He’s the last RFA standing, but Armstrong’s hands may be tied.
This off-season has seen the Blues sign Zack Bolduc and Tanner Dickinson to entry level contracts. They locked down Colton Parayko for eight additional years at an eyebrow raising price. They let Jaden Schwartz and Mike Hoffman walk in free agency, replacing them with Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich, both of whom may well be upgrades. They’ve extended Zach Sanford for another year. They took care of the other RFAs – Dakota Joshua was signed, Ivan Barbashev was signed. They locked up Jordan Kyrou for two more seasons.
This has not been an earth shattering off-season by any means for the Blues and Doug Armstrong, but it hasn’t been a poor one. Two things remain, however, and they’re both emblematic of issues currently dogging the team. Vladimir Tarasenko is still a Blue, and Robert Thomas still hasn’t been signed.
Those two issues are clearly related.
With Tarasenko’s $7.5 million salary on the books, the Blues have just $1,531,151 of cap space to deal with, not enough to give Robert Thomas the raise that he deserves or more than likely wants. Tarasenko’s situation is actively preventing the Blues from signing their best young forward.
Doug Armstrong can’t work from a position of leverage with Tarasenko, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that other teams can’t fit his salary into the books or don’t want to risk his shoulder become a career-ending injury on their watch. The Blues are now stuck with a player who doesn’t want to be with the team skating with players two weeks before training camp starts. Since they can’t deal him, they can’t free up the space to sign Thomas.
The Blues do not have scads of youthful depth, The Athletic (subscription required) recently did two articles outlining where teams stand as far as their stable of rising young stars goes. In their look at the best players under the age of 23, the Blues had four ranked out of 194: Robert Thomas at 42, Jake Neighbours at 168, Bolduc at 173, and Joel Hofer at 179. Thomas is ranked as a bubble top and middle of the lineup player, Neighbors and Bolduc are middle of the lineup players, and Hofer is projected as an eventual starting goaltender.
Needless to say, the Blues ranked pretty low in the pipeline projections, at 24th overall. Buffalo, with their cadre of young players whose spirits are ready to be broken, ranked first.
The Blues have traded away picks and prospects over the years to build for a Cup contending team, and they got one in 2019. Now that the window is closing, they need players like Thomas to contribute – and he will. When he’s signed.
Obviously they need more players like Robert Thomas in general. The Blues will have to spend a while to rebuild the stable while still actively contending for a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, they’re going to have to do it without Tarasenko, or else a key part of the future of the team will be sitting around, waiting for a call from his agent at the start of training camp.
It’s not a situation any general manager wants to be in, but unfortunately it’s were Armstrong finds himself. Is it a situation of his own making? To a point, but shopping an elite player turned question mark isn’t an easy job. The Blues now find themselves in a situation where they’re dependent upon other franchises to facilitate what they need to do, and that is not beneficial to the team.
Robert Thomas needs to be signed before training camp, and doing so depends on dealing Tarasenko before then as well.