The St. Louis Blues may be on pause like every other NHL team, but their general manager Doug Armstrong has been anything but stagnant. Last week, he signed three free agents, including pending restricted free agents (RFA) Sammy Blais and MacKenzie MacEachern. But the biggest move of the bunch was the four-year, $13.1 million contract to which he signed pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Marco Scandella on Apr. 16.
Scandella was the team’s prized trade acquisition at the deadline and he looked strong in his 11 games with the team before the pause. And with the unexpected loss of Jay Bouwmeester who will likely eventually retire, the team had a need for veteran influence on the defensive left side. Undoubtedly, the Scandella extension offers the Blues security, but it comes at a fairly significant cost.
Scandella a Good Fit
The Blues paid a decent trade price to acquire Scandella at the deadline to fill the immediate void left by Bouwmeester. They offered the Montreal Canadiens a second-round pick in 2020 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2021 that they’ve now officially surrendered because of the extension. It was quite a haul for the Canadiens, given they had acquired Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres earlier in the season for just a 2020 fourth-round pick. But he looked like a much-improved player in his 20 games in Montreal (his hometown), and the deadline increased the asking price.
Even with the high price, Scandella fit in perfectly with the Blues. He played 11 games before the NHL went on pause, but he averaged 20:18 in that time. He recorded one assist and was plus-four in that time, but he particularly shined defensively. In 196 minutes at even strength, the Blues allowed just four goals with Scandella on the ice. If there is any concerning sign, though, it is that his PDO, a measure of a given player’s “luck,” was very high: 106.1. 100 is average, and 106.1 is an extreme outlier, but it came in a limited sample size.
When he was on the ice, the Blues had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 49.3, and Scandella’s relative CF% was minus-5.9. This means that the team possessed the puck at a significantly lower rate with him on the ice than without. But that could well be attributed to his assignment, which was usually in a shutdown defensive role with Colton Parayko. A quick glance at Scandella’s mapping metrics shows the incredible impact he made on the team.
According to the maps above, Scandella had a strongly positive impact on the Blues. They were a slightly bigger threat on offense, but they were substantially stronger defensively with him than without him. In the bottom pair of maps, the dark blue areas show a higher level of shot suppression by the Blues defense. There are some areas where opponents got more shots with Scandella on the ice, but they were largely at the perimeter in low danger areas.
On the whole, it’s clear that Scandella was a positive fit in St. Louis. And an extension for him probably made sense, especially given who else the Blues have on the left side. Let’s take a look at the young players Scandella will be joining forces with.
Blues Left Side is Inexperienced
The Blues have a potentially very strong left side with the addition of Scandella, but the options they have are inexperienced. Let’s look at each briefly in turn.
A pending RFA himself, if Vince Dunn returns to the Blues, he is a lock to play top minutes on the left side with Scandella. Dunn is a severely underrated possession defenseman, an elite puck-mover who has the potential to quarterback a power play. But he hasn’t completely found the faith of head coach Craig Berube, who gave him an average of 16:16 in all situations this season.
With the uncertainty surrounding captain Alex Pietrangelo’s future and the limited salary cap space remaining after Scandella’s extension, Dunn’s contract is in the air. But there’s no reason to expect he won’t return to the organization and be a fixture in the lineup next season.
There are few questions about what Carl Gunnarsson can bring to the team. The only question is how healthy he can stay. When he’s in the lineup, he provides a solid defensive presence and can move up and down the lineup to play on any pairing. But he is 33 years old and has struggled with injuries his entire career with the Blues. Since arriving in St. Louis prior to the 2014-15 season, he’s played more than 63 games in a season just once, and he’s totaled 61 combined games in the last two seasons. The Blues will not be relying on him as anything more than a utility piece going forward.
Armstrong tipped his hand about their intentions with Finnish defenseman Niko Mikkola when he signed him to a one-way contract earlier this season. The 2015 fifth-round draft pick has steadily matured to the point that he was a major factor in Finland’s World Championship gold medal last summer. He made his NHL debut this season and looked very strong in five games, but is still inexperienced at the top level. He is also the definition of a stay-at-home defenseman, so he may not fit higher in the lineup than the third pairing.
Now we move to the true ace in the hole for the Blues’ left side, incoming rookie Scott Perunovich. The 2018 second-round draft pick was a college hockey dynamo, ultimately winning the Hobey Baker Award, NCAA hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, shortly after the Blues secured his entry-level contract (ELC). Because of the uncertain circumstances of the season, Perunovich could make his NHL debut as soon as hockey returns for the 2019-20 season. If the season is canceled, his ELC kicks back a season and begins in the 2020-21 campaign.
Perunovich is very much in the mold of Dunn. They are both undersized defensemen with high hockey-IQ and puck possession skills. Both are strong skaters with power play potential. That could make the pair redundant, which could potentially make Dunn a trade chip. And there’s no guarantee Perunovich stays at the NHL level, either. He may need seasoning in the American Hockey League (AHL). But whether they are both in the lineup or not, Perunovich will still be a rookie looking to hone his skills, and will not be given top defensive minutes.
Scandella Extension Costly But Necessary
With all of that in mind, it is clear that Scandella’s extension is a necessity for the Blues at this juncture. They needed to lock down a veteran presence to bolster their left side, and while they could have pursued other options via free agency or trade, it makes sense to extend the player who is already settled and performing well.
Even so, the contract seems rather large for a player who struggled to find a permanent NHL home this season. Jeremy Rutherford, the Blues’ beat writer for The Athletic, explained the response to the contract in an article:
There was some public criticism of Scandella getting four years at $3.275 million per year, but Evolving-Hockey had his next contract pegged at three years and $3.3 million per year. The extra year, which will take the defenseman to age 34, was likely needed to get the AAV down and the deal done.From “Blues mailbag: Marco Scandella’s contract, Scott Perunovich comparisons and more,” The Athletic NHL, Apr. 17, 2020
The extra year does seem to be the problem here, and judging by Armstrong’s history of poor contract extensions (like ones given to Jori Lehtera, Patrik Berglund, and Jake Allen in the past) that tends to be his shortcoming in negotiation. But if an extra year is what was required to solidify the Blues’ left side in a Stanley Cup window, as Rutherford suggested, it was likely worth it to get the deal finalized.
The Pietrangelo Question Remains
Scandella is now a fixture of the Blues’ defense going forward, whether the contract was an overreach or not. Now the question turns to whether the captain Pietrangelo will re-sign with the Blues. We will cover that on The Hockey Writers in the coming days, so be sure to check back soon.
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.