Over the past several seasons, the St. Louis Blues have been constant in one area: defense. Particularly since the Ken Hitchcock era, the Blues have focused on having a stout defense, and their personnel has not changed much. But the times, they are a changin. For a number of different reasons, the cast of characters on the Blues’ blue line is about to face a significant turnover. What does that mean, who will be affected, and who, if anyone, is safe?
Five Plus Years of Pietrangelo & Bouwmeester
The defensive core in St. Louis began to come together when the team traded for Jay Bouwmeester in 2013. He was the left-handed defenseman they’d been looking to partner with Alex Pietrangelo since he arrived full time in the 2010-11 season. With Bouwmeester in the house, the Blues had one of the league’s best defensive pairings, a partnership that would even represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester became the centerpieces around which the rest of the team’s defense began to materialize. They traded for Carl Gunnarsson in the summer of 2014 and then added Robert Bortuzzo in exchange for Ian Cole later that same season.
Rounding out the crew are Joel Edmundson, Colton Parayko, and Vince Dunn, all drafted by the team. Edmundson, drafted in the second round in 2011, debuted in the 2015-16 campaign, the same season as Parayko, who was drafted in the third round in 2012. Dunn, the youngest of the group, was drafted in 2015 and arrived last season.
Each of these defenders carved out a permanent spot among the Blues’ defensive core. But is it still permanent?
Big Changes Coming in St. Louis
Three members of the Blues’ defense are on expiring contracts. Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson are both approaching unrestricted free agency, while Edmundson will be a restricted free agent. Prior to this season, it was a given that the Blues would offer Edmundson an extension and that the one-year deal he signed in July was a favor to help the team stay under the salary cap.
But, that certainty has been shaken by the fact that Edmundson has been a healthy scratch in three of the team’s last 10 games. It’s a vexing decision, as the team seemed to look at him as their top left-handed defenseman going forward. It’s a decision that will lead to plenty of speculation about his future with the organization.
They want to see him more engaged but knowing full well what kind of a game they were getting today, this would have been a perfect spot to get him back in. I could see this game lighting a fire under Edmundson. I haven't felt like his play wasn't up to par. #stlblues https://t.co/YzteQt7EYc
— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) January 22, 2019
With Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson, the decision is less cloudy. Both are ageing unrestricted free agents who have struggled with injuries over the past several seasons. While each has had a stretch of good play this season, it would be unwise for the Blues to make a long term commitment to either one. In fact, as defensemen are always attractive rental pieces at the trade deadline, the team may explore trading one or both of the veterans.
Pietrangelo vs. Parayko
The team is also facing the choice between Pietrangelo and Parayko as the primary right-handed defenseman of the future. Pietrangelo is more experienced and has been with the team longer. He is a stalwart defender, one of the better defensemen in the league, and he is the team’s captain. But he has one season left on his contract at $6.5 million and will be due for a major raise after the 2019-20 season.
Parayko is younger, more popular with the fans, and on a longer and cheaper contract at four years, $5.5 million. He has a slap shot that clocks at over 100 mph, and brings a size element, at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, that Pietrangelo does not. He is also durable, as he’s missed only four games in four seasons with the team.
It would be ideal for the Blues to keep both defenders, but given the pay raise that Pietrangelo is due and the rumors swirling around the team this season, the chances of that seem slim. So which one will the team decide to keep?
That answer may come down to leadership. The team needs to figure out whether Pietrangelo is the right captain to carry this team to a Stanley Cup. If he is, then they’ll want to lock him down long term, which will eventually mean trading Parayko, whether it’s soon, or closer to the end of his contract after the 2021-22 season.
But if Pietrangelo is not the captain they need, then they’d do well to trade him, if he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause. Perhaps the Toronto Maple Leafs, who need help on the right side, would be a good fit. Pietrangelo is a Toronto native and was childhood friends with John Tavares.
Dunn and Bortuzzo Sticking Around
Though neither player is a cornerstone defenseman, the least likely players to move are Vince Dunn and Robert Bortuzzo.
Bortuzzo is like a Swiss army knife and best utilized in a third pairing or seventh defenseman role, but he is still capable of playing up the lineup when he needs to and is valuable to the team for that reason. That’s why management chose to sign him to a three-year contract extension earlier this season, locking him down to play in that versatile role for the near future.
Dunn is another interesting case. He is still maturing and will likely never be a stalwart defenseman. But he may be the best puck mover the Blues have on the blue line. The prototype of a modern NHL defenseman, he is smaller, a better skater, and a better distributor than most of his defensive teammates.
Moreover, Dunn is in just his sophomore season in the NHL. Though his flaws have shown up consistently this season, the Blues have no history of giving up on promising players this early in their career, and it would be a surprise if they did so with him, particularly with another season still left on his entry level contract.
Blues Need a New Core
With all of these decisions up in the air, the Blues are looking at something they haven’t seen in ages: a shakeup on defense. Bouwmeester and Gunnarsson are likely to leave after the season, the team doesn’t seem to trust Edmundson, who needs a contract extension, and they’re facing a tough decision between Parayko and Pietrangelo.
General manager Doug Armstrong hasn’t added a significant defender from outside the organization since the 2014-15 season. Could that change? The Blues are rumored by Darren Dreger to be in buy mode, but they are also pressed against the cap ceiling. Could they look to move some defenders out and others in?
We don’t yet know what it will look like, but expect the defensive core in St. Louis to look very different next season. Perhaps prospects like Jake Walman, Scott Perunovich, and Niko Mikkola will step into the spots vacated by aging defensemen and that will be that. But given how the season has unfolded so far, it seems a more drastic shakeup is on the horizon.
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.