Of the eight teams to get eliminated in the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs the St. Louis Blues might have been the most surprising. Maybe not shocking, but definitely surprising.
They were the defending Stanley Cup champions, had a great regular season even without Vladimir Tarasenko for most of it, and their opening round opponent was a highly skilled, yet still flawed Vancouver Canucks team that seemed to still be a year or two away from having its breakthrough.
The Blues were favorites, and they should have been.
Once the puck dropped, however, the Canucks stormed out and won the first two games, then refused to back down when the Blues pushed back with wins in Games 3 and 4. Vancouver then closed out the series in devastating fashion, scoring nine of the last 11 goals, including a multi-goal comeback in Game 5 and a complete dismantling in Game 6. The two goals the Blues did score over that series-ending stretch came when the result — for the game and series — had already been all but decided.
Not the way the Blues drew this postseason up. But when you win a championship you should probably get a one-year grace period from your fan base, so let’s try to be reasonable here, Blues Fans. The odds of your team winning two years in a row were always going to be stacked against you, and injuries definitely took their toll toward the end of the Vancouver series, helping to rob them of some of the depth that made them so dangerous a year ago.
Having said that, there are still some significant questions that have to be answered here.
The first is the future of long-time No. 1 defenseman and team captain Alex Pietrangelo.
He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and is going to be a HIGHLY sought after player if he hits the open market. He is still really good, he already has his name on the Cup (mission accomplished in St. Louis) and this is probably his last chance at getting a dump truck full of money on a contract. Could you blame him if he wanted to take full advantage of that? Of course you couldn’t (and you shouldn’t).
The good news here for the Blues is they only have one other significant free agent to worry about this offseason (defenseman Vince Dunn, who is restricted), because almost everyone on the team remains under contract through at least next season.
The bad news is that means they may not have the salary cap space to pay Pietrangelo what he can command, especially as Brayden Schenn, Justin Faulk, and Marco Scandella have new contracts (with raises) kick in this upcoming season. As of this moment, the Blues have $79,452,499 committed to 21 players for next season (via CapFriendly) and a flat cap to work with. For Pietrangelo to stay, somebody else on the roster may have to go.
There are some options. Alexander Steen and Tyler Bozak stand out immediately given that both will be over the age of 35 next season and will account for more than $10 million in salary cap space. Neither player was a drain this season, but age is a concern that is a huge chunk of cap space that might be better used elsewhere.
That brings us to the elephant in the room here: Goaltending.
Together they account for nearly $9 million in salary cap space next season, which is a significant amount for the position. Binnington was solid during the regular season, but a catastrophe during the playoffs. Craig Berube’s Game 6 decision to go back to Binnington turned out to be a doomed one in hindsight. Allen, while playing in a limited role, bounced back from consecutive sub-par seasons. The problem here is that both goalies still seem like unknowns. They are not glaring weaknesses where you know you have to replace them, but they should also not be considered locks to be productive. It is a question without an easy answer. At some point a decision on one, both, or neither is going to have to be made.
Unless they make the decision to make seismic changes to the roster the main core of this team is locked in place, and it is still a good one even with this result. But the potential loss of Pietrangelo creates a massive hole on the blue line that has to be addressed, while the goaltending situation that was on the verge of sinking their 2018-19 season before Binnington’s late season run looks to be a pretty significant question mark once again.