As hard as it may be to believe, as of Monday, the NHL trade deadline is just three weeks away. For some teams, that creates a lot of questions, and the St. Louis Blues are no exception. A month ago, it appeared the Blues would sell anything that wasn’t nailed down at the deadline. Now, it’s not so clear.
There are several questions that the Blues and their fans will ask as the deadline approaches, but here are three of the biggest.
1) Buyers or Sellers?
The basic question St. Louis has to answer is whether they are buyers or sellers at the deadline. Recently, we discussed why making the playoffs might not be the best thing for the 2018-19 Blues. But that does not mean that general manager Doug Armstrong and the rest of the front office and ownership will arrive at the same conclusion.
The month of February starts with a very difficult five-game stretch for St. Louis, the first game of which they have already won. If they can survive the next four games, featuring one against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and two against the fearsome Nashville Predators, Armstrong may be convinced that his team is a contender.
It still seems unwise for a team with no permanent coach and so many underperforming pieces to buy rentals at the deadline, but Armstrong might go looking for pieces with term, like the Toronto Maple Leafs recently did by acquiring defenseman Jake Muzzin. The Blues need to know if they’re going to buy and what they’re going to buy before they can answer any other questions.
2) Pietrangelo or Parayko?
The next question the Blues have to ask is which of their elite right-handed defensemen they want to build around. Each option offers something significant, but has some drawbacks, and it’s hard to imagine that both will stay around for years to come.
First, there’s captain Alex Pietrangelo. He’s been the Blues’ cornerstone for most of a decade, and was named their captain when David Backes left for the Boston Bruins in 2016. He has logged an incredible amount of minutes, ranking seventh in the league in average time on ice over the last three seasons. He’s a decent offensive contributor as well, ranking 18th in points among defensemen over that same period. He is also 20th among active defensemen in point shares, a statistic aimed at calculating a player’s contribution to his team’s success in the standings.
What Colton Parayko offers, by contrast, is youth, control and offensive upside. Whereas Pietrangelo will be a free agent after the 2019-20 season and due for a big raise, Parayko is on a very team-friendly contract, with three seasons remaining at $5.5 million per season. He has a very impressive slap shot, and is expected to be a potent offensive threat, though that part of his game has been inconsistent at times.
Parayko has been incredibly durable, missing just four games in his career, and this season, he’s outperformed Pietrangelo (though the latter missed a stretch of games with a hand injury). He has 4.7 point shares on the season to Pietrangelo’s 3.8.
While any team would love to have either defenseman, it’s unreasonable to expect that the Blues can keep both. If they decide to extend Pietrangelo, they will likely have to part ways with Parayko before his contract ends, as the salary cap will prevent them from paying both a top-pairing defenseman’s salary.
If the Blues can make a clear decision about which defenseman they plan to keep, the best time to shop the other one is now. Armstrong played this game before with Kevin Shattenkirk, whom he could have traded long before his contract expired. While the return he got upon trading the power-play specialist was nothing to sneeze at, it doubtlessly would have been much better with a full season or more left on his deal.
Either defenseman should fetch a haul if Armstrong chooses to trade him, with a return that should at least match, if not surpass, what Toronto surrendered for Muzzin. But Armstrong won’t win anything by twiddling his thumbs. If he can’t keep both long-term, and he likely can’t, now is the best time to act.
3) Which Free Agents are Returning?
Another decision the Blues must make before the deadline is which of their free agents will be returning. The team has four pending unrestricted free agents: forwards Patrick Maroon and Mackenzie MacEachern, and defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson.
MacEachern is just now playing his first few NHL games, and his ceiling is probably a fourth-line grinder. There likely won’t be much demand for him. But the other three might be interesting options for other teams. Maroon is a heavy power forward who has been a prized rental piece in the past. He’s having a rough season (just 14 points in 42 games), but someone will still likely take a chance on him. Gunnarsson and Bouwmeester are both veteran defensemen, and the latter especially has revived his season and caused teams to take a look at him.
Related: Blues’ Blue Line Shakeup is Coming
The front office needs to decide which of these free agents they want to keep around, if any. Otherwise, they need to trade them as rentals, even if the return is a mid-round pick, unless they intend to make a serious run at the playoffs this season.
Beyond that, the team has a number of restricted free agents who could be on the market. They presumably won’t trade Jordan Binnington, the young goaltender who is helping them rescue their season. Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist all probably have more value to the Blues than they do in a trade. That leaves Robby Fabbri and Joel Edmundson as potential RFAs.
Both are interesting names, as we recently discussed. The team has to decide if these players are part of St. Louis’ future. If they aren’t, the trade deadline is as good a time as any to shop them.
St. Louis Needs Answers
All of these questions will be answered publicly in due time. In the meantime, fans will have to monitor the team’s performance to get an inkling of what might happen. As Armstrong is fond of saying, the players tell the manager what’s going to happen at the deadline, not vice versa.
That starts with the Blues’ next four games, at the Florida Panthers and the Lightning, and then a home and away back-to-back with the Predators. A strong record in those games will bode well for the team’s playoff hopes. But they could easily go 1-3 and start to consider what they can sell off to build for the future. It’s an exciting time of year around the NHL, but especially in St. Louis. Time to buckle up.
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.