Over the course of the first three days of the annual arms race that is the NHL’s free agency period, it could be argued that no division saw its teams load up quite like the Central Division.
Run down the list. The Nashville Predators inked coveted free agent Matt Duchene. The Dallas Stars scooped up Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. The Colorado Avalanche added Nazem Kadri and signed Joonas Donskoi. The Minnesota Wild paid up to bring Mats Zuccarello aboard, while the Chicago Blackhawks surprised with the signing of Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner. Even the cap-strapped Winnipeg Jets signed…OK, so maybe the Jets didn’t make any noise, but they are set to pay up to retain restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. The point stands.
One club conspicuous by its absence from that list, however, is the St. Louis Blues. The defending Stanley Cup champions have had seven players put pen to paper on contracts since Canada Day, sure, but with all due respect to Derrick Pouliot and Jake Dotchin and Nathan Walker, St. Louis hasn’t made a single signing that has made so much as a ripple in the free agency pool.
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
You see, entering this off-season, the Blues were a rarity among salary cap-era Stanley Cup champions in that they were presented with the opportunity to return almost the exact same lineup to the ice next season, which a cursory glance at their current roster makes evident. All of their top talents, from Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly and sniper Vladimir Tarasenko to first-round hero Jaden Schwartz and captain Alex Pietrangelo, are all under contract for the coming season. In fact, all told, only one notable name from the Blues’ Stanley Cup-winning squad remains on the open market: Patrick Maroon. But would anyone be surprised if he’s waiting to see if he can’t make it work again in his hometown next season?
Indeed, there are members of the championship club that are going to need new pacts, and that is surely GM Doug Armstrong’s focus at the moment. Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Sanford, Robby Fabbri and Ivan Barbashev are all RFAs. Same goes for blueliner Joel Edmundson. The most important RFA of the bunch, however, is goaltender Jordan Binnington, who finished second in Conn Smythe Trophy voting and was a season-saver in St. Louis. When it comes to the RFAs, working out a pact with Binnington is undoubtedly the top priority, though most expect a contract to get done – and one that doesn’t look all that dissimilar to Matt Murray’s three-year, $11.25-million pact with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2016 – in the not-too-distant future.
One could posit, too, that St. Louis has already made its most important signing regardless of what it does in the next few days, weeks or months ahead of the coming campaign.
Though it took about two weeks post-Stanley Cup victory for the Blues to get it done, they inked coach Craig Berube to a three-year deal several days before free agency opened. And that might be the biggest reason why no one in St. Louis should be the least bit concerned about all the improvement that has happened around them in the division. Under Berube’s watch last season, the Blues had the seventh-best Corsi percentage (52.7) in the NHL, finished first in the league in expected goals for percentage (55.5) and remained in the top 10 in all notable advanced categories. The transformation from the pre- to post-Berube periods this past season was significant, and his presence along with the same lineup puts St. Louis in as good a position to compete in the Central and should allow them to at least contend for back-to-back championships.
That’s not to say we won’t see some fresh faces in the St. Louis lineup next season. Aforementioned signings Pouliot, Dotchin and Walker could, at various points throughout the campaign, crack the lineup. There’s the possibility, as well, of another minor add here or there, even possibly a trade acquisition.
But with the current composition of the roster, one name to watch for is Jordan Kyrou. The Blues’ second-round pick in 2016 earned a 16-game cup of coffee with the big club in 2018-19, his first full season in the pro game, and wowed in the AHL with a solid 16-goal, 43-point season in 47 games with the San Antonio Rampage. By the looks of things, he’s ready to make the leap, and even if he starts his time in the NHL as a bottom-sixer, there’s promise there for a winger who was ranked the 18th-best prospect by a panel of scouts in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019. Possibly joining Kyrou, too, could be Klim Kostin, though the 2017 first-round selection might be more up-and-down throughout the season as he gets a touch more minor-league seasoning.
All of those will be in-house additions, though, which will add to the work Armstrong will have already done in retaining the Blues’ RFAs. This is to say there will be no post-Stanley Cup shuffle for St. Louis, and given it was a roster that just bodied, bullied and fired its way to a league crown, there was absolutely no reason the Blues had to shake things up in the first place.
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