The Pietrangelo Problem

As the countdown to free agency draws closer, St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo (27) will be one of the hottest assets on the market for 2020. (Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Let’s just be fair, a 5 month layoff was too much. In the end, the Blues weren’t fully ready nor willing to do what was necessary to win in the bubble. Is it fun? Nope. Is it what any of us wanted? No, but it is what it is. The Blues won the Stanley Cup last year. If COVID hadn’t happened, maybe we would have won it again this year. The reality is that we have COVID and we didn’t play well enough to win another cup.

With that in mind, it’s time to stop thinking about what could have been, and look towards the future. The best place to start, I think, is the Blues’ biggest question for this upcoming off season: Alex Pietrangelo. Specifically Petro’s contract, or lack thereof, for next year. Let’s take a look at the situation and what specifically the Blues would have to do, to keep their captain in the note for the foreseeable future.

Does Petro Want to Stay?

This is the first and most pressing question. It would seem the answer is yes. Petro has expressed his love for the City of St. Louis, the Blues and their organization, and the fans of St. Louis, repeatedly and publicly. He’s highly involved in charity work in St. Louis and has developed some ties to the community, especially the sports community, here. He also has 2 year old triplets. No one wants to move across the country, or possibly to another country, with three 2-year-olds and another newborn. As far as his personal life is concerned, Petro has every reason to want to stay in St. Louis.

There is also a legacy at play here. Petro was drafted by the Blues. He rose up the ranks of the Blues organization and broke into the NHL as a Blue. He’s played his entire career here, and has developed into one of the best Defensemen in the league, here. Not to mention the fact that he will be forever immortalized as the first St. Louis Blue to ever hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that Alex has done enough to get 27 raised to the rafters of Enterprise alongside Bernie Federko. However, if he were to add another six or seven top years here, hopefully with another Cup or cup appearance. That could easily see Petro’s status shifted from Blues Great to Blues Legend.

This contract may be the difference between a banner in the rafters and a statue on Clark Avenue. There are very few players in modern sports that can say that they have done enough for one organization to deserve that kind of honor. A contract renewal and finishing his career in St. Louis, would probably put Petro up there.

Do the Blues Want to Keep Him?

I’m not sure I really need to reiterate this: Alex Pietrangelo is one of the top 10, 15 Defensemen in the NHL. Nobody wants to lose that. Add in the fact that he is the Captain of this current Blues team and the first Blues Captain to raise the cup, and it seems like a no-brainer. There’s more to it than just that, however: The Blues have a fairly young defensive corps that is set to get even younger in the coming years. They’ve basically lost Jay Bouwmeester to a freak heart incident. Gunnarsson isn’t getting any younger and Bortuzzo as the sixth or seventh man can’t necessarily be relied on to give you substantial minutes.

Along with that, the Blues’ big acquisition last season, Justin Faulk, hasn’t really panned out. While he’s not the failure some have made him out to be, he hasn’t been a runaway success either. Faulk still hasn’t really settled in St. Louis, and it almost appears that his playing style doesn’t sync up well with the Blues’ defensive philosophy. Faulk could definitely be useful to the Blues. However, if they re-sign Petro, he will most likely be left dangling as an all too enticing carrot for Seattle in the upcoming expansion draft. Let’s also not forget that Vince Dunn is still an RFA.

What does all of that mean? It means that in the next year or two the Blues defense is going to change. The Blues are either going to have to bring in new defensemen via free agency or call up prospects. Considering they are currently sitting on Jake Walman, Mitch Reinke, Niko Mikkola and Scott Perunovich, that isn’t necessarily a bad idea. However, there’s nothing like having an established leader to guide the young guys. Petro would be incedibly valuable in steering those prospects through their first few years in the NHL. Pietrangelo could be the perfect leader to stabilize a young group of D-men, and the perfect mentor to guide the reigning Hobby-Baker award winner to a future as an elite NHL Defenseman.

What Would the Contract Look Like?

So we’ve established that Petro wants to stay. We’ve also established that the Blues would be stupid to let him go if a deal can be made. The next inevitable question is: What would that deal look like?

Length

Petro is 30 years old. He is going to want something fairly long term. My guess is that he would ask for 8 or 9 years. The Blues will counter that with 6, and then they would end up settling in the middle at 7. That would carry Petro through to his 37 year old season and basically eat up the rest of his career. Personally speaking, I would front load that contract. That protects the Blues if he gets some major injuries later in his career, or just falls apart as a player after he turns 35. They would then be able to release or buy him out and not be out of pocket as much.

Money

As far as the money on that contract, that’s a trickier question. If this was the happy go lucky, care free days of January or February, I wouldn’t even remotely balk at the idea of Petro signing for $10 million or more. Top level defensemen are harder and harder to find these days and Petro is a good one. On the open Free Agency market I would have suggested his value could possibly run as high as $12 million AAV. Then March hit, and the world was plunged into a pandemic. Sports went on hold, and having arenas packed with screaming fans because a fantasy.

As we stand right now, next season is going to start at least 2 months late. More importantly, it seems safe to assume that some teams likely still won’t be allowed to have fans at all in their stadiums. The few that do, will not be able to have full capacity crowds. We’re looking at probably 25-50% capacity in stadiums at best, for at least the first part of next year. That means a substantial loss of revenue for teams and that means lower salaries.

Basically, Petro picked the absolute worst possible year to become a free agent, if he was looking for more money. The cap is now frozen for two years. The financial outlook isn’t looking too great and that mean smaller contracts all around. I don’t expect it to shrink enormously, but at this point, I would suggest Petro’s open market value to top out around $10 million. I would think the Blues might be able to talk him down a little. We can offer the prospect of playing on an elite team. That team is also reved up for another cup run and showing no sign of slowing down. That said they’re not going to be able to talk him down too much. With everything taken into account, I think a 7 year deal at $9 million AAV is probably a fair assumption.

There is also the off chance that Petro decides to go short term. He signs at $8-9 million AAV for 2 years, until the cap starts climbing again. That is bascially gambling that he’ll still be good enough, and the money will climb high enough, that he can score a 5-6 year deal closer to $12 million AAV then. If Petro was a couple years younger I would say this is a definite possibility. However, at 30, it’s a reach. Selling a team on that salary for a 30 year old with easily 3-5 top level years left is doable. Selling a team on a 33 year old at that price is nearly impossible.

How do the Blues Do It?

Let’s assume the Blues and Petro agree on a deal of 7 years $9.5 million AAV. That’s a fair deal and based on market value and Cap percentage, I think it could happen. The bigger question is, can the Blues afford it? That’s a major issue at the moment. Currently, CapFriendly puts the Blues at $76,346,904 for next season following the Jake Allen trade and Jacob de la Rose extension. That is counting 15 Forwards, 2 Goalies (Husso at 750k) and only 5 Defensemen. That leaves the Blues with just shy of 5 million to play with. Besides Petro, they are also going to have to re-sign Vince Dunn on the current NHL squad. They would also possibly need to sign Jake Walman and Mitch Reinke on the AHL side.

Given his age and the cap situation, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to suggest that the Blues could get Dunn to sign a 2 or 3 year bridge deal for $2-2.5 million AAV. Let’s go with the higher of the two for safety’s sake and say they bring him in at $2.5 million. That leaves them with roughly $470,000 to play with. Nowhere near the $9 million they need. So that means the Blues are going to have to make a trade or two to get this done.

The Obvious Move

Making a $9 million cap space appear isn’t going to be easy. The first thing the Blues could do would be to buy out Alex Steen. This idea has been floated for years but the Blues have never been in the situation where it was necessary. Buying Steen out would open up $2.333 million in cap space, which is a good start. Note: Steen still has a full NTC and would be unlikely to waive that to leave a contending team like the Blues. While trading him would be a better idea it’s highly unlikely to happen.

The Blues also have reliable young replacements for Steen. Namely, Jordan Kyrou, who actually impressed me with his play in the bubble. The re-signing of de la Rose also signals they desire the defensive depth Steen provides. Although doing so would eat into the cap savings required to keep Petro. Ultimately, even with Steen gone, the Blues would still need about $6 million, so we keep going.

The Goalies

Jake Allen was traded to Montreal for picks n’ peanuts, shedding off a 4.35 million hit off the cap. That’s a major first step. As much as an impressive support piece Allen has been this past season and in the first round against Vancouver after Binnington’s struggles, 4.35 is an expensive backup. While you then immediately point to the Habs’ 15.6 million in goaltenders, consider a few things: Carey Price was and is a special exception. He is the Montreal Canadiens and the primary reason the Canadiens made it past the play-ins in the first place. However, he’s no spring chicken: at 33 he played 58 games this year (in a shortened 71-game season) – the man needs help. Allen is a sound candidate for that. Finally, the Canadiens have that money to burn, to the tune of over 12 million still in cap space.

Who replaces Jake Allen is the bigger question right now. I’m not sold on Ville Husso’s ability to play in the NHL. Evan Fitzpatrick has had a couple of bad seasons recently at the ECHL level, suggesting he may never be an NHL caliber goalie. Joel Hofer, the other internal option, has looked pretty good, but he’s still only 20 and needs more time to develop. It may be a better move for the Blues to turn to a more established NHL backup, but for now, Husso is on for 750k. That leaves St. Louis with just over 5 million projected cap space.

The Defense

So, we’re up to $5.153 million of our $9 million in cap space. The only other blatant and obvious move would be to trade Carl Gunnarsson. He’s still decent and could help more than a couple teams. However, he’s nothig special and I think he could be replaced by Reinke, Mikkola, or Perunovich. However, Gunner only has a cap hit of $1.75 million and any replacement is going to cost around $1million. Reinke and Mikkola are both RFAs and Peru is signed at $925,000. At best you’re likely only going to open up an additional $750,000 by moving Gunnarsson. That helps a little but not much. Add that $750,000 and the $400,000 of space we already have, you don’t want to go right to the line. That will leave us with $6.833 million of the $9 million needed.

More Money…

Finding that reaming $2.2 million is going to require a sacrifice, and not one I’m happy to make. Namely you have two options: Trade a top level forward like Schwartz, which will free up all the money in one move but might leave you exposed on the front end, or trade most of your good depth guys. The former is fairly straight forward, you would trade either Schwartz, Bozak, or Perron. Any of the three would free up enough cap on their own to get Petro signed and to bring up Klim Kostin from the minors to take their roster spot. All three of those guys have Modified NTC’s so they can be moved. Movign them would probably be fairly easily as well. They are all good players and have decent numbers and contracts.

The downside is, I don’t want to move any of them. Perron loves St. Louis, as judged by the fact that he keeps coming back. He’s also been one of our more reliable goal scorers on his current tour with the team. Bozak is one of the best faceoff guys in the league. He also serves as a solid mentor for some of the younger forwards. Schwartz is the most underrated player in the NHL. The job he does in the corners to retrieve and funnel pucks to our goal scorers is second to none. Losing him would hurt the team immesurably.

On the other hand, in order to keep all three of them and Petro, you’re going to have to basically sell off the majority of our depth. You would need to trade Sanford, Barbashev and Blais. Those three together tally up to $4.475 million cap hit. Of that $2.2 million goes to Petro. The rest goes towards replacing those three in the lineup. That requires either calling up Kostin, Toropchenko and either Walker or McKing, or signing alternate options off the Free Agent Market. Bringing up the first three of those guys would leave you just barely under cap with one open slot on the roster. Unfortunately, it would also leave you with a fourth forward line of MacEachern – Kostin – Walker. Doable, but not the kind of line I’d want to ride or die with in an all or nothing situation.

Conclusion

To wrap all this up, the Blues could re-sign Alex Pietrangelo, and I’m pretty sure both parties would love to see it happen. Petro loves St. Louis and we love him back. Staying here would also solidify his legacy and send him down in history as a Blues Legend. That said, keeping him is going to take sacrifices. Some that the Blues fans would happily take, and some that are not going to go down easy.

The Blues can survive the sacrifices and probably come out better on the other side. We would suffer for one or two years. After that players would begin to age out of contracts. We would lose someone, likely Faulk, to Seattle. More cap space would open up and the cap will probably increase again. In the end we would be able to sign the next generation. We’d keep our forwards rolling and hopefully keep this team competitive for years to come, with our faithful captain holding his post on the back end.

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