The St. Louis Blues keep writhing in quicksand, sinking toward the death of their 2018-19 season. They were widely pegged as one of the league’s most improved teams this off-season after GM Doug Armstrong made a slew of aggressive moves, signing Tyler Bozak, Patrick Maroon and David Perron and trading for Ryan O’Reilly, but nothing has worked. The Blues fired coach Mike Yeo. They’re 4-5-1 under interim coach Craig Berube. Teammates Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford fought in practice this week.
At 11-14-4, the Blues are tied for 29th overall in the NHL standings. They sit nine points out of a Western Conference wildcard spot, with five teams to pass to get it. How difficult will it be for St. Louis to make the playoffs now? Consider that, last Dec. 12, the Florida Panthers were 12-14-5. They went 32-16-3 the rest of the way – and still missed the playoffs.
The Blues’ are likely toast as post-season contenders this season. It’s thus no surprise they have predators scratching at their door. Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos toppled the first trade-rumor domino involving defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. He’s sidelined with a hand injury that may require surgery, which will make it even tougher for the Blues to remain in the playoff race, but the injury isn’t expected to end his season. He should still be healthy in time to present probably the best upgrade on ‘D’ anyone could find approaching the trade deadline – and he’s not even a true rental, as he has another year left at a $6.5-million AAV.
Kypreos suggests the Blues aren’t actively shopping Pietrangelo, but if Armstrong’s phone starts ringing off the hook, he has to ponder the potential return for his prized blueliner. What might the Ottawa Senators have secured for Erik Karlsson had they successfully dealt him last winter, securing an extra post-season of his play for the acquiring team? Instead, they moved him before 2018-19 with a season remaining on his contract, and the return was underwhelming to say the least. Might Armstrong view that debacle as a learning experience and listen hard to Pietrangelo offers? The Blues could obtain quite a bushel of prospects and/or picks to combine with a rising core that includes prospects Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin, and ensuring Pietrangelo doesn’t play another game for them this season would let more losses pile up, upping their lottery-ball count in the chase for Jack Hughes.
So which teams would be ideal fits for Pietrangelo? Kypreos named the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they surely wouldn’t be the lone suitor. Here are five teams that make sense from a standpoint of current contention goals and/or cap space. Keep in mind Pietrangelo’s contract includes a full no-trade clause that he’d have to waive, and he's reportedly happy in St. Louis.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
We know the Leafs badly need to upgrade their sieve-like right side on defense. Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov won’t cut it on a team with immediate Stanley Cup aspirations. The rangy, versatile, intelligent Pietrangelo would be a dream upgrade, the type of piece that could put Toronto over the top. The Leafs would have a decent chance at convincing Pietrangelo to waive his no-trade, too, considering he grew up in the Greater Toronto Area and was a childhood friend and teammate of John Tavares. The Leafs have a stocked farm system plus all their first-round picks for the next three drafts. Between picks and prospects or, as Kypreos suggests, a young roster player to offer in the mold of Andreas Johnsson, it wouldn’t be too difficult for GM Kyle Dubas to come up with an enticing package.
Fly in the ointment: The Leafs are better positioned for a one-year rental than to take on additional term. They are swimming in cap space right now, even after re-signing William Nylander, but RFA Armageddon looms this summer with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen needing new deals. Under the current roster structure, even if and when Jake Gardiner walks as a UFA, Pietrangelo’s cap hit would be tough to squeeze in. So, as Kypreos suggests, the Blues likely would have to take on some salary – such as Zaitsev’s five remaining years at a $4.5-million AAV – for the trade to work.
The Oil aren’t knocking on the door of elite-team status. Not even close. But they look vastly improved since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach. Some of that can be attributed to lucky PDO, but ‘Hitch’ is known for overhauling teams in a hurry, so it’s a decent bet this group ends up pushing for a playoff spot with him shepherding it. There’s a case to be made that the Oilers need to get aggressive so they stop burning Connor McDavid’s elite prime years. Pietrangelo would boost an underwhelming right side and bring some offense, which the D-corps badly needs. He also had his two top-five finishes in Norris Trophy voting when Hitchcock was his coach in St. Louis, so the two would have an instant shorthand. Pietrangelo would also be a great gap-bridging mentor to top prospect Evan Bouchard, a highly similar player who was often compared to Pietrangelo leading up to the 2018 draft.
Fly in the ointment: Pietrangelo isn’t close to returning from his hand injury. He will be re-evaluated at the end of the month. The Oilers, already having lost defenseman Oscar Klefbom for weeks, can’t even ponder a deal like this until Pietrangelo’s status gets a clearer update. We don’t even know yet if the Oilers will be contenders by the trade deadline. They’d also have to clear a bit of cap space to make room for Pietrangelo. The biggest challenge for Edmonton in this case would be making the deal without including Bouchard in it, as their prospect pool isn’t one of the league’s deepest right now.
The Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford may look at the rubble that used to be the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings and realize every empire crumbles eventually. The Pens’ time as perennial championship contenders is running out, so they may as well keep pushing with deals for the present until it’s clear Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can’t carry them anymore. The Pens’ relatively faceless D-Corps was a great success story under coach Mike Sullivan across their 2016 and 2017 Cup wins, but now that virtually every NHL team has copied Pittsburgh's speed-first approach, its 'D' look overwhelmed at times facing quick, high-pressure forechecks. A mobile talent like Pietrangelo would instantly transform that group’s identity, giving the Pens plenty of mobility between him, Kris Letang and (when healthy) Justin Schultz on the right side.
Fly in the ointment: The Pens would likely have the desire to pursue a big fish like Pietrangelo – but not the assets. No team has emptied its cupboard of late more than Pittsburgh, which has used just one of its past six first-round picks and even traded that one away. A Pietrangelo pitch would require the Pens surrendering their 2019 first-rounder, and they’d need to clear a bunch of salary space, too. Would Phil Kessel have to go the other way, for instance? It wouldn’t be an easy trade to execute, but GM Jim Rutherford is a wizard.
Don’t sleep on the Avs. They've ascended to contender status thanks to the New Best Line in Hockey and have a bushel of promising young blueline assets to dangle between Samuel Girard, Cale Makar and Conor Timmins. They’re a team on the rise in need of another star piece, and they boast oodles of cap space.
Fly in the ointment: The Avs might be the opposite of the Pens – ideally suited for a Pietrangelo deal but not necessarily motivated. General manager Joe Sakic operated very conservatively in the off-season. He’s clearly playing the long-term game, and he’s seen what happens when a rising team makes an overconfident trade: his brilliant Matt Duchene deal stole a ton of assets from an Ottawa Senators franchise that imploded instead of pursuing a championship. It’s particularly tough to imagine Sakic wanting to move Makar, a brilliant puck-mover. Might a package including Timmins, who remains sidelined with concussion symptoms, be the right compromise? Whether Sakic pursues something like this depends a lot on how close he feels the Avalanche are to Cup contention.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights and GM George McPhee have operated pretty fearlessly since becoming shockingly competitive in their inaugural season. They pursued Karlsson hard at the 2018 deadline. They gave up valuable draft picks to get Tomas Tatar. They got rid of Tatar to get Max Pacioretty. They signed Paul Stastny. They’ve handed out long-term contract extensions like packs of gum.
They teeter on the contention bubble right now, but the Pacific Division playoff slots are quite reachable, and the Golden Knights are badly in need of a bona fide No. 1 defenseman. If they’re feeling really aggressive, they do have several legit prospects in their pool even after surrendering Nick Suzuki to get Pacioretty.
Fly in the ointment: Vegas’ cap situation for next year already looks tight. William Karlsson will need a new deal as an RFA, while Alex Tuch and Nate Schmidt’s big raises kick in. Fitting Pietrangelo’s $6.5 million under the cap wouldn’t be impossible, but it wouldn’t be easy, even with the cap projected to increase to $83 million next season. Vegas has 14 main-roster players already chewing up $72.2 million for 2019-20.