2021 St. Louis Blues Offseason Primer

St Louis Blues Offseason
As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the St. Louis Blues offseason.

St. Louis Blues Offseason Primer

The St. Louis Blues are, historically speaking, a BIG MOVE team. They are unafraid of deals in an effort to push themselves to the next level, whatever it happens to be. Last year’s move was bringing in Torey Krug when it looked like no deal was going to be reached with captain Alex Pietrangelo. In addition to getting the second-best defenceman available, they also brought in the second-best scorer in Mike Hoffman. Hoffman would help in the absence of the retired Alex Steen and recovering Vladimir Tarasenko. And Krug, well, while Krug wasn’t quite on Pieterangelo’s level, at least that loss will hurt less.

It worked… okay. Krug led the defencemen in points and Hoffman picked up 17 goals in 52 games. They were let down a bit in goal and had a scare late from the Arizona Coyotes, but made the playoffs. Alas, they hit the worst team they could in the Colorado Avalanche and were swept in four. So will there be big changes this offseason? They’ve gone from a Stanley Cup championship team to an excellent regular season but out in the first round to getting to fourth place and a sweep. But it’s also been a strange year with excuses built-in if they want them.

Pending Free Agents

The Blues are in a curious place. Their defence is set, with a single restricted free agent and one unrestricted one in Carl Gunnarsson. That restricted free agent was put up for sale early in the season, and by all accounts has been again at season’s end. With the upcoming Seattle Kraken selections coming, Vince Dunn is vulnerable. But as before, if the team doesn’t like what they hear in offers, they may well try keeping him. That includes the possibility of going with a 4/4/1 protection list. Gunnarsson isn’t likely for a renewal, given the team has eight NHL-level contracts on the blue line already. Mitch Reinke is a Group 6 unrestricted and is more likely to go looking elsewhere unless he’s happy to continue being the official backup plan for St. Louis.

Unrestricted Forwards

The forwards are a different story. Jaden Schwartz is an unrestricted free agent at 28 years old and a big part of the team. They mutually decided to wait until the offseason before discussing any new deal for obvious reasons. Not signing until after the expansion draft makes sense, but it won’t make the negotiations any easier. Schwartz had some excellent results alongside Brayden Schenn and Jordan Kyrou early, but he missed a month of play with a lower-body injury and couldn’t quite regain his form. He is a useful and versatile forward, but he’s coming off a $5.35 million payday. With two restricted free agents looking for a raise, how much cap space – and time – the Blues are willing to give Schwartz remains to be seen.

Mike Hoffman is a strange case. For his $4 million cap hit, he produced well with 17 goals and 36 points in 52 games. That’s a far cry from his 30+ goal pace of his previous two seasons, but he was used far less, including a substantial drop in power-play time. Hoffman didn’t get an offer he liked until quite late in the free-agent season and took a big cut in pay for a one-year deal. Did he do enough to warrant another? It depends on how much the team likes him, and that’s a bit hard to tell. At 31 years old he’s not going to get a long deal, and it won’t be for much more than he made this season.

Restricted Forwards

With all apologies to Zach Sanford – decent, bottom-six penalty-killing guy – the conversation is focussed on three names. Robert Thomas had a tough year with shoulder and thumb injuries limiting him to 33 games. He’s a creative playmaker and can get points while playing responsibly, but wasn’t able to build momentum off last season. At the other end is Kyrou coming off an excellent season with 14 goals and 35 points. Every line combination he was with worked, dominating scoring chances if not goals outright. Maybe not the guy you’d put out there to protect a lead, but certainly one used when down a goal. Ivan Barbashev is the “old man” of this trio at 25. He’s not the biggest offensive threat, but is good depth scoring in the bottom-6 and will happily fight for the puck to do so.

If the Blues protect seven forwards – as is most likely – Sanford is the one exposed of these four. It could be the Barbashev is left available too if Oscar Sundqvist is protected. There are a lot of questions in the St. Louis Blues offseason, and they are always worth watching. But let’s talk cash numbers as if everyone stays.

Salary Cap Outlook

St. Louis is in pretty good shape as far as cap space goes. They have 17 players on NHL contracts now, leaving another $17.4 million to sign at least six players. Schwartz is the biggest number here, or at least should be. With the team’s best value for the expansion draft being their restricted free agents, it’s a virtual lock one gets taken.

Major Likely Departures

Odd as it sounds for the third-highest goal scorer and points player, Mike Hoffman could be a free agent once again. Despite his production, he bounced between several lines trying to find a fit and averaged just 15 minutes of ice time a night. Craig Berube is coach next season, too. We can’t imagine either one was delighted with Hoffman’s use – including a healthy scratch.

Major Likely Re-Signings

Jaden Schwartz is a guarantee to return. Almost certainly. Sure, his initial ask was shooting for the moon, but there’s no way the Blues will leave him unsigned. Right? The 2010 draft pick has been a heart-and-soul guy and solid playoff producer since joining the team. They have room for him positionally and financially – if only he didn’t have a history of injuries catching up with him.
He should still get a deal with a good cap hit – close to his current deal – but if he wants length to go with it? It could be a while before the two sides get ink to paper.

Potential Free Agent Additions

If the St. Louis Blues offseason includes an upgrade on Ville Husso, it wouldn’t be unwelcome. Given the deal and the time remaining on it, Jordan Binnington is staying in place. And while he wasn’t great last year, Husso did little to challenge him. Husso comes cheap at $750,000 but his rookie year was a rough one.

Money could be better spent on the left side, depending on how they plan to use Klim Kostin. Should the Blues re-sign Schwartz but not Hoffman, Kostin could well be relied on for a second-line role. Whether the 22-year old is ready for that spot is a matter up to the team, but if they don’t trust him just yet it’s a bit difficult to tell where they’ll go. This might be the best landing spot for Sven Baertschi, buried in the Vancouver Canucks’ system. Or if Schwartz isn’t re-signed, they could make a serious pitch for Taylor Hall. Or maybe, just maybe, the Calgary Flames carry through on their threat to blow up the team and St. Louis takes advantage.

As we said at the beginning, this isn’t a team that’s afraid to take their shot.

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