With just a month left to go until the opening night of the 2019-20 NHL season, many teams find themselves still desperate to sign their remaining restricted free agents (RFAs). But as of Sunday, the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues are not among them.
The team announced Sunday afternoon that they had signed Ivan Barbashev, their final RFA, to a two-year, $2.95 million contract. They finally have their man after a long holdout. But is the contract worth it?
Russian Utility Knife
Barbashev has proved to be incredibly valuable to the Blues in a bottom-six role. But that wasn’t always the expectation. When the Blues drafted Barbashev in 2014 at the top of the second round, they hoped he might be a difference-making top-line forward.
When the Russian made his NHL debut in the 2016-17 season with 12 points in 30 games, it looked like he was still on that track. But his sophomore season was a disaster. Barbashev couldn’t find the trust of then-head coach Mike Yeo, and his playing time was severely limited. He played in only 53 games and scored just 13 points.
Entering last season, no one knew exactly what to expect of Barbashev. Was he the potent threat he’d seemed to be coming out of juniors? Or was he the inconsistent mess from the season prior?
Barbashev entered 2018-19 willing to play a more defensive position. He played reduced minutes, but also played an expanded and more important role. And it became obvious that the change fit him incredibly well. He was especially effective on the penalty kill, where he averaged over 90 seconds per game and had the highest relative Corsi for percentage on the unit. That indicates that the penalty kill was more effective at controlling the puck with Barbashev on the ice than with anyone else.
All-in-all, Barbashev had his best season by far in 2018-19. He played 80 games, and while his 11:31 average time on ice was just barely the lowest of his career, his 26 points, including 14 goals, doubled his career-high. Thanks in no small part to his contributions, the Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. But without aa contract, would it be Barbashev’s last game in a Blues jersey?
A Long Summer
After the celebrations died down post-victory, the Blues and Barbashev entered a long and largely silent standoff. It was difficult to know whether he would return to St. Louis, and some fans lobbied for the Blues to let him walk in favor of keeping hometown hero Patrick Maroon. Neither party seemed in a hurry to resolve matters, as everyone was caught in the glow of a Stanley Cup victory.
When Maroon signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, the alternative was off the table. But that didn’t necessarily mean anything for Barbashev, and the specter of a potential return to Europe loomed darker and darker over the whole situation.
News was hard to come by, and many feared the negotiation would linger into training camp and the regular season. But those fears were neutralized with the news of Barbashev’s contract on Sunday afternoon. How does the $1.475 million cap hit fit in?
Remarkably well, actually. Most analysts assumed that the Russian was holding out to push for every remaining dollar of the Blues’ available cap space. But the team had roughly $1.9 million of space, and Barbashev’s new contract leaves them with almost half a million dollars left of wiggle room. That may seem paltry on the surface, but it gives St. Louis more flexibility than they’ve had in the recent past, which could prove useful, particularly when the trade deadline nears.
Close Shave Barbashev
Barbashev is fast becoming a fan favorite in St. Louis. Blues fans are quick to recognize and celebrate the hardworking role players, and the Russian proved that he could be just that last season, helping the franchise win its first-ever Stanley Cup in the process.
While the fear that Barbashev might leave his adopted hometown and return closer to his native Russia seemed real for a time, it will quickly fade into a distant memory. He’s returning to St. Louis for two more seasons, and in that time he’ll get to prove what a valuable player he really is.
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.