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Maple Leafs or Blues: Who has the best chance to sign Alex Pietrangelo

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He’s a very big puzzle piece, and neither team has room for him.

It is the first anniversary of Page & Panel. Comic-book shop Page & Panel opened a year ago as a pop-up in Toronto Reference Library
DECEMBER 8, 2015 -Tetris block light. It is the first anniversary of Page & Panel. Comic-book shop Page & Panel opened a year ago as a pop-up in Toronto Reference Library
Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do a thing. But before you can even decide on the should, it helps to know if it’s possible. When it comes to Alex Pietrangelo, that question applies equally to the Blues and the Maple Leafs.

We know the Blues want Pietrangelo back, and we’re assuming that Kyle Dubas has at least commissioned some work analyzing the concept from his very smart staff. However, the “should we” question is one that troubles both teams in different ways. Should the Blues commit that much salary to the defence? Should the Leafs commit that much salary to five people?

Both questions seem absurd at some level. Neither team has cap space for next season to sign Cody Ceci, far less the UFA right-shooting defender on the other end of the spectrum. You can make a case that the Blues don’t actually need Pietrangelo, and signing him isn’t worth the losses needed elsewhere in the lineup to make the cap space. But for the Leafs, the strongest line of reasoning is that anything much less than Pietrangelo on the spectrum of NHL defenders is not enough to make enough difference to justify the moves needed to make the space for him. Go big or go home, is where the Leafs are sitting.

Both teams need to decide what they want most, and how much they’re willing to sacrifice to get it. And it’s not an easy question for either team.

Contract

The first question we need to answer is what is Pietrangelo likely to be offered in free agency?

The Evolving Hockey contract predictor comes up with a truly alarming $9 million AAV on an eight-year term. But that predictor is based on the old-world history of NHL contracts. It’s fair to ask if that’s still valid in the current UFA market, and we can’t know the answer to that. That’s exactly Roman Josi’s deal, so I certainly won’t criticize the predictor — it’s bang on what the market used to be.

There’s a lot of speculation that free agents might take shorter deals looking to goose up the AAV on their next contract when the cap is up and escrow is down. That’s a risk, and in times that feel uncertain, taking financial risks isn’t the standard human response, even if it’s the smart one. There’s also speculation that teams will squeeze their RFAs to make room for the usual spending spree on free agent day.

Pietrangelo isn’t just any free agent, though, he’s the Blues number one defender, and they have recently paid Colton Parayko a bargain $5.5 million and Faulk an overpay of $6.5 million. The Blues can’t offer Pietrangelo less than Faulk, so his bare minimum that passes the laugh test is $7 million over eight years.

The most reasonable pandemic discount on the open market is a seven-year deal at $8 to $8.5 million. And even that’s an optimistic take on the situation.

Cap Space

The Big Picture

Before I give you the Leafs and Blues cap space story for the coming year, let’s review the next few years, and what can happen. The long story is here:

The pertinent part is the salary cap rules contained in the new CBA:

2020-21 [cap ceiling]: $81.5 million

The cap will remain at that amount until HRR [hockey related revenue] returns to between $3.3 and $4.8 billion. If HRR goes up, then a prorated amount between $81.5 and $82.5 will become the next salary cap. Once HRR tops $4.8 billion, the salary cap will rise by $1 million per year until the escrow debt is all cleared.

There’s two exceptions to all of that. If things get a lot better, they can agree to step the cap up in the year before they start using the new formula to calculate it. They can also discuss lowering it if HRR drops.

For reference, $4.8 billion was the projected HRR for this season we’re still in, and the reality came nowhere near that. The expected final number, even with the bulk of the regular season coming in before there were no fans in the stands, is less than $4 billion. The NHL would not likely come close to the $3.3 number if they have to play most of next year with no fans.

Without being able to predict when and how many fans can pay to watch games in person, guessing the next salary cap ceiling is very difficult. But it doesn’t seem very probable it will go up quickly. By the 2022-2023 season, the rising cap could become a reality again, however.

The Leafs Picture

The Leafs don’t have a magic pot of cap space to spend on free agents just because Cody Ceci’s contract is set to expire. If his cap hit hadn’t already been spent on various other players’ extensions, this would be a much simpler equation. But it is gone, and the Kapenen trade eased things a little, but...

... the current space, with a short roster of 21 men, and some team-friendly deals to Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott is ~$1.5 million. Maybe $2 million if you really ruthlessly cut anyone not cheap off the bottom of the roster.

There is enough off-season cap space with the cushion and no RFAs signed to just pull of a big signing on October 9, but it’s a lot more likely the Leafs would be busy before that in making some other moves.

The Blues Picture

The Blues have already made their opening move, and an obvious one it was. They traded Jake Allen and his $4.35 million cap hit to Montréal for no salary coming back. They already signed prospect goalie Ville Husso to a two-year extension in January. His new deal is a one-way for $750,000. He seems likely to be their backup, but he is waivers exempt, so they have flexibility there if they need someone to platoon with Jordan Binnington again.

That leaves them with about $5.64 million in cap space now, with 21 men on the roster and Vince Dunn an expired RFA. They need to sign him, and squeeze him down to a cheap deal in the process — he doesn’t have arbitration rights

The Blues can know in advance if they have a deal with Pietrangelo, so they can order their space-creating moves and the signing of his contract to suit themselves.

Work to be Done

Darren Dreger has made a couple of tweets about Pietrangelo implying the Blues have made an offer, perhaps a low-ball opening gambit, and he keeps saying they “have a lot of work to do to get this done”. In other words, they have to trade some players, something they’ve already made a start on.

Complicating the Blues’ calculations right now is that Vladimir Tarasenko has to have another surgery, and he will miss a lot of next season if it starts when the NHL hopes to be ready to go. Tarasenko played only 10 games this season, and only four in the playoffs, and as the top offensive threat on a defensively oriented team, it’s not a surprise that the speculation is that the Blues need forwards, not yet another expensive defender.

Blues Make Space

But for now, let’s assume the Blues really want their captain back, and the Jake Allen trade was the start of that plan, not a forward-acquisition plan, even though the team is rife with forwards over 30 in key roles.

Their aging corps of forwards are not bad players, by any means, but they are about to hit the years where decline gets steeper, sometimes seemingly overnight.

Alexander Steen is 36, Tyler Bozak is 34, and David Perron is 32, Jaden Schwartz is 28. Even the young players are all over 25 with Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn celebrating their 30th next year. Schwartz, Steen and Bozak are all expiring as UFAs after next season, and those look like the obvious players to move out now to clear cap space and get a return.

If the Blues simply decide to trade two of these players, they free up nearly $10 million, and that should be enough to sign Pietrangelo and Dunn and add some kind of forward to fill the gap left by Tarasenko. The team wouldn’t be better. In fact, it might be worse, but they’d have their expensive defence intact.

Another possibility is that Tarasenko can be put on LTIR in the offseason, and will stay there through the start of next season. The Blues can sign Pietrangelo now and solve their cap problems after the season starts. Depending on how Tarasenko responds to this surgery, the shape of their problem might be more clearly understood much later than it is now. This still doesn’t make the team any better, though.

I wouldn’t expect Doug Armstrong to hurry on this issue or do anything rash. He has a lot of levers to pull, and more than one way to reshape his team, and he can try to make it better in the process if he’s smart. He could just trade Justin Faulk away before he starts getting paid $6.5 million him on the new deal Armstrong just signed him to. That’s admitting to a mistake, and it might be expensive to shift him, but nothing is impossible as the draft approaches and GMs get anxious to be seen to be doing something.

Leafs Make Space

It’s very easy for me to just handwave some trades for the Blues, give them Ivan Barbashev as a 2C and say, there, that’s sorted. It’s a lot harder to take that sort of thing seriously for the Leafs. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Making space for Alex Pietrangelo on the Leafs is possible, but it’s not easy. I’m not the first or even the tenth person to make this joke, but even considering this idea is saying, you told Dubas four players costing $40 million was foolish, so he doubled down with five costing $50 million. But is suggesting the Blues spend well about $25 million on their defence less absurd?

The Leafs can start making space in exactly the same way the Blues did, by trading their goalie who is expiring as a UFA after next season.

They would be taking a much bigger risk, and Kyle Dubas would need to replace him with someone harder to find than a backup (for most GMs) in a bona fide starter. The savings wouldn’t be dramatic. At best, it might net $2-3 million, and something like $1 million is more likely.

Then there are three paths through the forest to the cap space needed in-season to have Pietrangelo on the roster:

  1. Trade a lot of bottom-six players and replace them with dollar-store fill-ins — this would mean Kerfoot, Johnsson, Engvall and possibly Holl.
  2. Trade Morgan Rielly, who has a good deal that runs out in two years.
  3. Trade William Nylander (I’m just assuming that Dubas means it when he says he would not consider trading Mitch Marner, but also since Marner is overpaid, he’s harder to move without losing the trade.)

Option one removes all the quality from the middle class of the team, replaces them with a lot of questionable contributors due to youth, inexperience or the difficulty of getting good results playing too high in the lineup. There would have to be some shoring up of the depth below them, and some acquisitions of players a bit better than Engvall or Rodrigues, for example, but on cheaper deals than Engvall’s. Every penny of cap space would suddenly count.

This is a huge roll of the dice on both a 30-year-old defender and the big four forwards on the Leafs. The benefit to this option is that it keeps all the draft picks, notably this year’s first, and puts a lot of bright young talent in the NHL now. Which might just be a good idea in a season where the AHL and junior hockey might be disrupted.

Option two is a deeply bold move, and doesn’t quite solve the problem on its own, but it gets closer, faster, than option one. Morgan Rielly would return something very good in a trade since he’s on a good contract, and he’s offensively elite. To go for this, you’d have to believe that his offence is surplus on the Leafs with all those gifted forwards, and you’d have to get some of those elusive bargain depth players back for him. You might also need to believe his dreadful defending is part of the problem, not just a price you pay for his elite offence.

Option three is less bold than it seems at first. Nylander offers about the same value to overall wins as Pietrangelo does, but what you’re costing yourself (less whatever you get for him, and it might well be a very good first-round pick) is his youth relative to Pietrangelo. It would need to be a fabulous return to make it worth it when you factor in the age issue.

Cut to the Chase

This puzzle is like a giant Tetris game, with Pietrangelo a piece so large it’s hard to imagine either the Blues or the Leafs fitting him in and having that be the right choice given the costs. Trying to guess Dubas’s final move in this game is impossible when we haven’t even had move two yet — a contract for the Kapanen replacement Ilya Mikheyev seems like the most likely next step. We don’t really know the Leafs cap situation down to the dollar, and most of the proposals to fit in Pietrangelo do involve gutting the forward depth and yelling at anyone who suggests that’s maybe not the best idea.

It really seems like St. Louis has the easier path to signing Pietrangelo, buoyed up by the fact he likely wants to stay where he lives and where he’s established his family. And if they really want that, if they really believe that making space for him is paramount, but they also know they need to solve their forward weaknesses, I’ve got an idea.

Hand Kyle the sword and let him slice through this Gordian Knot. Trade Nylander for Colton Parayko. Reduce the age disparity in the deal, make the cap hits work for the Leafs, and allow St. Louis to happily dump off some chaff in their forward corps to make space for their captain. This is almost the only Nylander trade I’d even consider, and Parayko on the Leafs blueline is a delightful fantasy.

But I don’t think Kyle Dubas traded Kasperi Kapanen — a thing he could do because of right-wing depth — only to go and trade a better right-winger a few weeks later.

If Pietrangelo is tough to slot in on the Blues with two other defenders averaging $5 million each, how exactly is he meant to fit on the Leafs with two similarly priced defenders and a lot more dough tied up in the big four forwards?

Whoever signs him needs to do a lot of work first — or second, if they’re brave and want to use the offseason cap cushion to the max. But I’m not sure that it’s the right move for either team. I’ll tell you what I think the Blues should do. They should make that space, hold a really nice going away party for Pietrangelo and then they should sign Taylor Hall.

The Leafs... go big or go home, but that’s easier said than done.