As the St. Louis Blues enter an important free agency period, they have many questions to answer. What do they do if Alex Pietrangelo leaves? How can they fill the goal-scoring void without Vladimir Tarasenko? With the flat salary cap next season, they must look at potential bargain players who can play a role on the team. Here are three options.
1. LW Ilya Kovalchuk (Last Team: Washington Capitals)
This is a weird one. Kovalchuk is 37 years old and has bounced around the NHL since his return to the league from the KHL. He finished last season with the Capitals after being dealt by the Montreal Canadiens.
Kovalchuk still has some scoring in him. He tallied 26 points in 46 games last season, including 10 goals. He should qualify as a bargain after playing on a $700,000 contract last season.
As for where he fits in with the Blues, he could slide onto the third line with Tyler Bozak and Sammy Blais, adding even more size to that line. He would fit well with Bozak, who is a solid two-way forward and a physically skilled youngster like Blais.
Kovalchuk has size and experience, he’s 6-foot-3, 222 pounds, and has been in the league since 2001. The fact that he has only played in 40 playoff games in his career is a disgrace, he may love the chance to play for a contender and get a solid amount of ice time.
2. LW Patrick Maroon (Last Team: Tampa Bay Lightning)
You can always come home. The Blues need to consider bringing the hometown hero back. He played a key role during the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2019 and is now playing a key role for the Lightning in the 2020 Playoffs.
Maroon had 23 points in 64 games with the Lightning in 2019-20, after signing a one-year, $900,000 deal during the offseason. The physicality and hockey IQ that he brings to the bottom-six makes him a great player to have.
Nobody expects him to be a playmaker or goal-scorer, he is a smart, tough player who contributes perfectly to contending teams. The only season he produced goals was in 2016-17 when he tallied 27 with the Edmonton Oilers playing alongside Connor McDavid.
As for his fit on the club, he could slot right back onto the third line with Bozak and Blais, or Robert Thomas, if Thomas doesn’t jump into the top-six next season.
3. LW Patrick Marleau (Last Team: Pittsburgh Penguins)
Yes, the first three players on this list are similar but hear me out. Marleau is 41 years old, a seasoned veteran who hasn’t won a Cup yet (from ‘Patrick Marleau’s tireless pursuit of the Stanley Cup brought him to the Penguins,’ Trib Live, 07/16/2020). He could be a steady veteran forward in the bottom-six just like Kovalchuk or Maroon.
If Marleau wants to play in 2020-21, signing with a contender has to be a priority. He can still play and produce at the NHL level, not as he did in his prime, but he had 22 points in 66 games last season with the San Jose Sharks and the Penguins.
You’d think he would want to play another season; he’s 45 games from breaking the all-time games played record of 1,767 by the late, great Gordie Howe.
Again, I’d consider the third line for Marleau, with Bozak and Blais. However, if Alexander Steen doesn’t return, I could see Oskar Sundqvist and Ivan Barbashev being a good fit with Marleau, who is likely to sign for under $1 million on a one-year deal.
4. D Oscar Fantenberg (Last Team: Vancouver Canucks
As far as signing defensemen on a low salary, Fantenberg fits the bill as a solid defender who is still under the age of 30. He was noticeably strong in the Blues’ first-round exit to the Canucks in the 2020 Playoffs.
If Fantenberg leaves Vancouver, it would be his fourth team in as many seasons. He played for the L.A. Kings and Calgary Flames before he seemingly found a home with the Canucks, playing in 36 regular-season games and 16 playoff games this season.
I’ll be surprised if he leaves Vancouver, but he would fit in well with the Blues, as a left-handed shot who plays solid defensively. If Carl Gunnarsson is injured or not in St. Louis next season, Fantenberg could take that role. He would instantly compete for a spot on the roster with Scott Perunovich and Niko Mikkola ahead of the 2020-21 season.
5. D Matt Irwin (Last Team: Anaheim Ducks)
Similar to Fantenberg, Irwin has bounced around during his career, playing for four different teams in eight seasons. He played 27 games for the Nashville Predators in 2019-20 before being traded to the Ducks for Korbinian Holzer and a sixth-round pick. He won’t produce points but he could be a solid defender in the right system.
He has 47 career playoff games under his belt and he had a big, physical season in 2016-17 with 121 blocked shots and 115 hits.
The Blues could get Irwin, 32, for well under $1 million for a year or two and he could play a similar role to Gunnarsson in terms of being a plugin and play on various nights or win a starting role out of training camp.
The Blues’ top priority should be to re-sign Pietrangelo, but they should also try to steal a bargain player to add depth. Any of these veteran options would be low-risk in every way. This is an important offseason for general manager Doug Armstrong.