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Huge If True: Can the St. Louis Blues stick together?

[HUGE IF TRUE breaks down the plausibility of the week's biggest rumor.]

This week Ken Hitchcock finally revealed what we all should have expected: He's back for one final rodeo with the team that almost didn't want him coaching them last season.

That's all well and good. He's a great coach who brought a strong team as far as it could reasonably go in these playoffs. And with a few offseason tweaks, they could end up being even better as long as player development continues apace, needed acquisitions are made at the right prices and an extra bounce or two goes their way.

It's totally plausible that the Blues could be in the Stanley Cup Final if they don't take quite so many dumb penalties against the Sharks, or if Vladimir Tarasenko doesn't get totally shut down by Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.

But Tarasenko stirred the pot more than a little bit late last week, as he refused to talk to reporters on the team's pack-up day. That rankled some in the local media, and left others wondering how teammates felt about a guy who could easily be construed as having no-showed a Conference Final also no-showing the final media availability of the year. Reportedly, they did not feel good.

In part because of the furor around the decision, Tarasenko met with the media a little later, said he didn't talk because he was too pissed off, and denied rumors the Blues are unhappy with him or vice versa:

"It's never been even talked about it. We have really good relationships. The media talk about problems between me and the Blues, it's never been a problem. If there was going to be a problem, I would not sign for eight years."

All this comes at a time when a number of important players on the St. Louis roster are up for contract extensions, and that leaves plenty of room for speculation about what happens next.

The Rumor

Let's just address the rumor at hand here: It was blown out of proportion. Elliotte Friedman went on Calgary radio during the Conference Finals and said there were “rumblings” all year that the Blues want more bang for their buck out of a $7.5 million player they just signed. I don't know how much more bang you can reasonably expect than 40 goals and a career-high 292 shots on net, but let's just go with that.

Friedman said repeatedly in the interview that he had “no knowledge” on this issue in specific, but maybe the Blues might be thinking of trading him now, and so on. That seems to me like an overreach given a number of factors here, but at this point Friedman has earned the benefit of the doubt on the trade speculation front from time to time, especially if he stresses that it's him “thinking out loud.”

(Didn't stop anyone in the local media from teeing off on “reports out of Canada,” because actually mentioning the reporter whose work you're questioning by name would be frowned upon by the brave old guard of the hockey media, but the criticism itself is fine as long as it's heavily couched. And meanwhile no one mentioned similar nonsense from Ben Fredrickson, a local reporter who likewise cited, “growing speculation of friction between Tarasenko and the Blues.” It's always those mean Canadians only.)

How that Friedman report got conflated to The Blues Have A Problem With Their Best Player is easy to see in a game of “hockey media telephone,” but I think you'd be pretty safe betting a couple of mortgages on Tarasenko still being in St. Louis next season.

That does not, however, address the several other elephants in the room as far as the Blues' cap considerations are concerned.

Let's just start with David Backes, the team's captain who reportedly wants $6 million a year for more than four years. The two offers from the team you hear about a lot are three years at $5.5 million per, and maybe four years at $6 million. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon — not the race car driver — says Backes sees the Ryan Kesler contract (six years, almost $7 million per) as a comparable, which he should because they are comparable players. But that doesn't mean it's anything resembling a good investment.

Backes will be pushing 33 when next season starts, so if he signs for more than four years, you'd effectively be signing him until he's almost 38 at a minimum. I wouldn't think he's a $6 million player right now, let alone with three-plus years of extra hits, shot blocks, and wear and tear on the chassis. And with the cap flat for at least this season, I don't know how you justify the purchase if you're just about anyone.

There will, of course, be a market for Backes somewhere. It's the NHL after all, and forward-thinking isn't exactly a specialty.

But another big question is what about Troy Brouwer? He pulled $3.66 million against the cap this past season (Gordon calls that a “relative bargain,” and I wonder, “relative to what?”) and will want a raise and multiple years. As a result, he's almost certainly done in St. Louis.

Next, the name that people are only just realizing is an important part of the Blues' future is Jaden Schwartz, who's an RFA this summer and desperately needs a new deal. That, according to Craig Custance, should be “priority No. 1.” So what's that cost? Probably under $5 million. And it likely feels like a steal at that price.

Finally, there's also speculation, from Custance and elsewhere, that the Blues will continue to shop Kevin Shattenkirk, the really good defenseman they don't like enough to keep paying. And failing that, the $5.4 million they're spending on Jay Bouwmeester through 2019 could be shipped elsewhere instead.

Who's Going Where?

Now, if it were me making the decisions, I'd rather have Shattenkirk with one year left on his deal at $4.25 million than Bouwmeester with three at $5.4 million. But hey, if one them is going to get traded, the good news is that there are going to be plenty of teams looking for defensemen this summer. They might even be willing to take on those contracts whole-hog instead of making St. Louis pick up part of the cap hit (which given the Blues' salary situation should be a non-starter).

We can safely assume they re-sign both Backes and Schwartz for something resembling their rumored asking prices. Can't imagine they let the captain walk unless his price gets ridiculous (or at least, more ridiculous than it already is) and obviously they'll just give Schwartz market value.

But that leaves Brouwer to walk (maybe to Vancouver?), probably along with other not-needed veterans like Steve Ott, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak. Those are all guys who can be replaced on the open market with relative ease.

The Implications

The Blues are going to look at least a little bit different this summer.

It's just that cap situation — the team currently has more than $59.4 million committed to 18 players for next season — that puts them in a tight spot. Assuming Backes gets re-upped (let's say it's at $6 million) and Schwartz gets his money (let's say it's $4.75 million), that bumps them to north of $70 million. The cap is expected to come in around $71.4 million or closer to $75 million, today's number versus what happens if the NHLPA uses its full 5 percent escalator.

Even on the higher end of that spectrum, the squeeze gets really tight unless one of those two defensemen get moved. The bigger problem is that while the club is all set on D and in net, only seven forwards are signed for 2016-17, not including Backes or Schwartz. So call it nine, then assume they also re-sign Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin. That bumps them to 11 forwards signed out of the 13-plus they'll need. How do you replace Brouwer with the little money left over, plus sign some depth guys? Maybe you promote a few guys on ELCs, but you're still sweating the squeeze.

Unless, of course, that D-man trade happens. Then who knows what the return does to the roster? And if you're trading a defender specifically for a return that fleshes out your lineup then Shattenkirk probably is the way to go. His value would be considerable in comparison with what you'd get trying to trade Bouwmeester instead.

This Is So Huge, If True: Is It True?
On a B.S. detector scale of 1-5, with one being the most reasonable and 5 being the least:

The Blues have a lot of pretty big decisions to make in the next month, so let's get to ranking them:

Re-sign David Backes:  


(It probably happens, even if it costs more than it should.)

Re-sign Jaden Schwartz:



Let Brouwer walk:  

(Might only bring him back if a Backes signing doesn't seem to be in the cards.)

Trade Shattenkirk:  


(I'll believe it when I see it but it's perfectly plausible, given the year-plus of rumors.)

Trade Bouwmeester:


(Less likely, because fewer teams are going to give up much of anything for that price tag.)

Everyone hates Tarasenko:  

(“Being the best player on a team” is usually a good way to ingratiate yourself to a team.)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)



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