Every fan knows the pickle the Blues are in. Both Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn are without a contract for the 2020-21 season and the Blues are in no position to re-sign either, much less both. Considering Pietrangelo’s Norris-caliber ability and Dunn’s scary potential, losing either could be critical to the Cup-caliber Blues team.
As acknowledged by Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, they’ll need to get creative to ink Pietrangelo to a new deal; not to even mention Dunn. It seems every single fan has their own holster of moves to keep Pietrangelo in St. Louis and rightfully so. With the intricacy of the issue, there are plenty of different plans to form, each with their own positives and negatives.
With that in mind, let’s look at the best plan of action that keeps St. Louis at the level they’re at currently, despite some names leaving.
How to Keep Pietrangelo in St. Louis
The best way to objectively look at what Pietrangelo’s next contract is likely to look like is through the stats. Thankfully, Evolving Hockey has a terrific tool that does just this; predicting every free agent’s future contract based an incredible array of stats and how they compare to the market. Last year, this list of contract projections proved eerily accurate. This year, they added much more to the math behind it and, despite their 2019 summer projections being nearly perfect, claimed improvement in this year’s.
With all of that in mind, their projection for Pietrangelo’s next deal is very in-line with the rumors that those surrounding the Blues organization have been leaking. EH predicts an eight-year deal for Pietrangelo, with a cap hit of roughly $8.43 million, just short of the $8.5 million mark rumored by many.
For simplicity sake, we’ll use $8.5 million here. After all, clearing a little bit of extra space is never a bad thing.
Well, the issue lies in the Blues current cap space. With the salary cap all-but-guaranteed to stay flat - and escrow blocking out any sort of supports, like compliancy buyouts - the Blues are currently sat with exactly $1,547,501 in cap space. This means roughly $7 million needs cleared out to open the door to keeping Pietrangelo. That’s the number we’ll look to hit.
Let’s start with who should stay. Despite being prominent fixtures in seemingly every debate, these two names provide far too much to warrant dealing them, especially when other moves are plenty enough.
Jake Allen needs to stay. He simply does. As covered in this piece, Allen proved to be a top-10 goalie in nearly every single statistical category there is. He was, simply, incredible.
This great play is a serious gift to St. Louis. The 29-year-old is thriving in the backup role; a role that carried him to the NHL to begin with. While he’s never proven himself as a starter, he’s flourishing behind Binnington.
This gives the Blues one of, if not thee, best goalie tandem in the league. Much of the NHL’s elite teams, like Boston, Washington, Dallas, and Vancouver have rode the backs of two terrific goalies manning the crease. Binnington and Allen are the Western Conference parallel to Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, a pairing that just won the William Jennings. Although by every account, looking at the advanced stats, Binnington and Allen are far better than Boston’s duo.
Despite the Blues duo being superior to Boston’s, the Blues actually pay their duo $1 million less than Boston does. To have two of the league’s best goalies both wearing a Blue Note is a gift in a league where having two competent goalies is increasingly becoming the norm.
But what’s more: Allen isn’t a starter. Every Blues fan knows it and every general manager in the league surely knows it. While he has been amazing for St. Louis this season, it didn’t come in a starting role. In a free agency class containing players that will sign deals close to Allen’s, like Robin Lehner, and players that will sign league-minimum deals, like Jimmy Howard and Craig Anderson, giving up assets for Allen simply doesn’t make much sense, even if he is one of the best the league has to offer. Instead, teams can take a much cheaper route and dip into free agency.
Because of this, any deal involving Allen will return peanuts and may even require salary retention. It’d be throwing away gold for pennies. In a league that requires its elites to have two capable goalies, with no promising trade in sight, and no competent backup in place to proceed Allen, dealing him away is simply not worth it. He’s the best backup in the league and having him play even 30 games in a season is a gift for St. Louis. Keeping him with the team avoids a lot of headaches and, above all else, keeps them at the Cup-caliber they’re at.
Tyler Bozak also needs to stay. Again as touched on in his case to be made, Bozak is a defensive dynamo. He’s one of the best in the league. While his offense isn’t great, or even good, his defense is among the best the NHL has to offer. This caliber of defense is an incredible asset to have in a team’s third-line center and it’s what allowed the Blues depth to carry them to the Stanley Cup last season.
But Bozak’s incredible even-strength play doesn’t do enough to solidify his case to stay, in-and-of-itself. It’s his incredible potency on special teams that truly carry him above the rest. Bozak is absolutely elite on both the penalty-kill and power-play. Every advanced tally of his screams this, yet the Blues have completely limited his presence on special teams.
This is one of the most flagrant cases of untapped potential in the NHL. While Bozak is doing great without special teams, he could turn into one of the best bottom-six players the league has seen in years; that is. Every stat points towards Bozak absolutely excelling on special teams. Next season is a perfect time to put this theory to the test. Best-case-scenario, the Blues get one of the most flexible assets in the league. Worst-case, they’re still in firm grasps of the best third line center in the league: simply because of his incredible defense.
Of course, players are going to have to leave. Here are the two names that could-and-should be dealt away to guarantee the Blues can hold on to their captain.
This inclusion isn’t any sort of surprise to Blues fans. Allen and Bozak were two of the three names that fans claimed should leave. With them both having no reason to leave, that leaves Steen as the odd-man-out.
Of course, Steen has plenty reason to stay himself. He also provides great firepower and veteran leadership in the Blues bottom-six but it’s in a much more limited capacity than Bozak’s ability: as seen simply by Bozak’s ranking higher in the team’s lineup.
Steen has served as the Blues’ backbone for over a decade and simply entertaining the idea of him being dealt isn’t easy but it’s the harsh reality that needs to be had to keep a Norris-caliber player like Pietrangelo. It’s also a harsh reality that Doug Armstrong is not at all unfamiliar with, drawing plenty of similarities to when David Backes left the team.
Except this time, Steen will need traded, not simply ignored like the greedy Backes was. To many fans’ point, this isn’t an easy battle. While Steen still provides terrific defense, admiral offense, and even strong scoring to boot, he is 36 and is making $5.75 million. To accomplish any sort of trade, the Blues will need to give up another asset, likely their 2020 first-round pick.
Luckily for them, there’s a team that has come out and said that they will eat poor contracts to help them obtain high-end picks in the 2020 or 2021 NHL Drafts: the Ottawa Senators. Steen’s deal fits almost too-perfectly into the Senators’ guidelines when they made their claim. It’s a pricey deal but only has one season left on it - a season that Steen will likely retire after - and in return the Sens will surely receive at least a first-round pick. Ideally, Ottawa would only send a fifth or sixth-round pick back to St. Louis, with the Blues 2020 sixth-round pick (which Ottawa has after...) being a great fit.
It’s a perfect trade. While a first-round pick is a tall price to pay, it’s being moved so the Blues can not only free up a bunch of cap but so they can also keep a top-end goalie and the backbone of their bottom-six. It’s being paid so three terrific players, including Pietrangelo, can stay.
Dealing Steen brings the Blues cap space to exactly $7,797,501.
One more asset will need to leave in addition to Steen and it could, really, be anyone. Ivan Barbashev is a name that comes to mind, with his recent play being a poor-and-confusing enigma. Oskar Sundqvist could also be a candidate, with his play being good but his contract ($2.75 million/yr) being pricey.
But ultimately, Carl Gunnarsson falls as the odd-man-out. This is simply because, unlike Barbashev and Sundqvist, Gunnarsson isn’t a daily part of the Blues lineup. While he is a Stanley Cup hero, and had the best season of his life last year, he fell tragically this season; recording the worst statistical season of his career. In GAR, SPAR, and WAR (goals/standing points/wins-above-replacement), Gunnarsson was well below replacement level.
In an organization that is flooded with talent on left-defense, including Niko Mikkola, Jake Walman, Tyler Tucker, and Hobey Baker-winner Scotty Perunovich, having an underperforming-Gunnarsson around is simply a waste of a roster slot. This is especially considering Gunnarsson appeared in only 36 games this year.
He’s taking up a spot that could-and-should be filled by a much younger prospect, all while making a notable $1.75 million. Dealing him would be far-from-difficult as well, as plenty of teams are looking for admirable, cheap third-line defense. With his Cup heroics being bolstering his resume, it should be absolutely no issue trading Gunnarsson to a team like the New Jersey Devils or Winnipeg Jets; both who have been very vocally pursuing shut-down, depth defense. The return will be cheap but it clears out much-needed cap space. The Devils, Jets, and plenty of other teams would surely be willing to pay a late-round pick for the Cup-hero, especially if their other plans get foiled.
Dealing Gunnarsson brings the Blues cap hit up to $9,547,501.
The End Result
This series of moves seems almost surreal. It checks all of the boxes: allowing them to keep their elite backup goalie, their truly incredible third-line center, opens up spots for young prospects like Klim Kostin or Perunovich, and all while boosting the Blues’ cap space to $9,547,501.
This is well above the $8.5 million mark we set in the beginning of this piece. It gives the Blues incredible wiggle room in their negotiations with Pietrangelo; negotiations that could get complicated in the case of a Norris Trophy win or a successful post-season (if we ever get there). In fact, Pietrangelo’s open-market value is only $9 million, per Evolving Hockey’s guidelines, so St. Louis having $9.5 million in open room is ample space.
For the price of all of this, the Blues only need to deal away their fourth-line left-wing, their seventh-defenseman, and a first-round pick. For Steen, Gunnarsson, and a first-rounder, the Blues get Alex Pietrangelo, one of the best defensemen in the league.
It all comes in very plausible deals, to teams that have come out saying they’d be more-than-willing to acquire players like Steen or Gunnarsson.
While plenty of layouts exist, this one does everything a theorized off-season needs to. It also keeps key players in St. Louis, meaning the team won’t miss a single step as they move into the 2020-21 season, undoubtedly on pace for another Cup.