By Allan Muir
It’s not like St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong hasn’t been busy this summer. While helping Steve Yzerman with the advance planning for Team Canada, he’s managed to avoid arbitration with Chris Stewart, and he made a significant cap-shaving deal by shipping David Perron to Edmonton in exchange for Magnus Paajarvi.
But Armstrong has left Blues fans to wonder when he’s going to take care of the team’s most pressing matter: getting defenseman Alex Pietrangelo under contract.
As presently constructed, the Blues seem like a team that’s good enough to be in the Stanley Cup mix, but not quite good enough to get the job done. A hard-working group that’s miserable to play against and, on most nights anyway, makes the most of the talent it has on hand.
But while the Blues employ a few higher-end players, only one has real superstar potential, the kind that can fill seats while carrying a team to the next level.
And that’s Pietrangelo.
So what’s the hold up?
It’s not the money. At least, not the AAV. It’s believed that he’s asking for something around $7 million per year, which is what it costs to sign that type of player these days.
Well, it comes down to Armstrong’s appetite for risk. It is … limited. He’s learned from the mistakes he made in Dallas. This is not a GM who throws money at a player simply because someone else could and did. He’s a live-within-your-means type of guy in a world where everyone else is trying to keep up the neighbors.
And right now, he’s not ready to handcuff himself to a player who has flirted with superstardom, but isn’t yet at that level. In fact, after putting together a breakthrough campaign in 2011-12 that earned him recognition as a Norris Trophy finalist, the 23-year-old’s play slipped last season, which forces Armstrong to think long and hard about what kind of player Pietrangelo really is before deciding how to handle the restricted free agent.
Can he be that superstar who elevates his play and puts his teammates on his back when it matters most? That’s certainly the consensus among long-suffering Blues fans. Or is he just another really good player, a supporting piece to hold down that spot on the top pair until something better comes along?
Should Armstrong treat Pietrangelo as the face, and future, of the franchise and hand him a seven- or eight-year deal that chains him to the franchise? That’s not the kind of thing he does. His longest offer was the five-year deal given to T.J. Oshie last summer. So does he hedge his bet with a similar offer? Or does he essentially ask Pietrangelo to prove himself with a two-year bridge deal?
At least there’s no external pressure forcing Armstrong to make any quick concessions.
Under different circumstances, this is the sort of player that another team might be willing to throw an offer sheet at. Young, built like a brick wall, and immensely skilled, Pietrangelo is basically Seth Jones five years down the developmental path. It’s easy to imagine a club giving up a handful of draft beans for a (nearly) proven commodity like him.
If it has money to spend, that is.
With the cap being slashed next season, free spenders like Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren — who boldly offer-sheeted Shea Weber last summer — don’t have the space, and the teams that have cash and could really use Pietrangelo, like Colorado, New Jersey, Florida and Buffalo, aren’t in a position to spend to the cap.
So all Armstrong really has to contend with is risk management. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Boston gave the similarly promising Tyler Seguin a monster six-year, $34.5 million extension last summer, then flushed him out of its system before the deal took effect. Jeff Skinner’s play has suffered while he’s battled a series of injuries, making the six-year, $3.435 million deal that kicks in next season a black cloud of concern for the Hurricanes.
Both of those players looked like sure things when they were signed, tent poles on which a franchise can be built. Maybe they still will be. But right now they look more like caution flags.
Armstrong’s a cautious guy by nature. He’ll eventually get a deal done with Pietrangelo that’ll more than double the $3.166 million he earned last season because it’s worth risking that kind of cap hit on a player who could become that game-altering No. 1 defender. But term is a different threshold. They’ll get their man, but if Blues fans are expecting a seven- or eight-year contract that’ll bind him to the club through his prime years, they’re liable to be disappointed.