The trade deadline has come and gone, and Alex Pietrangelo is still a St. Louis Blue. To 95% of us, this is no surprise. A necessary next step in the Alex Pietrangelo conversation though is what the Blues should do with him when his contract expires this summer. Some fans worry that Pietrangelo will be too expensive, and will weigh down the team as he ages in the near future. Others suggest that he’s not needed now that Colton Parayko has asserted himself as a premier defenseman. Some fans want to see continued success.
However, some fans, myself included, believe that re-signing Pietrangelo is critical to the Blues’ Stanley Cup chase during their current window.
Fears of Pietrangelo’s Decline…
…may be overblown. One of the main concerns from fans about an Alex Pietrangelo extension is his current age (30), and the age he’ll potentially be at the end of any deal (37 or 38). According to those who want to see a limited-term extension, and those who would prefer the team walk away from a deal entirely, there is just too much risk in having a 38-year-old Pietrangelo weighing down the team’s salary cap in 2028.
As said above, these concerns may be a bit overblown. We have seen several defensemen play effective roles into their late 30s in the cap era. Scott Neidermeyer scored 48 points and averaged 26:30 in ice time at age 36. Nicklas Lidstrom won a Norris Trophy at age 40, and finished 5thin voting at age 41. Sergei Gonchar continued to average 24 minutes a game at age 38.
In the pre-cap clutch-and-grab era, Al MacInnis played effectively until he was 39. He scored 68 points in his age-39 season and finished second in the Norris Trophy race.
These players all have a few things in common: They played a relatively low-contact style of game. They were mobile puck movers with high hockey IQs. And they had a limited injury history (i.e. no nagging, repeat injuries. More on that later). That sounds an awful lot like Pietrangelo at age 30.
“But Kevin,” people will say. “You’ve picked some of the greatest defenseman to ever play.” That’s true. And I promise, it’s more about there being a very limited sample size of that type of defensemen who have played to an extended age in the cap era. Fluid, light-contact defensemen playing in elevated roles were a rarity until recently, and some of the next-best examples are only around ages 33-35. Since the point is that Pietrangelo ought to continue to produce at the end of a max deal, those players are not good comparables. Fortunately, advanced stats provide another way to extrapolate.
For at least the next five seasons, Pietrangelo looks to remain a top-pair defenseman according to this model by Dom Luszczyszyn.
With all of these factors in play, we can expect Pietrangelo to age gracefully as long as he can avoid any specific lingering injuries.
But in the end…
…Who Cares How He Ages?
We hear a lot about how Armstrong will regret the contract down the road. Fans will say, “Look at the Erik Karlsson deal. Or Drew Doughty.” Ok. Let’s do it.
At age 29, Karlsson signed an eight-year $11.5m per deal with the San Jose Sharks. But at that point, two factors worked against this being a successful deal for the Sharks.
One, Karlsson has had two recent surgeries to fix both a lingering groin issue, and a foot injury before that. For a player who makes his living with his legs, these are compromising-type injuries.
The second factor: San Jose signed this deal after their Cup window had closed. The same summer they signed Karlsson, the Sharks lost Joe Pavelski as well as Gustav Nyquist, and Joonas Donskoi to free agency. They also lost two of their top six defenseman Joakim Ryan, and Justin Braun. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns both aged a year. And the Sharks never dealt with their goaltending issue.
Now look at the Drew Doughty deal. Doughty signed an eight-year deal with an $11m cap hit in the summer of 2018, or four years after they last seriously contended for a Stanley Cup. They haven’t made the postseason since. And why should they have? Key members of their two Cup teams, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown, and Jeff Carter have aged dramatically, Mike Richards is gone, and four years of heightened success had reduced opportunities to replenish depth via the draft.
On the flip side, consider the Chicago Blackhawks. Most fans would look at the Duncan Keith deal as an anchor on the Blackhawks’ cap. After all, he’s declining rapidly, and has three more years to go. But what’s lost in that conversation is that Keith signed that extension in 2009, before the Hawks ever won a Cup.
This was a 13-year deal. Seriously. Keith signed for 13 years, which effectively brought Keith’s cap hit down from what would have been in the mid-$7s to a manageable $5.538m in a year where the Salary Cap sat at $59.4 million (This type of deal isn’t allowed anymore and should be called what it actually is – cap circumvention).
The Hawks would have known that in the final years of the (seriously) 13-year deal, there would be problems with Keith. With their three Cups, they just don’t care.
What Does This Have to Do with Alex Pietrangelo?
The Blues have the fourth-best odds to win the Cup right now according to MoneyPuck. They’ve been a top team in the NHL all season. They’re the best team in the entire Western Conference by points. This window is wide open for now.
And make no mistake, Armstrong knows that the window is open, and knows that adding Alex Pietrangelo helps maximize the team’s chances to win during this window.
Armstrong has built this team for the next 3-4 years. He has committed all of his resources to those next 3-4 years. Brayden Schenn’s skills will decline before his deal is up. The cap will be a problem before the Faulk deal is up. This can be said for Tarasnko as well. But while all of these commitments spell doom five, six, and seven years from now, they also leave the Blues in a unique position to compete, and more importantly lead the pack of contenders for the Cup over the next 3-4 years.
Re-signing Alex Pietrangelo fits this logic, and more importantly enhances this team. If Chicago has taught us anything, it’s this: When you have a winner, enhance your winner. Keep it together. Deal with the consequences later.
Why is Pietrangelo So Important?
We can talk all we want about how Parayko is a sufficient replacement for Pietrangelo. He probably is. Some may argue that Parayko is already better than Pietrangelo. That’s arguable at best, but that’s not the issue. It never was. The issue is instead: who replaces Parayko in this scenario? With two very odd exceptions (2016, 2017), no team has won the Cup in the cap era without two defenseman controlling play for close to 50 of a team’s 60 minutes in the postseason.
So, to sum up, even if Pietrangelo’s abilities fall off of a cliff around age 35 (they probably won’t), it really won’t matter as the team will be saddled with other deals anyway. Pietrangelo’s won’t be the only immovable deal. Simply put, there will be plenty of reasons why the Blues can’t compete then, but they’ll have hopefully won another Cup or two before that happens.
But What If They Don’t Win Another Cup?
Is that a failure? Perhaps. Would the rationale for building the best team for a short window still have been correct? I’d argue yes. It’s the GM’s job to put his team in the best position to win a Cup. The Blues situation (having a collection of low-cap hit, prime-aged players) lent itself to this being the best strategy. Why maintain good, when you have a chance to be great? That’s the question Armstrong seems to have asked himself. We see the answer.
The Just-Get-In Fallacy:
In the cap era, the just-get-in teams are actually pretty damned good. The 2012 Kings had everything you’d want in a build. Two centers, scoring wings, two good D, and a great goalie. The 2019 Blues, had a more dramatic climb back into the playoff picture, and finished better than those 2012 Kings did in the standings, but nonetheless had the same build required of a Stanley Cup contender. In terms of Cup winners, that’s pretty much it.
While it sounds great to say “just get in,” in reality, there is a very strict formula to winning a Stanley Cup. We have yet to see a true Cinderella pull it off. Continued success leads to postseason appearances, but even among playoff participants, it isn’t hard to distinguish true Cup contenders from the rest of the field.
Blues fans may wish to see continued success, but what we’ve learned in the cap era is that that’s a fallacy. The cap catches everyone in the end. You might as well have a couple of cups to show for it before it happens. Doug Armstrong seems to subscribe to this line of thinking. Every move he’s made so far proves this. He is building a short-term juggernaut. He might as well see that build to the end. He might as well re-sign Pietrangelo.
Thanks for reading.