The St. Louis Blues have a lot of decisions on their hands. Just a week and a half removed from capturing their first Stanley Cup, they have already wrapped up the NHL Draft and are now looking forward to free agency.
All told, the Blues have eight unrestricted free agents (UFAs) on their roster. Some of these are depth players and others are significant pieces of their Cup run, but none of them are star players the team couldn’t live without. With limited salary cap space and younger players pushing for roster spots, which players will leave and which will stay?
A veteran of 801 games over 14 seasons, Chris Thorburn was fourth in line to hoist the Cup when the Blues lifted it after Game 7. It was not a sign of his contributions to the Blues so much as it was a sign of the players’ respect for him as a veteran and a locker room presence.
Thorburn’s two-year contract with the Blues is at an end, and he turned 36 years old during the Stanley Cup Final. He played just 51 games across two seasons in St. Louis, with all but one of those coming in the 2017-18 campaign. It seems likely that Thorburn will consider retirement. If he goes that route, perhaps the Blues will find a role in their organization for him. If he wants to continue his career on the ice, it will certainly be elsewhere.
Jared Coreau, Jordan Nolan, Tyler Wotherspoon
These three players’ time in St. Louis was limited to depth or AHL roles. Jared Coreau is a backup AHL goaltender that the Blues traded for when Jordan Binnington ascended to an NHL position. Perhaps they will keep him, but they will likely promote Evan Fitzpatrick, a prospect in the USHL, or find another solution there.
Tyler Wotherspoon signed a two-way contract with St. Louis before the season. He’s now a UFA again, and will likely move on, though if he is content to continue to play for the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL, perhaps he will remain.
Jordan Nolan did get some NHL exposure with the Blues this season, playing 14 games with the parent club. As with Wotherspoon, if there’s mutual interest in an extension, it will be an easy deal to finish, but Nolan will probably continue his career elsewhere.
Chris Butler has played with his hometown Blues since signing with the team prior to the 2014-15 season. He has been a consistent eighth/AHL defender during that time.
This season, he logged 13 games with the parent club, including his 400th career game in the NHL, something Butler wrote about on NHL.com. When he was in San Antonio, he typically served as the team’s captain. Unlike the three players listed above, there’s no reason to expect that Butler’s role won’t continue as long as he wants it to. He should sign yet another two-way contract with the team.
Carl Gunnarsson, Michael Del Zotto
The Blues have two veteran free agents on the left side of their defensive corps in Carl Gunnarsson and Michael Del Zotto. The former has been with St. Louis since they traded Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for him in 2014. Del Zotto is a more recent addition, for whom the Blues surrendered a sixth-round pick to the Anaheim Ducks.
With Vince Dunn, Jay Bouwmeester, and presumably Joel Edmundson
(who is a restricted free agent) returning next season, there is certainly no reason to bring back both Gunnarsson and Del Zotto. The former has struggled with health and managed only 25 games in the regular season, but he played 19 games in the playoffs, making a significant difference and scoring the game-winner in overtime of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The question may come down to Gunnarsson’s desires. He’ll be 33 early next season, and with his injury history, will he want to sign another NHL contract? Or will he consider returning to Sweden? By the same token, will the Blues want to pay up for a seventh defenseman whose health is a question mark? Either player could stay, but there’s little chance both will. For a seventh defenseman, the younger, healthier Del Zotto may make more sense.
If anyone on the Blues qualifies as a “marquee” free agent, it’s certainly the hometown hero, Patrick Maroon. The forward had a tough regular season until he found chemistry on the third line with Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas, and then became an impact player in the playoffs, using his size and physicality to change the game. He even scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 7 in the second round, one of the most iconic goals in Blues history.
There is no question that the public and probably team sentiment would dictate that Maroon returns. The question is, what will it cost? Evolving Wild, an organization that carefully projects NHL contracts, predicts that Maroon would earn a three-year contract with an average annual value of $3.6 million. That number seems fair, and might even be a little low, given Maroon’s playoff success (consider the four-year, $12-million contract Jay Beagle got after he helped the Washington Capitals win the Cup last season).
For the Blues, those numbers may simply be too high. Maroon is a complimentary piece who plays best in a third line role. But St. Louis has a number of young, cost-controlled pieces pushing for those kinds of opportunities, including Zach Sanford and Sammy Blais, both of whom had a significant impact in the postseason. Jordan Kyrou, the team’s top prospect now that Thomas has graduated, will also be pushing for a role.
As much as sentiment would have it happen, it simply does not make sense to pay Maroon upwards of $4 million per season for three or four seasons to take a spot from one of those younger, cheaper options. Fans may not want to hear it, but the hometown hero’s time in St. Louis may be done unless he once again signs at a significant discount. Even if Maroon moves on, he has created memories that can never be replaced; memories of the city’s first ever Stanley Cup.
Magic in a Bottle
As appealing as it would be for the Blues to attempt to capture magic in a bottle, keep everyone from their Stanley Cup roster, and return to work for the 2019-20 season, that approach never works. This is the time where the front office needs to make thorough, informed decisions to build for the future, rather than letting sentiment rule the day.
If that involves parting ways with some familiar faces who are offered great new contracts by other teams, they need to be prepared to swallow that pill. More importantly, the fans do, too. The Blues have made permanent memories, but next season will be a brand new campaign, and the front office needs to do its best to prepare another Stanley Cup winner.
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.