Blues defenseman Justin Faulk (72) attempts a poke check in a game between the St. Louis Blues and L.A. Kings. (Photo courtesy: Scott Kane, AP)
About a month ago, Doug Armstrong pulled off another surprising yet amazing trade deal of the season. This year, defenseman Justin Faulk was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Joel Edmundson and prospect Dominik Bokk, along with some late draft pick swaps. My initial reaction to this deal was that it was a win for the Blues. Like a lot of Blues fans, I’m sad that we’re never going to see what Bokk would have amounted to in a Blues sweater. Faulk, however, is a huge defensive improvement over Edmundson. Armstrong shared this sentiment, by extending Faulk’s contract for 7 years at an affordable $6.5 million AAV.
However, once I had time to digest this deal and dig into the details of it a little more, I realized this is more than just upgrading our defense. This deal has short, medium and long term implications that could stretch on for years, and affect the entire future of the Blues’ defense and core team as a whole.
The Short Term
Right out of the gate, Justin Faulk should give the Blues the best defense in the NHL. The Blues have always been a defense-first team, it’s what won them the Cup. They are built from the back, with their captain Alex Pietrangelo at the helm. They have solid goaltending in Binnington, which is supported by an elite defense that feed the forwards. The Blues have won games on the premise of not giving up goals. With the addition of Justin Faulk, the Blues now have 3 All-Star caliber defensemen in Faulk, Pietrangelo and Parayko, with top end prospect Vince Dunn for good measure. On top of that, Faulk has experience leading a power play. With a borderline laughable powerplay last season, Faulk could be the spark the Blues need to get goals in on the man advantage.
There is one catch: Faulk is a right-shot defenseman. That means he plays the same side as both Pietrangelo and Parayko. Now, it’s possible that one of these three could switch sides. We’ve seen the Blues try this at times this season so far; however, it hasn’t appeared that any of them are really comfortable on their offside. If one of them doesn’t ultimately settle in to switching sides, then Faulk lines up to play 3rd pairing this year. Doing that would line him up against far inferior competition fairly regularly in less ice time. Play against lower-skilled lines, however, could allow him to feast on the stat line. It also makes the Blues defense a nightmare to plan against for opposing teams.
The Blues would have 3 elite defensemen down the right side. They would be supported by an up-and-coming prospect in Dunn, an aging but still solid shutdown veteran in Bouwmeester and a solid third line guy in Gunnarsson. They also have Bortuzzo, Pouliot, and Reinke waiting in the wings, should injury hit the team. That is almost a ridiculous amount of depth and only increases the Blues defensive strength.
Now, so far neither the Blues nor Faulk have really figured all of this out. We have seen Faulk used in just about every position possible and paired with every defenseman available. Through 15 games he has managed only 5 pts, all assists, and only 1 of those has been on the power play. That’s not what we all expected, but it’s also not exactly surprising. In my experience new players have one of two reactions to joining a new club: They lift off like a rocket and score constantly, like O’Reilly did last year, or they don’t do much.
Faulk falls into the latter category so far. Keep in mind, however, that he didn’t join the Blues until basically the first game of the season. He went through an entirely different camp, an entirely different summer regimen, and he had little no existing relationship with any of his teammates. Faulk is the new guy on this squad. He is also in a new city with new fans after being with Carolina for all eight years of his professional career. He needs to be given time to develop chemistry with this team and find his place. Hopefully that doesn’t take him more than a few months and he’s back to his regular scoring pace by January.
Once Faulk and the others figure everything out, the Blues will have the best defense in the NHL. Other teams, like Toronto, Colorado and Calgary are doubling down on offense. The Blues, however, have gone the other way. I, for one, am highly interested to see what happens when these high octane, superstar-laden offenses come up against the brick wall that will be the Blues defense. The Blues already have a deep and talented offense. That offense is now supported by an equally skilled, equally deep, defense. Adding Justin Faulk could be the catalyst that leads the Blues to a possible Stanley Cup repeat.
After this season, the Justin Faulk trade has some even larger implications for next year and the year after. These implications mainly surround Alex Pietrangelo. Petro’s contract is up after this season, as I’m sure everyone reading this already knows. However, it’s not exactly a guarantee that the Blues will re-sign him, and Faulk provides them with a plethora of options where Petro is concerned.
Based on the current Free Agent values and Petro’s record and age, I would expect him to ask for 6-8 years at between $9-$11mil per year. He is worth every penny of that money. I would also not in any way begrudge Petro leaving the Blues to get more money if he can. At the same time, if the Blues want to keep him, they will have the cap for it. It’s likely that Bouwmeester hangs up the skates or walks next year. If Binnington lives up to his Stanley cup hype, there is no reason for the Blues to keep Allen’s $4.35mil around. If all else fails, they could always buy out Steen and open up another $3 or $4mil. There is plenty of room under the cap for the Blues to keep Petro if they want next season.
If the Blues do keep Petro, then things get even more interesting: coming up in 2021 is Seattle’s expansion draft. Now, the rules of the draft will be the same as those of the Vegas draft a few years ago, which means the Blues can either keep 3 defensemen and 7 skaters, or 8 total skaters. So, if the Blues want to keep Petro, Dunn, Parayko and Faulk, they would have to leave exposed either Schenn, Schwartz, Thomas, Kyrou, Sundqvist, Sanford, Blais, or possibly even Kostin. Not to sleight any of those defensemen, but there is no D-man, no matter how good, that is worth risking an entire forward line unnecessarily.
Thus, if the Blues keep Petro, they will be left with an interesting choice. They will have to either leave one of those four defensemen exposed or trade one of them before the draft. That is the only way to guarantee they get fair value for him. Keeping Petro keeps the team together for another year. With the current defense intact, it’s not farfetched that the Blues could win another cup. However, nothing I’ve seen from Doug Armstrong so far tells me he would be happy to make a couple deep cup runs and then let one of his best assets go to another team for free. Some have suggested that Faulk was picked up as a guarantee that some of our young, talented forwards would be safe, but what’s the point of that? We have less defensive prospects than offensive, so our offense could survive losing someone easier than our D core. Also, if the plan is to get rid of Faulk, why get rid of another young talented forwards in Bokk, just to do that? It frankly doesn’t make sense.
In the mid-term, the Faulk acquisition is full of questions. Does he replace Petro? Is he bait for the expansion draft? Will they trade Parayko? Are the Blues willing to risk losing one of their established or prospective forwards just to keep all 4 top defensemen? All of these are valid questions and we may not have any answers to any of them for months, if not years, to come.
The Long Term
There are plenty of reasons to think that the Blues defense is going to drastically change in the next couple of years. However, we don’t know how it might change as we go. If we play the what-if game and assume that Faulk does indeed spend the majority of his new 7-year contract in St. Louis, then what are we looking at down the stretch?
Faulk, 27, is now under contract with the Blues until 2026-27. He will be 35 by the time that contract expires. That means we are getting probably the best 3 or 4 years of his career, and at least 2 more years of solid production before he begins to decline. That isn’t exactly a bad age range to have a player for; however, Faulk is an offensive defenseman. He relies on his speed and his ability to move to be a better player, and those kind of players usually have a fairly sharp dropoff as they age. Their reflexes and general speed slow down, and the long grind of a hockey career eventually begins to catch up with them. The repeated injuries eventually take a toll on their body. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom: Faulk is still very young and highly desirable. If the Blues don’t want to take the chance, they could always leave him exposed and let Seattle have him.
If the Blues do take the chance, there is no reason to assume he won’t still be a valuable and useful piece of the Blues D-line for years to come. His experience and style could be very helpful in trying to develop the next generation of Blues defensemen. Even as he ages, he could easily find himself playing a similar shutdown role to what Bouwmeester plays now. An older player who isn’t quite up to the level he once was, but can still hang in there on the bottom D-pair, while stepping up to a better pair when needed. Add in the age of Petro, and Faulk might just be the bridge the Blues will need to get from the current generation to the next generation of defensemen coming through the system.
The Faulk deal is a great pickup no matter how you look at it. He gives us, once again, what should be the best blue line in the NHL right now. He also rejuvenates a tired and weary Blues defense for a shot at repeating. If the right pieces are put in place and the right deals made, Faulk could be a crucial piece of a possible Blues repeat.
Even if this year doesn’t work out, the Blues are more than capable of making another Cup run next year. They are also set up for plenty more over the next 3-5 years after that. He may also be a huge bargaining chip not only in active contract talks, like Petro, but also in the all-important expansion draft coming up in a couple short years. If he stays beyond that, Faulk could shape up to be a key part of the Blues defense and special teams for years to come and, hopefully, a few more Stanley Cups.