If there’s one thing that Blues fans can agree on, it’s that throughout most of last season, the defense was less than ideal. Aside from Justin Faulk (16 G, 31A), Torey Krug (9G, 34A) and yes, Colton Parayko (6G, 29A), the blueline lacked punch.
It also lacked basic defensive skills depending on what pairings were necessitated by injury. Spending a chunk of the season paired with Marco Scandella drug Parayko down. Scandella, who had a rough season (to be generous) was a straight-up defensive liability at times, incapable of clearing the zone or lacking situational awareness. Much of Scandella’s problems were due to injury and missing large stretches of games. Scandella when healthy was generally fine down the stretch before he was, again, injured.
Niko Mikkola was fine. Robert Bortuzzo was as advertised, parlaying his skill set into a two year contract extension.
Scott Perunovich was, obviously, injured. The rotating wheel of call-ups, especially Calle Rosen? Also fine.
That’s the issue with the Blues’ defense - they are fine. Most fans, and more than likely, Doug Armstrong, would like to upgrade the defense to add some more strength for next season. He did so temporarily at the trade deadline with the deal for Nick Leddy that sent Oskar Sundqvist to Detroit. But with Leddy probably asking for a longer term deal at an AAV of $5 million, the Blues and Leddy both are more than likely moving on from each other. The Blues have a little over $9 million in cap space for next season, and have to re-sign pending RFAs Mikkola and Perunovich, as well as re-sign (presumably) David Perron and at least make a play for Ville Husso. They also have to budget for pending 2023 UFAs Vladimir Tarasenko (if he wants to stay) and captain Ryan O’Reilly.
So yes, the first thing hamstringing the Blues this off-season is cap space unless Doug Armstrong offloads someone. The second thing hamstringing the Blues? The group of defensive UFAs available.
The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn compiled a list of the biggest defensive UFA names on the market (subscription required), and they are... underwhelming. The biggest name on the list is Kris Letang, who the Penguins are more than likely working on re-signing - and who is 35 years old. He will also command a high price from whoever signs him to a contract.
Past Letang, as Dom points out, the crop drops off significantly. His number two is John Klingberg, and his analysis starts with:
“There are next to no valuable defenders on the free agency board this summer and that should mean John Klingberg cashes in. He’s one of the league’s best offensive defenceman, drives play well in the fun zone and scores a lot of points. Those are the type of defensemen who usually get paid handsomely. They’re also the type that tend to burn teams who focus too much on the point totals and not the rest of their game.”
It does not get better from there, pointing out his defensive liability issues and highlighting that he’ll be more than likely asking for upwards of $6.5 million for that. Past Klingberg, the list drops off, no offense to Alex Edler, whose age will make any contract a risky deal.
Dom writes his list with all of the enthusiasm of a high schooler writing a book report on Jane Eyre. It’s difficult to catch an argument in there for someone that fans would be content with - even the Blues’ own Leddy ranks 14th.
Armstrong is great at signing depth and making it work under the cap. Defensemen command a price tag more than often not equal to what they bring to the team - this is something that GMs and fans find out every free agent period. Armstrong’s going to have to decide between paying a premium for someone who may or may not be the piece the Blues need, or he’s going to have to stay status quo if no team seems interested in Scandella. Mikkola and Perunovich are lower-cost options than the market, and in Perunovich’s case, a low-cost/potentially high reward option. Being hamstrung by both the salary cap and this year’s crop of potential signings might translate into a Blues defense that looks vaguely familiar next season.