Blues Will Face a Cap Crunch Even With Rumored Cap Increase

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday that the NHL could see a sizable increase to the league’s salary cap by $4 million for the 2023-24 season. When asked about the potential rise he stated: “We believe that there’s a good probability that the escrow will be paid off this season. Which means the flat cap would be replaced by a bigger increase.”

In 2020, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that kept the salary cap flat at $81.5 million until hockey-related revenue surpassed $3.3 billion for the previous season. This year, the salary cap increased for the first time under the new CBA, up $1 million to $82.5 million. Heading into the 2022-23 season, the league anticipated a second increase of $1 million for the 2023-24 season.

How Increase Could Benefit Blues

It should not be surprising that a higher salary cap means the St. Louis Blues will have a higher level of cash flexibility to retain or sign players moving forward. This increase could be substantial, especially for the Blues as they are looking to re-sign key players for their organization like Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Vladimir Tarasenko St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As of this writing, the team has an estimated $11 million available for the 2023-24 season. While this may come across as a high level of cap space, the team will attempt to use it, along with any additional increases to retain two of their top forwards, both of whom currently cost $7.5 million annually. There has been speculation that one of the two players would need to be shipped out in order to maintain flexibility and competitiveness moving forward. At this time, the Blues have seven forwards signed with an additional seven forwards listed as either restricted or unrestricted free agents. The additional $3 million in cap space would be a blessing for them, but they still face a complex situation moving forward.

Blues Still Facing Cap Complications with O’Reilly & Tarasenko

As the Blues continue to see production and playoff berths led by the veterans of the organization, the franchise faces a bittersweet problem. Each year, they are a team that continues to draft near the middle to the end of each round of the NHL Entry Draft, forcing them to find creative trade solutions to maintain a strong veteran presence that can contribute offensively and defensively. Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has worked his magic on multiple occasions acquiring players like Justin Faulk, Pavel Buchnevich, and Brayden Schenn who have all become crucial to the success of the organization.

Related: Blues Should Extend Ryan O’Reilly Soon

This past offseason, Armstrong re-signed forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou to matching eight-year, $65 million contracts with the anticipation that the two will eventually become two of the franchise’s top players. During the 2021-22 season, both of them saw breakout performances scoring over 20 goals and 75 points each. Thomas’ ascension to becoming the team‘s number-one center may come sooner than later leaving players like O’Reilly in a place of uncertainty as he looks to continue his successful career in the NHL. The Blues’ captain has seen the best performances from a statistical and accolade standpoint during his time in St. Louis winning a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, and Selke Trophy in his first year with the franchise.

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At this time, the Blues do not have an internal option outside of Thomas ready to come in and fill the role of a star-studded veteran presence like O’Reilly. To maintain a competitive nature moving forward, the club has put themselves in a position of need to retain their captain.

As he continues to reassert his dominance in St. Louis, the Russian sniper Tarasenko has proven his value and worth to the franchise. With the club losing David Perron in the offseason, the depth on right wing has greatly diminished and there does not appear to be a player ready to be inserted into the lineup should the club and Tarasenko depart. The increase in the salary cap can only help the front office with their decision and attempts to hopefully keep both players. While the Blues have drafted talented players like Jake Neighbours and Zachary Bolduc in the first round of the last two entry drafts, their current prospect depth at the forward position is lacking and would ultimately result in a small re-tooling before they are able to compete for a Stanley Cup again.

What If the Salary Cap Does Not Increase Further?

If the league does not increase its salary cap, by the projection of $4 million, the team will be forced to make some tough decisions. The Blues organization does not have the players ready to take over for the veterans at this time. There is the option of free agency and the gamble that comes with it, but lists both O’Reilly and Tarasenko as two of the top available players. There is no guarantee that the Blues will find a player or multiple players to replace the two veterans as they have become franchise icons.

Armstrong may need to get creative by moving out one of their three defensemen like Faulk, Torey Krug, and Colton Parayko, who are currently paid $6.5 million annually through the 2026-27 season. With the defensive depth that the organization has at this given time, it could make sense to trade one of them to create additional cap flexibility. The club could additionally seek trade partners for players like defenseman Marco Scandella and forward Brandon Saad who are making $3.75 and $4.5 million, respectively. Ultimately, the biggest hurdle the front office will need to overcome is that each of these five players listed has a no-trade clause, or modified no-trade clause in the case of Scandella, and are in control of their destination.

It is unlikely that a decision will be made early in the season and will likely be revisited as the calendar changes to 2023. The situation is one to monitor as the March 21, 2023 NHL Trade Deadline approaches.

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