Stephen Ground The Hockey Writers
Blues Defensive Options for 2020-21
The St. Louis Blues are defending Stanley Cup Champions and will enter the 2019-20 postseason in first place in the Western Conference. They are also built for the future, with just four players in the NHL approaching restricted free agent (RFA) or unrestricted free agent (UFA) status in the offseason.
Unfortunately, one of those two players is the team’s captain and defensive anchor Alex Pietrangelo (UFA), and the other is up-and-coming young puck-mover Vince Dunn (RFA). Jay Bouwmeester is also a pending-UFA, but it is assumed he will retire after his frightening cardiac episode earlier this year, even though he is healthier now.
With the future of those two players uncertain and salary cap space limited, the next stage of the St. Louis blueline is uncertain. In this article, we’ll look at each player on the current team, as well as some prospects, and examine what role they might play in the 2020-21 season.
We’ve looked in more detail at Pietrangelo’s contract future elsewhere, but we need to touch on it again here. It’s no understatement to say that the future of the entire defensive corps, if not the entire team, revolves around whether the captain re-signs with St. Louis. The team has limited salary cap space and Pietrangelo looks like one of the most appealing UFAs in the coming offseason, so that is anything but a guarantee.
Pietrangelo has played 758 games and scored 450 points in his career, all with the Blues. He consistently leads the team in minutes, having averaged 24:38 throughout his career. Frankly speaking, the Blues will not remotely be able to replace him if he leaves.
But for all of those reasons, and for the fact that he is the first Blue ever to lift the Stanley Cup, an extension still seems by far the most likely outcome. If Pietrangelo finishes his career in St. Louis, he will lead the franchise in a number of statistical categories, and he is the kind of player who could conceivably see his number retired or even see a statue built in his honor outside the Enterprise Center. The mutual desire for a deal is understandably strong, as Luke Fox and others have reported.
Most Blues fans recognize that even at 23, Vince Dunn has shown the tools to be something special. But there’s no question his agent will recognize that as well, and lobby for a hefty extension this coming summer. All teams will be affected by the expected static salary cap over the next few seasons, and contracts across the board will likely be down, but even so, it might be difficult for the Blues to re-sign both Pietrangelo and Dunn.
If they do, the higher salary Dunn will receive ought to demand a larger role, perhaps even alongside the captain on the top pairing. At the very least, he needs to see increased time on the power play, where he averaged a career-low 1:30 time on ice (TOI) this season. Even so, he managed to score over two power play goals and five power play points per 60 minutes in 2019-20.
Dunn could also be a very interesting trade chip for the Blues, though they don’t have obvious needs to address. General manager Doug Armstrong has worked plenty of magic in the past, and the best-case scenario for his team is likely retaining both Dunn and Pietrangelo. But that will require plenty of salary cap manipulation this offseason, and just about every team will be looking to do the same, so it is far from a certainty.
Moving now from the players with uncertain contract futures to the players who seem like a lock to remain part of the Blues’ defensive corps going forward, no player’s future is more certain than Colton Parayko’s. He has two seasons left on his deal at a very affordable $5.5 million average annual value (AAV). It is not impossible that Armstrong might ultimately deal Parayko for futures if he can’t see re-signing him; however, his history with Kevin Shattenkirk indicates that he would wait as long as he could before doing so.
Marco Scandella has had a tumultuous year but it’s wrapping up in the best way possible. After struggling with the Buffalo Sabres and being dealt early to the Montreal Canadiens, he landed with the Blues at the trade deadline. After acquiring him, they went on one of their hottest stretches of the season, going 8-2 heading into the NHL’s eventual COVID-19 pause. While the season is yet to conclude, Armstrong had seen enough to secure Scandella’s future with the team by giving him a four-year, $13.1 million contract.
Right now, Scandella is the only true certainty on the Blues’ left side. In his brief run with the team before the pause, he solidified that area and helped Justin Faulk, whom we’ll discuss in a moment, find some consistency. We don’t know today whether Scandella will play all four years of his contract with the Blues, but he’ll certainly be there next season.
Armstrong acquired Faulk shortly before the season by trading top prospect Dominik Bokk and Stanley Cup Champion Joel Edmundson to the Carolina Hurricanes. But the three-time All-Star and former Hurricanes co-captain struggled to find his stride in St. Louis, as he admitted recently in an interview with The Athletic‘s Jeremy Rutherford (“I didn’t play that well’: Justin Faulk speaks out in first season with Blues,” The Athletic NHL, 06/26/2020).
“I have no issue taking responsibility for my play,” Faulk told Rutherford. “I think we can all agree that it was pretty poor for a good part of the season there.” But Scandella’s arrival and partnership with Faulk helped him find some consistency, and he was plus-eight in the team’s final ten games. “I started playing some better hockey, especially toward the end there before we got shut down… I don’t have any doubts in my mind that I’ll be able to regain that if things get going here again.”
Whether his play continues to improve or not, the seven-year, $45.5 million extension Armstrong gave Faulk immediately after the trade guarantees that he isn’t going anywhere. Unless the league awards compliance buyouts as a way to mitigate the salary cap crunch, the Blues will have few options to move in a different direction, and even in that event, they likely would rather give Faulk a chance to improve than surrender to dumping that much cash that quickly on a bad contract.
Carl Gunnarsson has played important minutes for the Blues at times, and even has the honor of scoring the game-winning goal in overtime for the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final game victory. But injuries have always slowed him since joining St. Louis, especially lately, as he played just 61 games over the last two seasons. He has one season remaining on his contract at $1.75 million, but he’s far from a fixture in the lineup. If he remains, he’ll play limited minutes in multiple roles.
Robert Bortuzzo’s story is very similar to Gunnarsson’s, though he has had fewer injuries. He’s played fewer than sixty games in four of his five seasons with the Blues. He’s the definition of a seventh defenseman, though he is a popular teammate who brings physicality whenever he steps into the lineup. He has two seasons remaining at a $1.375 million AAV, but again, if the Blues retain him, he’ll play a limited role.
Youngsters and Prospects
We’ve discussed Scott Perunovich in more detail elsewhere as well, but the reigning Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner has a strong chance of bolstering the Blues’ uncertain left side. After a decorated career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the Blues signed him to a two-year entry-level contract (ELC) that could begin as soon as the return of hockey this season.
The Blues are a stacked team with minimal roster space, so there’s no guarantee that Perunovich transitions immediately to the NHL. But the very fact that he signed in St. Louis when he could have opted to become a free agent and move elsewhere after college indicates that he has faith in Armstrong’s plans for him. If Dunn does leave this offseason, Perunovich is an ideal replacement for his talent along the left side, and he’ll look to join the likes of Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes in taking the league by storm immediately out of college.
On any other team, Niko Mikkola would likely already be a lineup fixture. The 24-year-old 2015 fifth-round pick has matured nicely over the last few seasons and was a major factor in helping his native Finland win World Championship Gold last summer. He played five games with the big club this season, and he looked solid, prompting some fans to question why he didn’t get a longer stay in the NHL. Mikkola signed a two-year, one-way contract extension in late January, indicating that his future is in the NHL.
If Armstrong can re-sign Dunn cheaply, it isn’t out of the question that they’d choose an inexperienced left side of Dunn, Perunovich, and Mikkola to offset the costly right side of Pietrangelo, Parayko, and Faulk. In fact, having three veterans to help those three youngsters learn the ropes might work out very well for the franchise. But it would require some discomfort from head coach Craig Berube, who has shown a preference for veterans, especially along the blueline, a preference many NHL head coaches share.
Two more players deserve some mention, though neither seems especially likely to play much with the Blues next season. Jake Walman, a third-round draft pick in 2014, was once a top defensive prospect for the Blues, but others on this list have passed him by in recent seasons. Though he made his NHL debut this season, the lefty would need to surpass Dunn, Perunovich, and Mikkola to make much of an impact, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
Mitch Reinke was a fantastic find for the Blues, signing as a college free agent in 2018. He debuted immediately but hasn’t played much in the NHL since. Still, he broke an AHL franchise scoring record as a rookie defenseman, scoring 45 points in 2018-19, surpassing Keith Yandle in the process. Even though 2019-20 seemed like a step back, he should still have a bright future, but it’s tough to see an immediate NHL role for a right-handed defenseman in St. Louis unless, of course, Pietrangelo departs.
Projected 2020-21 Defensive Lineup
It seems like it would take a miracle for the Blues to retain both Pietrangelo and Dunn this offseason, but Armstrong has worked miracles in the past. If they both stay, it seems like the most likely pairings would be similar to what they currently have:
That would be a variation on the Blues’ current lineup, and you would expect to see them incorporate Perunovich more and more as the season progresses. But precisely because of the Hobey Baker winner’s presence, there is a strong argument for moving on from Dunn, especially if his agents demand a high price. If that happens, you could potentially see a lineup more like this:
Why not let the two Minnesota natives and UMD alumni (Perunovich and Faulk) try to form some chemistry in what would still be a relatively new environment for both of them? Gunnarsson could start the season with Parayko, with the goal being to incorporate Mikkola more and more as the season advances. Gunnarsson’s injury history would make a full season unlikely, anyway.
Once the Dunn and Pietrangelo questions are answered, we will have a much clearer picture of the Blues’ defensive future. Likely one or both of Gunnarsson and Bortuzzo would be moved to accommodate the salary, and that would clear up more roles for youngsters like Mikkola, Perunovich, et. al. Armstrong has his work cut out for him.
If Pietrangelo does leave, it will mean an entirely different picture for the Blues. But that still seems very unlikely, even as close to the wire as we stand today. Barring that, Armstrong and Berube will have plenty of depth to play with on defense entering what is certain to be a severely compressed 2020-21 season. With the added fatigue and injury risk that such a season will create, that will give St. Louis a big advantage over the competition.
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