What’s next for the St. Louis Blues?

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It’s become a tradition: many Stanley Cup contenders have had to disband their winning lineups due to cap restraints in the past. There’s a reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team of the salary cap era to win consecutive titles in 2016-17, with Detroit last doing it in 1997-98. The Blues didn’t immediately need to make an adjustment, but that’s about to change this summer.

With Alex Pietrangelo on the market as the NHL’s most coveted free agent, the Blues find themselves needing to make big changes to keep as much of the core group together as possible. The Blues fell in the first round to a Vancouver Canucks team most thought would have been crushed, if not swept, to kick things off, with many key contributors failing to find their stride for St. Louis following the extended break. Since then, Jake Allen was moved out, and everyone from David Perron, Colton Parayko and Carl Gunnarsson have bounced into trade rumors.

Truly, nobody is safe in St. Louis.

The Blues don’t need to do a lot of tinkering this fall, but if they can’t find a way to keep Pietrangelo around, they’ll have to get a bit creative. The Blues don’t have a vast farm system to pluck out top prospects, but they currently have the depth that most teams dream of. If the Blues can come out without losing many key assets, they’ll be contenders once again – but can GM Doug Armstrong handle the pressure?

The Blues
Oct 4, 2018; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly (90) talks with defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (27) during the third period against the Winnipeg Jets at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Alex Pietrangelo situation

The Blues currently possess the rights to the NHL’s top pending free agent this summer, and that should instill some fear in the mind of Blues’ fans. Pietrangelo is by far one of the best defensemen the Blues have ever developed from the draft. Armed with a Stanley Cup to his credit, Pietrangelo is ready to make the big bucks. But a flattened salary cap has meant teams have had to get creative to sign their big stars, and the Blues are no different with Pietrangelo on the heels of one of the best statistical seasons of his 12-year career.

The Blues have already moved $4.3 million in cap space by trading Jake Allen to the Montreal Canadiens, giving the team just a glimmer of breathing room. Add in the long-term injury to Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues could free up another $7.5 million, at least in the short-term. The Blues only have $5.15 million in projected cap space for 2020-21 and have to fill at least two spots, both on the blueline. Vince Dunn shouldn’t command too much as an RFA, but Pietrangelo has to be priority No. 1 – but can they actually make it work?

As of now, of course, the Blues can’t make it work, but the team is playing a dangerous game if they let their captain head to the open market. Pietrangelo’s wife is from the St. Louis area and he has played his entire NHL tenure in Missouri – would he even want to leave? Odds are no, but the Blues need to get creative to keep the team’s most important player around long-term. 

It’s unlikely Pietrangelo will settle for anything under $8.5 million for 7-8 years – when you have a franchise defenseman on the market, everyone will make a run for them. That means the Blues will need about $14 million in cap space to make it work – $8.5 million for Pietrangelo, about $4 million for Dunn and another $2 million to give the team some flexibility. Dunn’s rights could be moved if the Blues feel confident in NCAA graduate Scott Perunivich, but that might not be the best plan if the Blues feel that they can make another Cup run next season (forgetting Dunn’s brutal playoff effort this year, of course). 

Putting Tarasenko on the LTIR would help, but that’s only temporary with the Russian expected to re-join the Blues in February, two months into the 2020-21 season. That would offer the Blues some time to make things work, and with the Blues remaining a contender for the Stanley Cup, Armstrong will want to keep things glued together. How the club will free up a bit of extra salary, however, is the biggest mystery.

Finding a (short-term) replacement for Vladdy

It would be fantastic if this was a one-time situation where Tarasenko heals for a few months and comes back without a hitch. But that’s far from the case: Tarasenko missed most of the regular season with an injury suffered in October and re-dislocated the same shoulder during the Stanley Cup finals last year – a season after requiring surgery following the 2017-18 campaign. At this point, can the Blues have any realistic hope of getting Tarasenko back on a full-time basis again?

For a forward, that isn’t afraid to rub elbows with the best of them, and with a wicked wrist shot to boot, requiring multiple shoulder surgeries can truly derail a career. Tarasenko is expected to return by February, but can the Blues be fully certain that he’ll be as effective as he was three surgeries ago? In the long-term, the Blues should be absolutely worried.

The problem is, though, that replacing a three-time 70-plus-point producer that was on pace for 82 points before his injury in October is going to be an absolute pain to overcome. The Blues don’t have the cap space to bring in someone like Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman, so they’ll have to upgrade from within. The Blues don’t have a budding prospect system, but fellow Russian Klim Kostin has improved his consistency issues and is starting to develop into a strong prospect, but he’s simply not ready to be an impactful top-six forward. Jordan Kyrou was impactful in spot duty with the Blues and could be a reliable 20-goal guy in the future, but both don’t come close to replacing the team’s top scorer at this stage in the game.

Can the Blues find a suitable substitute for Tarasenko? No, but after finishing first in the WEstern Conference this season, they didn’t necessarily need him, either. Forwards Robert Thomas, Zach Sanford and Jaden Schwartz added fantastic secondary scoring behind Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and Brayden Schenn and the Blues do have the depth to shut teams out if they need. But still, hoping everything will fall into place again – especially if Pietrangelo leaves via free agency – without the team’s top forward isn’t something the Blues should want to test without proper insurance. 

Finding trust in the crease

After years of goaltending uncertainty, the Blues were gifted a miracle run out of rookie Jordan Binnington last season en route to the Stanley Cup. His Game 7 victory against Boston set an NHL rookie goaltender record with 16 wins in one post-season, beating out the likes of Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy, and Matt Murray. It was a run for the ages, with Binnington helping the Blues out of last place in the NHL at the halfway point in the season before going on the monster run that saw him earn consideration for the Calder Trophy – but Elias Pettersson had it locked up halfway through 2019-20.

The Blues were hoping for that same miraculous effort in 2020-21, signing Binnington to a two-year deal worth $4 million AAV. If Binnington was the real deal, the Blues were getting an absolute bargain. If not, it wouldn’t be too hard to stomach the cost in the short-term. Binnington wasn’t bad by any means, but his stats were average enough to the point where the Blues have to wonder if he truly is the guy they can trust going into the future.

A similar goaltender to Binnington is Murray in Pittsburgh. Murray burst onto the scene in 2016 and lifted the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups – including one before he was officially an NHL rookie. Despite the instant success for Murray, he still didn’t have much of a background in regular-season play to earn a big contract and signed an inexpensive bridge contract worth $3.75 million to act as Pittsburgh’s starter. That was the right call for the Penguins, as Murray has struggled to find his old form and even lost the starting job to Tristan Jarry this season. With Murray set to become an RFA this fall, the Penguins have been rumored to be shopping him around, with many people believing he doesn’t have a future as a starting goalie in Pennsylvania anymore.

Why is Binnington a similar case? He didn’t find his footing in the NHL until he was 25, eight years after the Blues drafted him in 2011. Sure, Binnington was absolutely incredible in 2018-19 and was deserving of a two-year, but the Blues clearly wanted to make sure he was the real deal. And while Binnington wasn’t bad this season, his numbers saw a big drop from his rookie campaign and was one of the worst playoff goaltenders through five games, even losing the starting role to Jake Allen for a few contests. Binnington has one more year left on his contract, and if he plays anything like he did this season, the Blues could elect for an upgrade.

For now, the focus has to be on replacing Allen. Allen was traded to Montreal earlier this month after putting up some of the best numbers among backup goaltenders this season but wasn’t living up to the $4.3-million cap hit in a summer where the Blues had big decisions to make on the free agency front. Would the Blues consider bringing back Brian Elliott, a goaltender with previous success in a Bluenote uniform? What if the Stars let Anton Khudobin go, do they chase after him? Or do the Blues believe enough in Ville Husso to give him another shot at the backup spot? That would be ideal, assuming the Blues believe Joel Hofer is ready to make the jump to the AHL before making the eventual jump to the Blues full-time in about two years.

The Blues won’t make a big splash in the crease this off-season and will continue to ride Binnington for at least another season, but if the post-season has proven anything, it’s that having a good backup goalie is so vital to today’s NHL. The Blues traded away their safety net with the goal of creating cap space, but now they need to find someone equally as effective for a fraction of the price.

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