maybe finds himself getting less scoring line time and power play time. Does Stempniak really deserve that kind of playing time?
Stempniak's 28 goals last year would have put him first on the Blues. First. Ahead of Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen's 24 and well ahead of David Backes' 17 and Brad Boyes' paltry 14. But that's also the problem: which Stempniak would be signed? Is he the Toronto Stempniak who scored 14 goals in 62 games or the on fire Stempniak who scored 14 in 18 in Phoenix? He has scored 27 in a season in St. Louis and 28 last year. He has also scored 14 in 2009 and just 13 in 2008.
The Blues would love to re-sign Stempniak if they knew he was trending up towards 30 goals a year. They can ill afford to throw another $3 million contract at a guy who is going to go Brad Boyes on them and score 14 in a season. Clearly, Stempniak represents a risky addition.
Would the team even have the guts to call Stempniak's agent? Sure, having traded him makes that a tough call, but management could probably spin that easily enough; that was a different time and a different team, you were being asked to play a different role by a different coach and a different GM, you'll be given the opportunity to think score-first now, just like in Phoenix.
Beyond that, management has learned at least one lesson about St. Louis in their days here and that is that we love our sports heroes. We welcome them back like family, like they never left. The hometown aspect of having Cam Janssen on the roster continues to pay off for the scrappy fighter with one career goal in the Bluenote. Stempniak, given his history with the team, would be a big PR boon for the team as No. 12 jerseys would come out of mothballs all across the region.
From the team perspective, it'd be a risk to sign him, but the payoff could be huge. The downside would really only be the legacy of yet another too rich, too long contract to yet another underperforming athlete (Fragile Jay McKee, Robot Captain Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman). Based on the potential upside and PR positives the Blues could probably be persuaded to make an offer.
But what about Stempniak? Would he be interested in coming back? Would he see it as a hit to his pride to come back to the team that traded him?
There's no telling what he might be thinking as an individual about any offer from St. Louis. Would he consider this positively, as a triumphant return to the city where his NHL career began, vindicated as a bona fide scorer? Or would he look at it as an embarassing return to a city with his tail between his legs, taking an offer to a team that cast him off once because he couldn't get a viable offer elsewhere?
From a practical standpoint, it could make sense for Stempniak. For one, he must be feeling confident about his abilities after his hot finish to the season. Put me on a top line with a mandate to go score, he must be thinking, and I can do it again. I can do better. Given the Blues' struggles with goal scoring, they could do worse than carving out a spot on the top two lines for Stempniak. Given coach Davis Payne's "painters paint, plumbers plumb" mentality versus Andy Murray's "all lines must do the same things" philosophy, Stempniak could be in a position to succeed. He would likely be excited to play in a system like Payne's.
Finally, is the money there? Based on his Blues-created contract that just ended where he earned $2.5 million, he likely wants more for his next contract. But based on his streaky scoring past and the lack of suitors for his services thus far, he's probably going to have to accept a contract parallel to what he just earned, or more likely a lower base built up with performance incentives.
In the end, the crux of the issue comes down to personality issues. The Blues have the money and the need for a scorer. Stempniak needs a contract and could find himself with assurances that he'd be given a scorer's role on the team. Both the team and the player can be confident that the signing would be received well by the fans and media. The team gets good press and the player gets a hero's welcome back to the ice.
But again the personalities. Can management go to Stempniak and say that they want him back? That the trade was a necessary at the time, but they wish they could have done it differently? Do they see that as swallowing too much pride? For Stempniak, how bitter was the breakup the first time? Was he embaraased to leave? is he holding a grudge? Is St. Louis a place he would be happy to return?
In all likelihood, an offer won't be made in the first place as ownership and management continue to work through their improve vs spend issues, but if the offer were made, how would it be received? Could it happen? It'd be interesting to see.