The St. Louis Blues only have one restricted free agent remaining with under two months left until the season begins. That free agent is Ivan Barbashev, the the 23-year-old Russian center who played most of last season on the team’s fourth line.
With just under two million dollars remaining to spend under the salary cap, the Blues are in a tight spot. They can probably afford Barbashev, but it will give them very little flexibility going forward. Will Barbashev stay, or might he consider returning to his native Europe to play the 2019-20 season?
Barbashev’s Strong Return
2018-19 was Barbashev’s third season in the NHL, and it was clearly his best. After a strong debut in 2016-17, the Russian seemed to have a bright future. But he matched his 12 points in 30 games as a rookie with just 13 points in 53 games in his second effort. He struggled to find consistent playing time under head coach Mike Yeo, and looked like the poster child of a “sophomore slump.”
As a result, he came into the 2018-19 season motivated to prove that his previous campaign was precisely that. Instead of relying on his skill, he showed his willingness to serve in a secondary role, playing in the bottom six and offering a more physical presence.
That versatility payed off for him, as he played in all but two of the Blues’ regular season games. He doubled his career high in points, with 14 goals and 12 assists for a total of 26. He also contributed 2.5 point shares, a statistic designed to measure a player’s contribution to his team’s place in the standings. That doubled his career total.
Barbashev’s Corsi for percentage, a metric aimed at estimating a team’s possession of the puck with a given player on the ice, was below average at 48.7 percent. But a total below 50 percent is to be expected for a player in a checking and penalty killing role like his.
Barbashev made himself an integral part of the team, and on the road to the Stanley Cup, he registered three goals and three assists in 25 games. The one game he missed showed just how important he was to the team. The league suspended him for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, a game in which the Boston Bruins destroyed the Blues 5-1 in St. Louis.
Do the Blues Need Barbashev?
With the Stanley Cup in the rear view mirror, it’s time for the Blues to decide whether the former 2014 second round pick is part of their future plan. They have limited room under the salary cap, and according to Blues’ beat reporter Lou Korac, Barbashev is looking to lay claim to all of it.
According to Korac’s report, Barbashev would like most of that two million dollars, and more importantly, he’d like a considerable term of three or four years. That would put his contract at the same length as the one Oskar Sundqvist recently signed.
But where Sundqvist proved himself as indispensable and posted 31 points in multiple roles this season, Barbashev never quite reached that threshold. He was very valuable in his role, but his role was still limited. Will the Blues want to commit long term to the Russian the way they did to their Swedish utility man?
St. Louis has a number of potential replacements for Barbashev, including Zach Sanford, who also signed an extension this summer. They could also turn to more fringe contributors like MacKenzie MacEachern or offseason addition Nathan Walker. They could even add a veteran player on a professional tryout (PTO) and play him in Barbashev’s fourth line role, a strategy that has worked for them with the likes of Scottie Upshall in the past.
Return to Russia
The one thing that makes Barbashev’s case more complicated is the possibility that he might take flight and return to Russia or another European league if his contract demands aren’t met. It is often an unfair stereotype, but Russian players are sometimes treated as flight risks in these negotiations, and the Blues have seen a similar situation before when Vladimir Sobotka left St. Louis to play in Russia in 2014.
Like with Sobotka, should Barbashev leave, his NHL rights would remain with the Blues. But the team might look to avoid that situation by trading him to a team that can afford his desired cap hit and term before he takes that opportunity.
Whatever the case, there is clearly a reason that Barbashev remains unsigned. The longer the situation lingers, the more likely the 2019-20 season will begin without him as a member of the Blues. And that is an unpalatable scenario for many Blues fans, for whom Barbashev has become an absolute favorite.
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.