Blues Can’t Afford to Get in on Jakob Chychrun Sweepstakes

Right now, few names in the NHL are fetching as much trade interest as Arizona Coyotes’ defenseman Jakob Chychrun. Though the 23-year-old is one of the few players the Coyotes have on term, his promising play in prior seasons, coupled with his low average annual value (AAV) contract, make him an appetizing trade target that could fetch a king’s ransom. Since Arizona general manager Bill Armstrong is in the middle of a scorched earth rebuild, nothing is off the table, and a team that meets the asking price for Chychrun can almost certainly pry him away from the desert.

But that’s the Catch-22 of these negotiations: because they are under no pressure to actually move their young blueliner, they can maintain an absurdly-high asking price. Recently, TSN’s Darren Dreger called the asking price “expectedly enormous,” likening it to an “Eichel-like return” of “Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a conditional first-round pick and a conditional second-round pick.”

The St. Louis Blues are among the teams linked to Chychrun by the likes of Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. And there’s little question that they could put together a package that might pique the Coyotes’ interest. After all, Bill Armstrong came to Arizona after serving as Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong’s (no relation) assistant in St. Louis. He helped craft their draft classes, so there’s no doubt many of the Blues’ prospects would appeal to him. The only question remaining is whether wagering their pipeline for Chychrun actually makes sense for the Blues. While many assume the answer is a foregone conclusion, a closer look leaves us with more questions than answers.

Chychrun’s Reputation is Built on Offense

Make no mistake: despite holding the worst plus/minus in the NHL, and collecting only seven points in 26 games this season, Chychrun is an appealing young defenseman. The left-hander from Boca Raton, Florida led NHL defenders in goals last season with 18 and has 30 over the last two shortened seasons. At 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, he isn’t huge, but he still offers the size most GMs covet in their defenders.

Jakob Chychrun Arizona Coyotes
Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This season has been especially rough on Chychrun, but one could reasonably explain that away by pointing to his top-line minutes on one of the league’s worst teams. He is being left out to dry night after night, and it isn’t entirely fair to judge him by his 2021-22 numbers. A closer look at his numbers from seasons (like this one from jfreshhockey on Twitter) prior shows a good-to-great defenseman, but one who stands out largely because of his offensive contributions.

Last season, Chychrun was a popular contender for the Norris Trophy amongst less mainstream analysts, but he ultimately ranked 10th in final voting. Leading the league in goals from his position certainly earned him some credit, but he also ranked 12th-worst that season in high danger chances against (HDCA). And before anyone casts blame, his linemate Oliver Ekman-Larsson ranked 56th worst with 36 fewer HDCA. Chychrun, to his credit, also ranked 15th-best in high danger chances for (HDCF), making him the very definition of a “high event” player. He’s certainly fun to watch. But at this stage in his career, it’s hard to argue he’s a shutdown defenseman. And that should spark questions about his fit with the Blues.

Blues Need Defensive Solidity

The Blues are no longer the team built on defense that won the 2019 Stanley Cup. Though that has been their identity for many years, their identity has shifted drastically as Doug Armstrong has subtly rebuilt the team. Now, they have a lot of offensive firepower, led by young guns like Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, and offseason acquisition Pavel Buchnevich, and they’ve started to compete in higher-scoring games, like Saturday’s 6-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, rather than expecting to win every contest 2-1 or 3-2. On defense, they no longer have stalwarts like Alex Pietrangelo or Jay Bouwmeester. But they’ve added plenty of offensive creativity in the forms of Torey Krug and Justin Faulk.

Related: Blues Defense Must Find Identity

When Colton Parayko’s extension kicks in next season, they will be paying their top three defensemen $6.5 million per season through at least the 2026-27 season. And yet, they lack a defensive identity. Parayko, who missed much of last season with a back injury, has not matured into a true number one defenseman and seems to have lost the shutdown identity he had alongside Bouwmeester in the Cup run. Faulk and Krug were never known as defense-first players, and both have received their share of unfair criticism for not living up to a role they should never have been expected to fulfill in the first place.

Now, consider placing Chychrun into that mix. In one sense, he certainly fits: he is a lefty and completes the quartet of top blueliners, and his affordable contract will prevent the team from heinously overspending on defense (although for the money they’re pouring in currently, they probably would hope for better results). But it’s fair to wonder whether adding another offense-first defenseman on term is really what the team needs right now, especially at the price he would likely command.

Blues’ Should Protect Pipeline of Perunovich, Mikkola

The Blues have two bright young defensemen in their pipeline, including Niko Mikkola, who has taken many first-pairing minutes alongside Parayko in recent weeks, and former Hobey Baker Trophy winner Scott Perunovich. As mentioned, Mikkola is starting to get exposure as a top-line defender. He isn’t fully up to the task yet, but he may fit what the Blues need better than Chychrun. No one will ever mistake Mikkola for an offensive defenseman, but he’s 6-foot-4 and has the size and range the team needs in a top-line role. Plus, he’s shown his grit, as evidenced in a recent on-ice tussle with NHL legend Sidney Crosby.

Niko Mikkola St. Louis Blues
Niko Mikkola, St. Louis Blues (Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Perunovich is built more in the mold of a Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes: he’s an undersized defender with elite skating and puck-handling upside. He also will likely never be an elite defender, but given the right utilization, he could be a dynamic gamechanger. Unfortunately, he hasn’t gotten that opportunity yet with the Blues. Though injuries and positive COVID tests have created plenty of opportunities, head coach Craig Berube has seemed reticent to deploy him in a marquee role. He’s been relegated mostly to the third pairing, with few opportunities on the power play, where he should provide most of his value.

Even so, Perunovich and Mikkola are the kinds of players that deserve protecting. But it’s hard to imagine the Blues could acquire Chychrun without sacrificing one or both to the Coyotes. And that is arguably robbing Peter to pay Paul. If Doug Armstrong truly believes that Chychrun is the missing piece that could bring St. Louis another Stanley Cup this season, then a trade might make sense. Failing that, sacrificing these pipeline centerpieces might be a rash mistake.

Blues Should Avoid Overpaying for Chychrun

Suggesting that the Blues should avoid overpaying for Chychrun ultimately amounts to suggesting they avoid trading for him altogether since someone almost certainly will meet the Coyotes’ high asking price. An “Eichel-like” package would almost certainly see the Blues trading a first-round pick, Perunovich, another top prospect like goaltender Joel Hofer, and other roster players to make the salary work. That is an extremely high price to pay for a defender who isn’t a perfect fit. Chychrun is a good player, and some team will surrender a lot to add him to their defensive group. But unless the Blues are certain he is the specific missing piece they need, they should avoid the sweepstakes and opt for a cheaper option to improve their blueline.

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