Like the rest of the hockey world, the St. Louis Blues are frozen in the uncertain hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But that hasn’t prevented general manager Doug Armstrong from doing work, as he signed a number of pending free agents. Most notable among these was the four-year, $13.1 million contract to which he signed Marco Scandella, the team’s prize trade acquisition at the deadline.
But that leaves the Blues’ biggest free agent in jeopardy of departing, namely their captain, Alex Pietrangelo. They currently have roughly $79.5 million committed against the salary cap next season, seemingly leaving no room for Pietrangelo to re-sign. In this article, we’ll look at each aspect of the potential extension in turn, from Pietrangelo’s importance to the team to the Blues’ options for clearing cap space, then ultimately to the likelihood that a deal gets done.
There is simply no overstating Pietrangelo’s significance to the Blues’ franchise. He is the team’s cornerstone defenseman and captain. He averages over 24 minutes per game and around 45 points every season. On last season’s run to the Stanley Cup, he collected 19 points, including a playoff-leading 16 assists, en route to becoming the first Blue ever to hoist the Cup above his head.
Pietrangelo is already fifth in franchise games played (758), third in assists (341), ninth in points (450), second in point shares (86.3), and first in defensive point shares (48.7). If he plays the rest of his career with the teams, he will shatter records in innumerable categories. He is the kind of player who would get his number 27 retired and a statue outside of the Enterprise Center.
To further validate his importance, Blues fans in a Twitter poll recently voted Pietrangelo runner-up in a franchise greatest-of-all-time tournament. While some of that is recency bias, the fact that he came second only to Brett Hull in the eyes of the fans shows just how important he is to the team. To lose him as a free agent would be devastating. Fortunately, the Blues have some options for clearing salary cap space.
How Can the Blues Clear Space?
There is any number of creative solutions Armstrong could come up with for the salary cap limitations. But there are some widely-discussed options that we’ll touch on here. It’s important to remember, though, that the entire league will be cash-strapped given the unexpected salary cap changes from the pause in the season. Most expect the cap will not raise, which leaves the Blues with about $2 million in space. So the Blues could be in a position where they don’t have as many options as they might have hoped.
Buying Out Alex Steen
One of the most widely discussed options for clearing cap space is buying out veteran Alex Steen. But given current information, this approach doesn’t make a lot of sense. After this season, Steen will have just one year left on his contract at a salary-cap hit of $5.75 million. While he is nowhere near the player he once was, he is still a veteran leader with the team and much-respected by the Blues.
According to CapFriendly’s buyout calculator, buying out Steen after this season would save the Blues just $2.33 million in 2020-21. They would still owe him a cap hit of $3.42 million and then would owe an additional $1.17 penalty the following season. In a vacuum, the $2.33 million they would save is nowhere near enough to sign Pietrangelo. The added penalty of an additional season likely isn’t worth the tradeoff unless it’s the remaining space they need after a series of other moves.
Of course, there is the consideration of a compliance buyout. There is some discussion that the NHL will bring back compliance buyouts to help teams that are struggling because of the unexpected cap restrictions. In a compliance buyout, there is no salary cap penalty associated with the reduced and extended cost. But if the league institutes compliance buyouts, there is no guarantee that the Blues would use one, and if they did, they might not choose Steen. Justin Faulk’s irksome contract would be enticing if owner Tom Stillman could be convinced to fork over the cash.
Buying out Steen may seem like an easy solution to some Blues fans, but it isn’t likely to happen. In his career, Armstrong has never executed a buyout, choosing instead to trade problematic contracts as he did when he moved Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers. If he could find a way to trade Steen to a team that would buy him out for the Blues, that would solve two problems. Armstrong might even bring him back as a veteran on a team-friendly deal.
Trading Jake Allen
A Jake Allen trade is the next-most widely-discussed option for Armstrong, and this one makes tremendous sense. It was a surprise to many when the Blues offered Allen trade protection last offseason, as the rise of Jordan Binnington seemed to preclude the need for two goalies making over $4 million per season. But the backup goaltender has rebounded tremendously in the 2019-20 season so far, and his trade value has spiked considerably.
With one season left on his deal at $4.35 million, based on his performance this season, Allen might be fairly easy to trade under normal circumstances. A team with cap space would covet the season to see whether he performed well in their system. But given the salary cap constraints leaguewide, this could get more difficult. Still, if Armstrong could find a way, the $4.35 million in space would go a long way to signing Pietrangelo. The Blues signed AHL goaltender Ville Husso to a one-way contract earlier this season, which might indicate that they expect Allen to be gone in 2020-21.
Trading Tyler Bozak
This option is less discussed, but it makes sense for many of the same reasons as an Allen trade would. Tyler Bozak has been terrific in his two seasons with the team and fulfilled his dream of winning a Stanley Cup. No one is eager to see him go. But the $5 million the team owes him for one more season is extravagant for a third-line center, especially with Robert Thomas rising quickly and needing more minutes at his natural position.
If the Blues could trade both Allen and Bozak, they would potentially have the space to retain Pietrangelo. But finding a taker for a $5 million middle-six center in a cap-crunched league might be difficult. Armstrong has found creative ways to clear cap space in the past, though, so fans desperate for hope can put their trust in him.
Does a Pietrangelo Deal Get Done?
There is no certain answer as to whether an Alex Pietrangelo extension gets done. But despite the uncertainty, and despite the captain’s recent comments that he will “explore all options,” it seems more likely than not that the sides eventually agree on a deal.
Armstrong knows the public outcry he’ll face if he loses the leader of his franchise, but more importantly, there is mutual interest in a deal, as Luke Fox recently reported. Pietrangelo has laid down roots in St. Louis, and his wife, the mother of his triplets, is from the area.
Pietrangelo and his fellow free agents are equally affected by the salary cap restrictions. They cannot expect the top dollar they might otherwise have hoped for. That limits the possibilities that a team could drastically outbid the Blues in these negotiations. Whether it’s a longterm deal or a bridge until there are fewer issues with the cap, even despite the obvious obstacles, it would still be surprising if Pietrangelo wore anything next season other than the Blue Note.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.