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The Case to Be Made for Alex Steen

With so many question this off-season, here’s the case to keep Alex Steen.

New York Islanders v St Louis Blues Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images

Alex Pietrangelo’s uncertainty in St. Louis is the fixture of the fanbase’s eye right now. With the season’s hiatus leaving the NHL without millions of dollars in revenue, it seems like the league may be forced to hold the salary cap relatively flat entering next season. This could leave the Blues with roughly $2 million in cap space to sign both Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn... ideally. This duo could cost the team up to $12 million, with Pietrangelo’s own contract coming in at anywhere from $8.5 to 10 million.

It’s going to be a bleak summer for the Blues, as they fight to make the space to bring back their Norris-caliber captain and, hopefully, their elite youngster as well. General manager Doug Armstrong recently mentioned that the team is going to need to get “creative” to ink Pietrangelo to a new deal, to the surprise of nobody. This will undoubtedly mean parting ways with some of the more expensive names on the roster, with Jake Allen, Tyler Bozak, and Alex Steen being the focus of many fan’s speculation.

Over the course of the week, we’ll look at each of these three players and their case to stay in St. Louis for the 2020-21 season. We’ll start with the longest tenured Blue of the three: Alex Steen. Here’s the case to be made for the veteran St. Louisian.

Alex Steen Needs to Retire in St. Louis

The Background

It’s not as easy as it used to be to fully back Steen’s cause. The early-2010s saw Steen regularly score at, at least, a 40-point-pace. Before Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz burst onto the scene, the Blues used Steen as their ‘Swiss Army Knife’. His strong offense was backed by a defense that, really, could have won him a Selke Trophy based on the advanced numbers. He was an absolute terror, with his point totals proving to be the facade hiding what were amazing possession and defensive statistics.

He was an All-Star caliber player, despite never making the league’s actual All-Star Game, and the Blues were seriously lucky to have him. Since that peak, though, Steen hasn’t managed to ‘wow’ fans in the same way. This season, he’s fallen to the wayside in many fan’s eyes, as he descended to the team’s fourth-line. His 25-point-pace scoring from this season didn’t help his cause, either. It was a complete fall that makes him seem entirely expendable now. After all, he was a bottom-line winger that couldn’t even manage to score 10 goals. With his cap hit coming in at a steep $5.75 million, he simply doesn’t seem worth it anymore.

But the advanced stats start to argue a different picture.

The Numbers

Clearing the fog that Steen’s fall to the fourth line, and poor scoring, creates isn’t straight-forward. He is clearly not what he used to be. But with that said, he still brings a notable punch to the lineup.

This season, Steen ranked fourth on the team in xGA/60, a stat that measures shot-quality-against; or more simply put, how effective the opposing team’s offense is when the player in question is on the ice. Steen’s fourth-place ranking falls within an indiscernible difference from Selke-worthy Ryan O’Reilly and his just-as-strong counterpart, Jaden Schwartz. He also had the fifth-best xFSh% (Expected Fenwick Shooting Percentage), which is a good showing of how a player takes advantage of having the puck on his stick. Steen’s fifth-place ranking is a good sign that he not only had high-end possession numbers, but did a good job of recording high-quality shots after gaining the puck.

The Card

Ultimately, though, his potency is best shown in the player cards that have made Twitter user @JFresh popular:

Alex Steen’s 3-Year Player Card courtesy of JFresh on Twitter.

This card says a lot of different things. Despite averaging the lowest ice time of his career over the last two seasons - save for his first two years in the league - Steen has managed to sit in the upper-half of the league in both even-strength offense and power-play performance. But his performance on defense was even better, placing him among the league’s elite, falling just a few percentages short of the amazing O’Reilly in even-strength defense.

All-in-all, calculated using a mix of the shown stats and a few not shown, the card ranks Steen’s play over the last three seasons at a market value of over $7 million, far exceeding the cap hit he currently sits at. It’s incredible to see Steen so potent, even through the ages of 33 to 36, and his potency doesn’t seem to be wearing off anytime soon, as shown by his WAR (wins-above-replacement) timeline. While he has taken a dip - not surprising for a man in his upper-30s - his WAR is still above 1.0, the line that more-than-most bottom-six forwards rest at. In fact, Steen’s 1.2 WAR from the 2019-20 season ranks him ninth on the Blues, higher than Colton Parayko, David Perron, and Oskar Sundqvist. The only players to both play bottom-six minutes and top Steen’s WAR were Bozak and Robert Thomas; not a surprising metric given Bozak’s terrific ability at center and Thomas being, well, elite.

There is one glaring issue with this three-year chart that is sure to be pointed out, though. Steen’s decline didn’t start until the 2018-19 season. For the 2017-18 season he was his usual self, scoring 46 points in 76 games. But as terrific as a season as this was for the then 33-year-old, the high point totals are again a bit of a mask. Behind the scenes, the season wasn’t all that jaw-dropping. His xGA/60 was still terrific but besides that, many of his stats were nearing replacement-level. The points were merely a product of being in the right place at the right time, especially considering that year was his last as a member of the Blues top-six.

While it’s hard to bash the 17-18 season, saying it irreparably skews the advanced stats is simply not true. This is best shown by his GAR and SPAR (goals-above-replaecment, standing-points-above-replacement) charts throughout his career:

Alex Steen’s career SPAR/GAR chart, courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

Again, this chart says a lot. Like, holy hell Steen was good in the early-to-mid-2010s. His SPAR from 2013 to 2015 is, seriously, on par with Alex Ovechkin in the same time frame.

That’s beside the point of this article, though a future one will surely look at the underlying potency Steen had. The focus is instead on the most recent three years of the charts. Steen’s SPAR chart does show a bit of a drop off following the 2017-18 season but the fall is nowhere near concerning. Instead, it places Steen at the same level of play as his early years in St. Louis, when he was first getting his footing in the league and, in the process, was recording some of the best advanced stats of his career.

The GAR chart tells a much more exciting story, actually showing Steen has had an ever-so-slight improvement over the last three seasons. Much like his SPAR, his GAR is on par with much of his career, even despite his low point totals in the span.

What It Means

This argument doesn’t chalk Steen up as some 36-year-old legend but it’s a good showing of his potency even at the older age. He hasn’t lost the fire that he held throughout his career, it’s just become a bit dimmer; as you’d expect from a player that’s likely to retire in the very near future.

He is playing at a high level of play, relative to his spot in the lineup and the overall perception of him by many fans. This still-strong play, combined with the fact that Steen has been an definite fixture of the Blues lineup for the last 12 years, creates a strong case for the winger to stay in St. Louis. While dealing him would free up a healthy amount of cap space, it would rid the Blues of a fan-favorite whose veteran leadership is currently holding the bottom-six together.

Other Hurdles

Of course, also holding Steen in place is his no-trade-clause. He and Pietrangelo are the only two Blues with a full NTC on their deals, meaning they would need to submit a list of teams they would be willing to be traded to in the event of any potential deals, severely hindering the likelihood of a trade.

This makes a buyout that much more likely, if the Blues truly wanted to get rid of Steen. But this would be, well, completely pointless. If Steen’s contract was bought out on June 15th, for example, the Blues would still bear a heavy cap hit of $3.4 million heading into the 2020-21 season, meaning they wouldn’t even gain $2.5 million in cap space. They would go from paying $5.75 million for a terrific, bottom-six glue to paying $3.4 million to not have him.

And while there have been rumors of compliance buyouts being offered - which remove any salary cap penalties from buyouts - using this on Steen’s contract instead of on, say, Justin Faulk’s truly horrible extension would be spitting in the face of a Blues veteran; one that held the team together when they most needed a promising face. While not out of the question, it certainly wouldn’t be the best look.

But ultimately, like with every off-season debate, this is arguing semantics. Steen has offered a great potency despite his limited role, is playing at a level that is well-worth his price tag, and has simply earned a role through his veteran status but when a player as terrific as Alex Pietrangelo is on the line, anything goes. As we’ll visit in the coming days, both Allen and Bozak have just as strong of cases to be made. This off-season will be a serious test of Doug Armstrong’s ability.