The St. Louis Blues entered their seven-game playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche as substantial underdogs, and those expectations were born out as the team lost in four games. Now, the offseason is here, and the tea is looking for answers as to how they can get better and continue to compete in a division that won’t be getting any easier this season.
Last season, the Blues lost captain Alex Pietrangelo to free agency. This summer, forwards Jaden Schwartz, Tyler Bozak, and Mike Hoffman are all unrestricted free agents (UFA). It feels like a team in transition; however, with that transition comes new opportunities. The Blues currently have roughly $15.7 million in free salary cap space as the 2021-22 season approaches. And since the talk of the offseason will likely be the potential Jack Eichel sweepstakes, it forces one to wonder: could general manager Doug Armstrong reach into his bag of tricks and pull off another jaw-dropping trade with the Buffalo Sabres like the one he orchestrated for Ryan O’Reilly (now the team captain) back in 2018?
Friedman Says the Blues Are In It
Of course, now that the Seattle Kraken are officially in the NHL, there are 31 teams other than the Sabres that would love to have Eichel play for them next season. So saying that the Blues might be interested isn’t saying much. But the case got considerably more interesting when Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggested on the 31 Thoughts Podcast that the Blues might be a potential sleeper fit for Eichel. Asked by co-host Jeff Marek who could potentially pull off a deal for Eichel, Friedman responded:
LA can do it. Anaheim can do it. Colorado could do it, but I don’t see it. Ottawa can do it, but I don’t see it. Montreal can do it. You know, somebody told me — and they don’t know if it’s possible — if St. Louis wanted to move some of their young pros — and again, I don’t know if they have any interest in it — but someone did say he could see a team like St. Louis being able to put a package that could do it.Elliotte Friedman discussing suitors for Jack Eichel on the May 14 Episode of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast
Despite Friedman’s uncertainty, there’s little question that the Blues should be interested in a top-level forward. They finished the 2020-21 regular season 25th in the league in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) and dead last in high danger chances for (HDCF), trailing the 31st place Detroit Red Wings by 20. Armstrong desperately needs a shakeup in his top six, and bringing in one of the best forwards in the league would certainly do that. And Friedman’s quote suggests that the Blues have the pieces to get it done. So let’s take a look at who some of those pieces might be, and then we’ll try to compose a potential trade package.
If any team goes to acquire Eichel, the common logic is that they will want to send some money back in the deal to even things out. Let’s look at a few of the players that could be included in the deal, and evaluate how likely it is for both the Blues and Sabres to be interested in the swap.
It’s tough to imagine, but if the Blues are looking to shed salary in the offseason, former superstar Vladimir Tarasenko is a prime suspect. The Russian sniper will have two seasons at a cap hit of $7.5 million remaining entering next season. After multiple shoulder surgeries, he hasn’t looked like the same player this season.
If Buffalo is taking on salary, they are better-positioned to give Tarasenko a chance to rehab than the Blues. Plus, bringing in a proven scorer could help convince Sabres fans that this trade doesn’t signal a total rebuild (though that might be tough to truly sell a snake-bitten fan base on).
If the Blues grab a player like Eichel, they’d have two centers making a combined $18.5 million per year between him and O’Reilly. Would Armstrong still be pleased to hang onto the seven years left on Brayden Schenn’s contract at $6.5 million per season? It’s hard to imagine that they’d want to pay a third center that much for that long, but it’s also doubtful the Sabres would see much value in Schenn. He’s still a very good player but doesn’t have the theoretical star power that Tarasenko carries. And Armstrong wouldn’t have to move him — Schenn can shift to the wing, a position he’s played for long stretches in his career. It might not be his ideal position, and he might want a move eventually, but it’s unlikely he’d be part of the return for Eichel.
It would be easy to think Zach Sanford ought to fall under the coming young players section, but Blues fans forget that the winger will be 27 early next season and has 209 NHL regular season games under his belt. It seems likely that if an Eichel deal happened, Sanford would be part of the return. He might not be prized by the Sabres, but he’s a valuable roster player who is a restricted free agent (RFA).
It seems likely that the Blues will look to move Sanford this summer anyway, after two inconsistent seasons as a full-time roster player, and Buffalo would be a perfect landing spot for him, close to his Salem, Mass. hometown. He might not be a major piece in the deal, but it’s easy to see why both teams would see value in including him.
Now we come to a player the Blues will be unlikely to part with. There is actually an argument for trading Colton Parayko, given that he has just one year left before he is a UFA, and the Blues could still expect a considerable return for him. But with just one year left on his deal, will the Sabres be interested? Maybe not, but if the Blues are looking to shed money on defense, Parayko is likely much more appealing to Buffalo than the long, costly contracts of either Justin Faulk or Torey Krug.
Young Players and Prospects
There’s no question the Sabres will want considerable future potential back in any deal for a young superstar center like Eichel. Here are a few players who might fit the bill.
It’s tough to imagine any deal for Eichel materializing between the Sabres and Blues that doesn’t include young center Robert Thomas. The Aurora, Ontario native was notoriously absent from the deal for Ryan O’Reilly, but it’s hard to conceive of Buffalo making that same mistake again. Plus, if the Blues are acquiring Eichel, trading away a young center to do it will be a lot more palatable.
Thomas hasn’t had quite the breakout season many were hoping for this season, but he remains one of the few true jewels in the Blues’ system as far as young talent is concerned. Armstrong will still not be eager to trade him, but if a player like Eichel is on the table, then it’s certainly a price worth paying.
By contrast, Armstrong will probably do whatever he can to hold onto Jordan Kyrou. Once, it seemed that Kyrou ranked slightly behind Thomas in terms of untouchability, but this season, he’s emerged as the team’s most dynamic forward. His elite speed and creativity led to him ranking fifth in points (35) and goals (14) on the team, despite entering the season fairly low on the depth chart. Now, he seems as untouchable as anyone in the system, and especially in a trade for a center, holding on to the elite winger who could potentially play alongside Eichel makes a lot of sense.
Another player who seems very likely to be included in any deal for Eichel is defenseman Vince Dunn. The young blueliner will be an RFA after the season much like Sanford and is clearly on the outs with head coach Craig Berube. Plus, between Krug, Dunn, and star prospect Scott Perunovich, the Blues have three very similar defensemen on the left side. Perunovich is coming off surgery and cost-controlled, Armstrong will be less likely to move him. But Dunn needs a change of scenery if Berube is staying put in St. Louis, and this trade would be a perfect destination for him.
Blues Receive: Jack Eichel ($2 million salary retained), 2021 3rd Round Pick
Sabres Receive: Robert Thomas, Zach Sanford, Vince Dunn, a 2021 1st Round Pick, and a 2022 1st Round Pick
As Friedman said, the Blues do have a series of young assets that could be very appealing to the Sabres. The one thing they lack is an obvious piece they can trade for salary cap considerations, particularly with both Tarasenko and Schenn featuring no-trade clauses. Thus, we’ve suggested the Sabres could retain $2 million in cap hit per season. They probably would not be thrilled with that, but it’s the cost of doing business, especially in a flat-cap era.
With that said, the Sabres would be getting a haul in return for their captain. Sure, the Blues offer the headliner like Alexis Lafrenière or Quinton Byfield that the New York Rangers or Los Angeles Kings could offer; however, given Eichel’s contract and the uncertainty about his health, those teams are unlikely to part with those stars, either.
Still, Thomas and Dunn are highly-coveted pieces in the NHL, and Sanford is a valuable forward who the Sabres can choose to control for a long time. Plus, two high draft picks will help strengthen the deal. Of course, there might be other changes at the fringes of this deal, but this offer forms the core of what could be a strong one from Armstrong. Whether or not Adams would accept it is anyone’s guess. It’s going to be an interesting summer around the league.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.