Blues Defense Needs Creative Solutions

If the St. Louis Blues aren’t considered top Stanley Cup contenders entering the 2021-22 season, they are right on the bubble. After all, they gave the newly-crowned Colorado Avalanche one of the toughest tests of their postseason run. If there’s anything holding them back from being top-tier contenders, it’s their defense, an area that general manager Doug Armstrong is expected to address this summer.

Related: 5 St. Louis Blues Players That Would Make Good Trade Bait

But the Blues may need to be more creative with their solutions than many presume. A trade for a top-tier left-handed defenseman like Jakob Chychrun or Ivan Provorov might make sense, but it will burden the Blues with a long, costly salary cap commitment on the backend before they are even certain that new addition fits well. Solving this problem will require creativity. Let’s look at the reasons why.

The Blues’ Costly Defense

The Blues are already heavily committed to defense, in both years and salary. Justin Faulk and Torey Krug are on matching contracts. Both carry $6.5 million average annual values (AAV) through the 2026-27 season. Colton Parayko carries the same cap hit, but his new contract extension that begins this season will keep him on the books through the 2029-30 season. Add to that Marco Scandella’s two remaining seasons at $3.275 million, and they currently have almost $23 million committed for two more seasons and $19.5 million committed through the three seasons after that.

It won’t be easy for the Blues to plunk a new contract into that mixture. Chychrun’s popularity as a trade chip stems in part from his affordable contract, but even he makes $4.6 million per season for the next three seasons. Provorov might be considerably more affordable as a trade piece than Chychrun, but his contract carries a $6.75 million cap hit through the 2024-25 season. With the salary cap remaining mostly flat this season, and uncertain beyond that, simply adding a contract might not make sense for Armstrong. So what can he do?

Trading Marco Scandella

One thing the Blues will almost certainly have to accomplish is trading Scandella. The veteran defenseman looked good in a brief stretch after arriving in St. Louis at the 2020 Trade Deadline. But after signing a costly contract extension, he began to fall off rather quickly. He has not proved to be the defensive partner the Blues hoped he might be for Colton Parayko. On his worst nights, he is barely strong enough to be an NHL-caliber defenseman.

Related: St. Louis Blues’ 2021-22 Report Cards: Marco Scandella

Armstrong has no choice but to try and unload Scandella this summer, even if it costs him assets to do so. The $3.275 million in salary cap space he takes up is too valuable for a team that wants to contend at a high level. His best bet will be to package Scandella in a bigger trade, unloading an unwanted contract in a package for a desired asset. He has done this in the past, including Jori Lehtera in the trade for Brayden Schenn. He arguably did it again at the trade deadline, when he included Oskar Sundqvist in his deal for Nick Leddy. Blues fans love Sundqvist, but the $2.75 million salary cap hit he carries was a luxury the team couldn’t afford. Scandella has not earned the same admiration from Blues fans, but he is in a similar situation, and the Blues will need to find a way to trade his contract to rebuild their defense. But will they stop there?

Would Armstrong Consider Deeper Cuts?

Maybe the solution to the Blues’ top four isn’t just adding, but restructuring. Would Armstrong consider deeper cuts, such as trading one of Parayko, Faulk, and Krug? All three have no-trade clauses (NTC), but Armstrong has found ways around that before. Might he consider a move that drastic?

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The answer is probably “no,” but for different reasons. No one wants to trade Faulk. He’s been the team’s best defenseman, arguably for two seasons running. He isn’t quite a cornerstone defender, but he’s clearly the team’s strongest option on right side defense at the moment. Krug has his flaws as a defender, but he is the quarterback of the team’s power play and an extraordinary point producer and puck mover on the defensive end. Trading Parayko is a popular concept right now, but it’s unrealistic. He has not looked like the defender he once was, and how many teams would take a chance on him at the very beginning of a long contract extension. Perhaps someone is so defense-starved that Armstrong could pull it off, but even if he did, that would just leave him with another hole to fill on the right side. It’s likely that all three defensemen will be back next season.

NHL Draft Night Will Be Key

Armstrong needs to get creative to find the best solution for his defensive concerns. But he has a deadline: Friday, July 8th. That’s the second day of the NHL Draft, and both nights of the draft (as well as the week before) are expected to be busy, action-packed periods in the NHL schedule. Teams will want to handle their trade business early to have a clear picture of where they stand before free agency, not to mention that the 23rd overall pick Armstrong has could be a valuable trade chip for him.

Jakob Chychrun Arizona Coyotes
The Blues are one of several teams linked to Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If Armstrong wants to improve his defense, he’d be wise not to wait. There’s no clear solution in the free agent market, and bringing back Leddy feels like an underwhelming answer. The time is now to figure out what he needs to do. But whatever he does, he’ll need to be creative.