Blues’ Parayko Extension Is a Big Gamble

St. Louis Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong often does his work without much warning in the local or national media. So Wednesday’s announcement of an eight-year, $52 million contract extension for defenseman Colton Parayko came as a total surprise to most in the St. Louis Blues community. With the move, Armstrong solidified his defense for the better part of the next decade, with Parayko, Justin Faulk, and Torey Krug all carrying matching $6.5 million salary cap hits through at least the 2026-27 season (Parayko’s cap hit will remain $5.5 million this season, and his contract will extend through the 2029-30 season).

Compared with some of the other contracts given to right-handed defensemen this summer, Parayko’s deal seems like a steal at a glance. But there are serious concerns about signing him through his age 37 season, especially coming off the 2020-21 season in which he struggled with a back injury throughout the campaign. The question now is: did Armstrong score a bargain by signing a potential number one defenseman for so cheap? Or did he pay for past performance and is creating a long-term problem?

Is Parayko a True #1?

The Blues have been enamored with Parayko since long before they drafted him in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. A big, raw defenseman hidden in the lower levels of Alberta junior hockey, they did their best to keep him out of sight of other teams so they could steal him in the third round. And there is little question that Parayko remains one of the best draft picks of the Armstrong era.

Colton Parayko St. Louis Blues
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Parayko’s appeal is obvious: he stands 6-foot-6, weighs 230 pounds, and has the length of a giraffe on the ice. He broke into the NHL as a budding star in the 2015-16 season, with 33 points in 79 games, and it looked likely that he would become the team’s defenseman of the future from the very start. But the 35 points he reached the following two seasons is his career-high.

The St. Albert, Alberta native will never escape comparisons to Blues’ departed captain Alex Pietrangelo, and in reality, he likely won’t reach that level in his career. There’s a reason the Blues could sign Parayko for $2.3 million less per season than the Vegas Golden Knights signed Pietrangelo for in free agency. The biggest gulf between them is point production: Pietrangelo has had six career seasons with 45 points or more, compared with Parayko’s career-high of 35. But Blues fans must be fair to their newly extended defenseman: comparisons to Pietrangelo are unreasonable.

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The brightest patch of Parayko’s career came in the closing months and postseason of the 2018-19 season when he formed a shutdown defensive pairing with veteran Jay Bouwmeester that became one of the absolutely critical elements of that team’s Stanley Cup success. But since Bouwmeester’s career abruptly ended during the 2019-20 season, Parayko hasn’t quite looked like the same player. But the two-season regression, aggravated by the nagging back injury he struggled through last season, allowed the Blues to sign him for a reasonable cap hit. Now, it is Parayko’s job to prove whether he can step back up and become a true shutdown defenseman again.

Expensive Defensive Core

The Blues currently rank 11th amongst NHL teams in salary cap allocation to defensemen. But they do not have a clear fourth in what should be their top-four. Of those 11 teams, only the San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and New Jersey Devils owe more per season to their top-three defensemen. And, with the possible exception of the aging Sharks, all of those teams have a clear cornerstone defenseman in that group. None of the Blues’ defensemen compare with Cale Makar, Dougie Hamilton, or even Jared Spurgeon.

The Blues instead are going with a defense-by-committee approach. But the results of that approach were not promising in their first and only season with this trio at the top. At all strengths, the Blues ranked 23rd in expected goals against (xGA) and ranked 26th in expected goals for percentage (xGF%). They allowed the 10th-most high danger chances against. Will the Blues be able to improve those numbers next season? Though there have been rumors about a player like St. Louis native Scott Mayfield being the return in a potential Vladimir Tarasenko trade, Armstrong has done nothing yet to bolster his defense for next season. The news of the Parayko extension must indicate that either he has a plan, or he believed enough in what he saw last season to expect improvement.

Armstrong’s Calculated Risk

Armstrong’s gamble is straightforward: he must believe that a healthy Parayko and a settled Krug will create a better defensive core over the next several years. Faulk’s renaissance in his second season with the team could provide evidence for the latter, but Parayko’s recovery is a bigger mystery, considering that back injuries tend to be tricky maladies. Whatever the outcome, though, the Blues clearly have solidified their defense for years to come. They will likely need to find another lefty for the top four, but with Parayko locked up, the team’s blue line is what it will be for the foreseeable future.

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