The National Hockey League can be cruel sometimes. Saturday, the same day the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues were parading through the streets of their hometown, the league opened its buyout window.
For the Blues, one player’s contract is clearly worth buyout consideration: now-backup goaltender Jake Allen. With two years remaining on his deal at $4.35 million, he is being paid far too much to play as a backup. But general manager Doug Armstrong has never bought a player out before. Will he make Allen his first?
Why the Blues Will Consider It
When Allen signed his four-year, $17.4 million contract extension in the summer of 2016, he was seen as the team’s goaltender of the future. The Blues had just been to the Western Conference Final, and Allen had played his best season yet, going 26-15-3 with a .920 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.35 goals against average (GAA).
To further confirm their faith in Allen, the team traded his safety net, Brian Elliott, at the draft a week before. They then signed Carter Hutton to serve as Allen’s backup. The 26-year-old goaltender from New Brunswick was now the clear No. 1 in St. Louis.
Unfortunately, whether it was the loss of Elliott or the added pressure of his expanded role, Allen’s play diminished the following season. Under head coach Ken Hitchcock, before the All-Star break, Allen’s numbers were horrendous, with a .897 SV% and a 2.83 GAA. But when the Blues fired Hitchcock and promoted Mike Yeo, Allen rallied back.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, the pattern repeated, but there was no significant rebound in future seasons. Allen now has a career SV% of .911 and a GAA of 2.54. Neither number is ghastly, but they show the drop-off from before the contract extension to the present day. The Blues were desperate for an alternative option, and they found that alternative in Jordan Binnington.
A career AHL goalie with little hype, Binnington stepped into the net on Jan. 7 of this year and never looked back. He went an incredible 24-5-1, with a .927 SV% and a 1.89 GAA in the regular season. Then he carried his team through the playoffs, and became the first rookie goalie to win 16 games in one postseason.
He is now undeniably the Blues’ starter, and Allen has transformed from troublesome No. 1 to overpaid backup. With Binnington due a contract extension this summer, the Blues will be eager to rid themselves of Allen’s contract if at all possible. But will they be willing to do it?
What Allen’s Buyout Looks Like
If the Blues want to buyout their backup, it won’t be cheap. They will still have to pay him over $6 million, and the cap hit, though diminished, will extend two more seasons. In the wake of a Stanley Cup Championship, the team unquestionably has some more money to spend, but they have not been careless with it in the past.
The buyout would have to be the team’s best option for them to take advantage of it. The cap hit would be hugely diminished for the 2019-20 season, and significantly smaller in 2020-21. But there will be an added cap hit the following two seasons.
For the Blues to take that risk, they will need to exhaust all other options. Even then, they may choose to stick it out with Allen as a backup and pay the price for their ill-fated contract themselves.
Allen On the Move?
Upon further evaluation, a buyout seems unlikely. There’s a reason Armstrong has never handed one out in the past, despite signing bad contracts with the likes of Jori Lehtera, Patrik Berglund, and Vladimir Sobotka. Historically, he has been able to trade his way out of his own messes.
There is no shortage of demand in the NHL for experienced former starters. Could a team less concerned with contending immediately be interested in taking a chance on a rebound for Allen?
While we can’t answer that question until a trade is made, history indicates that a trade is much more likely than a buyout for Armstrong. He would rather give up assets like picks or prospects in a trade than eat dead money in a buyout. If Allen is going to be in a different sweater come next season, it will almost certainly not be because of a buyout.
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.