The St. Louis Blues put up a fairly anemic performance in the first round against the Vancouver Canucks, and have already returned home from the playoff bubble in Edmonton. But the pressure never subsides totally for an NHL team, particularly for their front office.
General manager Doug Armstrong has some critical decisions to make quickly, and with free agency set to begin on October 9, he doesn’t have very long to make them. In this article, we’ll look at the five most critical decisions Armstrong and the Blues need to make.
Decision 1: Does Pietrangelo Stay?
Every other decision Armstrong needs to make begins with one: will he re-sign team captain Alex Pietrangelo? Signing the captain again will not be an easy task. The team is pressed up against the salary cap, and even in a flat-cap era where free-agent suitors might not be quite as prodigal as they would in a typical offseason, he is still expected to command $8 million per season or more.
With that said, the future of the Blues’ defense, and the future of the entire team, for that matter, hinges on this initial decision. If Armstrong wants to keep his captain, he will need to make several moves to clear the salary cap space to make it possible. If he is willing to let Pietrangelo walk, then he will need to completely reexamine what his team will look like without its defensive centerpiece and locker room leader. Either way, the Pietrangelo decision begets more decisions.
Prediction: Pietrangelo Stays
As rough as things look after the playoff series against the Canucks, and despite Pietrangelo’s seemingly terse comments to the media after Game 6, it still seems most likely that both parties will blink before a divorce.
Of course, the rumors of a return home to the Toronto Maple Leafs are as loud for him as they are for any other player from the Greater Toronto Area; however, for Pietrangelo’s family, home is as much in St. Louis as it is in Ontario. His wife is from the area and his triplets were born in the city. If he were to leave, the Blues would lose their first captain ever to win a Stanley Cup, and a future leader in many statistical categories. He’s the kind of player you might build a statue for. It seems unlikely that either the Blues or Pietrangelo will be willing to give that up when push comes to shove.
Decision 2: Binnington or Allen?
The Blues have a knack for creating goaltending controversy in a vacuum. They did it again in their first-round series, six games in which Stanley Cup goaltender Jordan Binnington played abysmally and habitually hot-and-cold netminder Jake Allen looked great, for the most part. Binnington finished the playoffs 0-5 with an .851 save percentage (SV%) and a 4.72 goals-against average (GAA). Allen was 2-2 with a .935 SV% and a 1.89 GAA.
Previously, it seemed inevitable that the Blues would trade Allen and his $4.35 million cap hit for the 2020-21 season, call up young backstop Ville Husso, who signed a one-way deal, and move forward with Binnington. But with the latter’s shockingly bad performance many are calling into question whether his Stanley Cup run was a flash in the pan and whether Allen might not be the path forward after all.
Prediction: Binnington Stays, Allen Leaves
It’s going to take a lot more than five bad performances to convince Armstrong to move on from Binnington, one of the greatest stories in franchise history. If anything, Allen’s performance only increased his trade value in the offseason. Even if Pietrangelo leaves, it makes little sense to keep both $4-plus million goalies in a flat-cap situation, and Husso needs to get a chance to get in consistent NHL work. As well as he performed, it’s time for Jake Allen to move on to a new franchise.
Decision 3: Is Vince Dunn the Future?
Speaking of players who looked terrible in the playoff bubble, left-handed defenseman Vince Dunn played an awful series against the Canucks, and his turnovers and bad performances led directly to several Vancouver goals. Unfortunately for him, that will be the last taste he leaves in the mouths of contract negotiators, as he is a perspective restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason.
The Blues have Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich waiting in the wings on the left side, and he plays a very similar style of game to Dunn. Of course, no team has ever had too many defensemen with high hockey IQs, but Armstrong may choose to let go of what will soon be a more expensive option to let the college superstar get some ice time. It would be a mistake to do it as an overreaction to his postseason performance, though, as Dunn’s metrics have been strong throughout his career.
Prediction: Dunn Departs
While we have argued in the past that Perunovich and Dunn can and should coexist in a Blues’ defensive corps, it seems more likely that Armstrong will deal the latter now. A cursory scan of the internet reveals any number of fanbases intent on their team pursuing Dunn this offseason.
The general manager will know that an offer sheet is a possibility, and may want to trade Dunn for value before losing him for what will likely be a second-round pick return. Moreover, Armstrong could weaponize Dunn in a trade to clear up further cap space, dealing him with a player on a bad contract as an incentive for the receiving team. Whatever the case, there are many viable reasons to trade the 23-year-old, and an obvious replacement in-house. There’s a good chance Dunn’s days in St. Louis are numbered.
Decision 4: Will Schwartz Remain?
Most fans would view Jaden Schwartz, a product of the 2010 Draft two picks before Vladimir Tarasenko, as a centerpiece of the Blues’ core. But is that true anymore? The oft-injured forward has averaged just 16.8 goals per season over the last five seasons. After he had a particularly rough performance during the 2018-19 regular season, a good playoff performance and a strong rebound season in 2019-20 has him looking like a fixture again. But with just one year left on his current deal at a $5.35 million cap hit, they’ll need to extend him to keep him beyond next season.
Schwartz is a valuable offensive player and a hard worker who models the kind of forechecking game that head coach Craig Berube desires. But he’s never reached the 30-goal threshold and he has only surpassed 75 games in a season once in his career.
With that said, a jury of his peers voted Schwartz the second-most underrated NHL player just two seasons ago. He is clearly a player whose stats don’t always match his impact. But at 28, his prime is coming to an end, and the next contract he signs will be paying for past performance rather than future output.
Goals above expectation (even-strength).— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 7, 2019
The biggest overperformers this year:
And the biggest underperformers:
The big question for Armstrong is whether Schwartz is a part of his team’s longterm future. The reason he must answer that question now, rather than a year from now, is because of Decision 1 in this article. If he intends to keep Pietrangelo, Schwartz’s $5.35 million cap hit would go a long way to that end. If the captain is headed elsewhere this offseason, then Armstrong will have a lot more flexibility to re-sign Schwartz during or after next season.
Prediction: Armstrong Trades Schwartz
It won’t be a popular opinion, but trading Schwartz makes a lot of sense for the Blues. The combined salaries of Allen and Schwartz would clear plenty of space to re-sign Pietrangelo. While many fans long to see a more difficult contract like Tyler Bozak’s or Alex Steen’s moved this fall, that would be difficult to do under the best of circumstances, much less with a flat cap.
But one year of Schwartz at his current cap hit would be very appetizing to many teams, especially as it would provide the receiving team ample time to work out an extension. The Blues’ farm system is thinning quickly, and they have limited draft picks over the next two seasons. They could recoup a package of picks and prospects in a trade for Schwartz this offseason, and clear the space to retain their captain. Unless Armstrong is certain that Schwartz is part of the longterm future, trading him before free agency makes a lot of sense.
Decision 5: What to Do with Tarasenko?
One of the most important questions Armstrong needs to answer may be the hardest to solve: what is the future for Tarasenko? The star goal scorer has seen diminishing goals totals over the past five seasons. But that became a minor concern when he suffered a serious shoulder injury early in the season. It ultimately kept him out for the entirety of the remaining regular season, as he had not yet returned before the COVID-19 pause.
It seemed that fans’ prayers had been answered when Tarasenko returned for the playoffs after an extended opportunity to recover; however, he never looked right, and he quickly left the Edmonton bubble for further evaluation on his shoulder.
If further work is needed on his shoulder, it would be the third operation on the same shoulder in as many years. That could be devastating for a player with an elite shot, and even more debilitating for his team. If Tarasenko’s future, be it for the 2020-21 season or beyond, is in jeopardy, the Blues will need some serious scoring help. They navigated a 2019-20 season without their star winger, but another season in a row might be more than they are prepared for.
Prediction: Kyrou, Kostin on Call
Fortunately for Armstrong, though his farm system is thinning, the two top offensive prospects he does have are weapons. Jordan Kyrou has already made something of an impact, even getting a chance to play in the postseason in Edmonton. Klim Kostin made his debut in the 2019-20 season and scored his first NHL goal against the Nashville Predators. Each player has high offensive skill and 30-goal potential in the future.
There’s simply no preparing for the possibility of losing your top goal scorer. Armstrong could, of course, bring in additional offseason reinforcements, but doing so would obviously put a wrench in any other plans. His best chance for replacing Tarasenko, should it come to that, is exactly what it became this year: a next-man-up philosophy that leans heavily on these youngsters to take the next step in their career.
Armstrong’s Work Cut Out for Him
In the final analysis, these are not five independent decisions but an interwoven network of related decisions. If Pietrangelo is to remain, Armstrong might be forced to trade Allen and/or Schwartz. If Tarasenko is injured, trading Schwartz would obviously become difficult. If Dunn is on his way out, how many changes can the defense afford?
These are all questions Armstrong will have to answer quickly. Oct. 9 is much closer than it seems, and by noon on that day, the team’s captain could be elsewhere. The Blues’ general manager has an abbreviated timeline, a limited budget, a league-wide flat salary cap, and some of the most important decisions of his career. This may be his most significant offseason yet.
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.