Hey. Guess what. The Blues won the Stanley Cup. They did. I know. I don’t believe it either, but it happened, and St. Louis will never be the same.
Okay. We got that out of the way. The parade is over. The players are sobering up (hopefully). It’s time for Doug Armstrong to get to work, and I don’t envy Army. The Blues’ front office faces a unique question: Plan for the future, or go for one more Cup. That choice of number is deliberate for me. The Blues have a window, and that window may be closing.
Consider this: Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden Schenn will be unrestricted free agents after the upcoming season. Both would stretch the limits of the salary cap (a salary cap that is assumed to grow at a slower pace in the short term, and cannot reasonably be predicted when the next CBA kicks in, perhaps as soon as 2020 if either party chooses to opt out this fall), with term that could be unreasonable. Erik Karlsson just signed an eight-year deal with an $11m cap hit in San Jose. You can believe Alex Pietrangelo’s camp noticed. Recent comparables to Schenn, a center who will be 28 when he hits free agency, include Brock Nelson (6 years/$6m per), Kyle Turris (6 years/$6m per), and Adam Henrique (5 years/$5.825 per) as centers who score at comparable rates, are near a comparable age, and all signed within the last two years.
Now presumably the Blues have an in-house option in Robert Thomas to replace the loss of Schenn. But what about Pietrangelo? For some, Colton Parayko is an easy answer. And those people aren’t wrong. Parayko is younger, signed to a reasonable contract, and broke out as a shutdown anchor en route to a Stanley Cup championship. But here’s where it gets tricky: who replaces Parayko?
We cannot understate how important Pietrangelo and Parayko playing close to 50 of each game’s 60 regulation minutes was to the team’s ultimate success. Simply put, the St. Louis Blues do not win the Stanley Cup without Pietrangelo and Parayko filling their respective roles. We’ve seen this before. In 2007, the Anaheim Ducks could relax knowing that one of Chris Pronger or Scott Neidermeyer would be on the ice for most of each game. In 2008, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski filled those roles for Detroit. The Chicago Blackhawks leaned heavily on Duncan Keith and Nicklas Hjalmarsson. The LA Kings relied on a stacked top-4 Defensemen group featuring Drew Doughty and in 2014 Jake Muzzin. The Capitals used John Carlson and Matt Niskanen. The only exception is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who managed to buck the trend of needing multiple minute-munching defensemen by instead employing two of the greatest centers the game has ever seen in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. No other team in the NHL can expect to do the same at the moment.
So back to the question at hand: if Pietrangelo were gone, who would replace Parayko as the second half of the Blues’ two-headed defensive anchor? There is no answer in the Blues’ system. After Parayko, Blues fans would notice a drop off in Jay Bouwmeester, who while effective in his role alongside Parayko, has aged another year, and has struggled with leading premier assignments on his own over the past few seasons. The next tier of D-men currently under contract, Vince Dunn, Joel Edmundson, and Robert Bortuzzo simply cannot be expected to handle the kind of assignments that Parayko and Pietrangelo have without an elite partner. On the farm, Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman, Mitch Reinke, and Niko Mikkola have not asserted themselves as elite-level defensemen.
So, there is the problem, what are the solutions?
Extend Alex Pietrangelo:
Pro: Look. There’s no away around it. Pietrangelo is the first Blues’ captain to ever hoist the Cup. He’s a key member of the team. He’s a now-proven leader. Doug Armstrong can rest assured that with Pietrangelo and Parayko in the fold until at least 2022 when Parayko’s contract will end, the Blues will remain competitive.
Con: It will be expensive, and fraught with risk. Pietrangelo’s market value rests between $10 and $11 million, for what could be expected to be at least seven years. Pietrangelo will be at least 37 years old when his contract is up. While one argument would presume that since Pietrangelo tends to avoid contact and isn’t a physical initiator, he should age gracefully, the other side of the coin suggests that a player who makes a living with his legs, risks declining rapidly if those legs are compromised (See Jay Bouwmeester, who also played a low-contact game but saw reduced effectiveness after issues with his hips).
Trade Alex Pietrangelo:
Pro: No need to be sentimental. It’s the NHL and this is asset management. It’s just business. Armstrong can thank Pietrangelo for his service, explain that there is no future for him here, and request that Pietrangelo waive his no-trade clause for the sake of the team and the sake of his career. Sure, with limited destinations based on the aforementioned NTC, the return for an unsigned Pietrangelo will be limited (See Erik Karlsson again, though there were other circumstances at play in his trade to San Jose), but at least it’s better than nothing.
Con: The reality here is it would be unlikely for the Blues to “win” a trade involving Pietrangelo, unless he would sign an extension at trade time with his new team. But Pietrangelo loves St. Louis, and holds all of the cards in his future. St. Louisans saw this play out with Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017, but while Shattenkirk was a big part of the Blues’ power play, Pietrangelo is even more important. Short of a lot of variables falling into place, and the addition of assets that would improve the Blues’ offense to top-of-the-league levels, the Blues would accelerate their journey to the middle of the pack with a trade like this.
Pro: Well not nothing, nothing, but nothing when it comes to Pietrangelo. Maybe Armstrong recognizes that he cannot win a Pietrangelo trade and isn’t interested in doing so, but likewise has determined that Pietrangelo will have to sign his next contract somewhere else. We saw what the Pietrangelo/Parayko pair did this summer. Perhaps they’ll do it again. Maybe Armstrong could even choose to load up for one last run, and deal with the consequences later. Fans will forgive a step back if they get to witness a repeat.
Con: But, come on. It’s hard to win a Stanley Cup. The best teams don’t always win the Cup. Tampa tied the single-season record for wins (a mark set by a pre-salary cap Red Wings squad in 1996), and were swept in the first round by an eighth-seeded Columbus team who had loaded up at the trade deadline. Oh, and how did loading up work? Boston dispatched Columbus in the next round. It’s simple. Apart from the 2016 and 2017 Penguins, no one has repeated in the salary cap era.
No matter which choice Armstrong makes, one thing is certain. The Blues’ championship window opens and closes with Alex Pietrangelo. Thanks for reading.
2019 Mock Draft:
The NHL Draft begins this Friday. For fun, here is an attempt at a mock draft. Please feel free to mock it.
1 New Jersey Jack Hughes
2 New York Rangers Kaapo Kakko
3 Chicago Alex Turcotte
4 Colorado Trevor Zegras
5 Los Angeles Bowen Byram
6 Detroit Dylan Cozens
7 Buffalo Matthew Boldy
8 Edmonton Kirby Dach
9 Anaheim Peyton Krebs
10 Vancouver Phillip Broberg
11 Philadelphia Cole Caulfield
12 Minnesota Alex Newhook
13 Florida Ryan Suzuki
14 Arizona Victor Soderstrom
15 Montreal Arthur Kaliyev
16 Colorado Thomas Harley
17 Vegas Cam York
18 Dallas Philip Tomasino
19 Ottawa Nils Hoglander
20 Winnipeg Raphael Lavoie
21 Pittsburgh Moritz Seider
22 Los Angeles Patrik Puistola
23 New York Islanders Bobby Brink
24 Nashville Alex Vlasic
25 Washington Nicholas Robertson
26 Calgary Ville Heinola
27 Tampa Bay Nathan Legare
28 Carolina Robert Mastrosimone
29 Anaheim Spencer Knight
30 Boston Egor Afanasyev
31 Buffalo John Beecher