This may be a hard thing for St. Louis Blues fans to even think or talk about, but it has to be discussed. What happens if captain Alex Pietrangelo departs in free agency after the 2019-20 season?
Maybe Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong trading for Justin Faulk prior to this season was him planning ahead for if Pietrangelo leaves, which most think it was. Either way, losing Pietrangelo would be a major hit to this blue line. He does so many things well on both ends of the ice, which is very valuable.
Armstrong has multiple backup plans available to him if it comes to this.
First up, we have the Blues’ top defensive prospect, Scott Perunovich. He’s creeping closer to being NHL-ready, and while I’m not sure he’s ready for 2020-21, he is having another good season at Minnesota-Duluth.
He’s been in the range of a point per game at Duluth, and is currently at 2 goals and 21 assists for 23 points in 18 games this season. His skating ability and offensive instincts could be very useful in the NHL.
The 21-year-old defenseman was the 45th overall selection of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Blues. At 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds, he’s not a big, physical defenseman like what the team mainly has now.
Next up is Mitch Reinke, the 23-year-old prospect who did play one game with the Blues in 2017-18. The club signed him in 2018 out of Michigan Tech. He’s been very productive in the American Hockey League, where he was second on the San Antonio Rampage in scoring last season with 12 goals and 33 assists for 45 points.
Reinke could be ready to play in the NHL next season as he was competing for a spot prior to this season. He isn’t the biggest defenseman, though at 5-foot-11 he has shown he can make plays in both ends and showed high-end skill in the offensive zone with both the Rampage and at Michigan Tech.
We could also see Niko Mikkola expand his role with the club in 2020-21. As of now, Mikkola just made his NHL debut with the Blues on Jan. 7 against the San Jose Sharks.
Mikkola provides the size that the Blues like on the defensive end, coming in at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. He fits into head coach Craig Berube’s system very well, as he is a good skater and can be a pest to play against. Mikkola also showed a lot of potential at the 2016 World Junior Championship when he was on the Finland team that took home gold.
Finally, we have Jake Walman, another defensive prospect who made his NHL debut with the Blues in 2019-20. The 23-year-old prospect showed that he could be useful on the defensive end, blocking shots. He comfortably used his stick defensively as well.
Walman has had a weird AHL career, but clearly is on Armstrong’s radar. He was a third-round selection by St. Louis in 2014. He’s put up a solid 4 goals and 14 assists in 32 games with San Antonio this season. He could get a major shot to be on the Blues’ roster to start 2020-21.
Free Agency Options
The free-agent pool for defensemen after this season is very good at the top, and fairly solid after that. Though I don’t see the Blues really making a massive splash for a defenseman even if they lose Pietrangelo.
First up is Kevin Shattenkirk. Yes, that’s right, a reunion. Shattenkirk was with the Blues from 2010-11 to 2016-17 when he was dealt to the Washington Capitals.
Shattenkirk is a right-handed shot who is having a good bounceback season at age 30 with the Tampa Bay Lightning with 7 goals and 19 assists for 26 points in 42 games. While St. Louis might lose a little defensively by replacing Pietrangelo with Shattenkirk, it’s a move that should be entertained.
Shattenkirk has played with multiple players on the current roster and spent a lot of time here. He also had four straight seasons with 40-plus points in St. Louis.
The second player to look at is Jake Muzzin, the 31-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman who has been really good the last couple of seasons. He would be a good replacement due to his two-way style of play.
He’s also a left-handed shot, which the Blues could use. Muzzin comes in at 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, which is a good size on this blue line. He’s experienced, having won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014. He was dealt to Toronto last season as part of the Kings’ rebuilding process.
Muzzin just seems like such a good fit for this team. He’s put up 3 goals and 10 assists for 13 points in 38 games this season. Maybe he could also replace Jay Bouwmeester if he decides to hang them up after 2019-20. Imagine a Colton Parayko and Muzzin pairing, that would be lethal.
Finally, is Erik Gustafsson, the 27-year-old Chicago Blackhawks defenseman who is set to be a free agent after this season. He’s having a bit of a down year with 18 points in 43 games after putting up a career-best 70 points last season but is showing signs of life recently.
Gustafsson is an interesting player, as he was a fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2014 and didn’t play in the NHL until 2015-16 with Chicago.
He makes plays in both ends, two-way style that once again, fits the Blues system. He is a bit on the small end, at 6-foot and 197 pounds, but has proven to not be a liability in any of the three zones.
This would also be the Blues stealing a defenseman from a direct rival, and one of their better ones too. He is a left-handed shot, maybe he could fit with Robert Bortuzzo or Faulk on the blue line.
Will Pietrangelo Actually Leave?
There has been tons of speculation regarding Pietrangelo, with him being in the final year of his contract. From all different angles too, whether the Blues would extend him or if he might walk in July.
Toronto media, as well as Maple Leafs fans have been all over the possibility of the “hometown” defenseman coming home to Toronto. The Maple Leafs have cap issues, and I don’t think Pietrangelo would take a discount for them under any circumstances.
I truly believe that this ends with Armstrong forking over the big bucks and keeping the captain in St. Louis. He’s way too valuable to this organization. Losing a captain to free agency twice within five years of each other would really hurt, as they lost David Backes to the Boston Bruins in 2016.
This is going to be an interesting offseason for the Blues. There are plenty of questions surrounding the defending Stanley Cup champs, the main one being Pietrangelo’s status moving forward.