This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.
Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.
Blues fans can’t be happy with this season. Two years removed from their Stanley Cup championship, St. Louis is hovering just above .500, in danger of missing the playoffs, and suffering from defensive lapses and goaltending malaise that were not evident in their run to hoist the silver chalice.
The other factor influencing the Blues’ fortunes, not just this season but last, is the fall of point producing powerhouse Vladimir Tarasenko. Regularly putting up 65 to 75 points in a season prior to a serious shoulder injury, he returned to the Blues lineup a shadow of his former self — posting just 6 goals and 21 points in a scant 29 games since St. Louis hosted its victory parade. The Blues’ offensive output has suffered mightily without his contributions.
These factors, combined with 4 major players about to hit free agency this summer, sets the stage for a “burn it all down” scenario for St. Louis as we approach the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. The good news is, there’s a decent probability that the Kraken will cut a deal with St. Louis. The bad news is, the best thing Seattle is likely to get in the bargain is a first-round pick.
A Familiar Problem
As we’ve said here numerous times, first-hand knowledge trumps scouting every time. That can absolutely work in your favor when looking at an asset whose value is high; but it can be a ball and chain in cases where the asset is less than optimal. The Blues have one such player on their roster; he will undoubtedly be left exposed, and it’s going to be difficult for Kraken GM Ron Francis to turn his eyes away.
Defenseman Justin Faulk was drafted by Carolina in 2010, and played there all through the Ron Francis era. He is a big crash-and-bash defenseman, and his style yielded results for the Hurricanes. In the off-season of 2019 Faulk was traded to the Blues, then inked a 7-year, $6.5 million AAV contract extension with St. Louis. This being the honeymoon period following the Blues’ Stanley Cup Championship, when they pounded their way to victory, it seemed like a perfect match. But the relationship would not turn out the way either party suspected.
The Blues play a different style of hockey than Carolina did during Faulk’s heyday. It’s a place-and-chase system that thrives on dumping from the neutral zone and aggressive forechecking, and it largely leaves lumbering, finish-your-check defensemen out of the play-making equation. The Blues are also not utilizing Faulk on the power play (where he was a fixture in Carolina), but instead have given him substantial time on the penalty kill. As such, while Faulk’s plus-minus numbers are dramatically improved, his point totals are a third of what they were during his time in Raleigh.
Arguably this is idiotic on St. Louis’ part: they acquired an offensive defenseman, and told him to stay home and mind his own zone. Why pay for a Corvette when you’re going to drive it like a Camry? I don’t see the logic there.
Don’t get me wrong, Faulk is still a serviceable defenseman and can deliver a solid 24 minutes a night — his current average with the Blues. But the price and the contract term are crippling; stay-at-home defensemen are plentiful at one third his price and for a lot shorter duration. Selecting Faulk would saddle the Kraken with a $6.5 million cap hit for the next six seasons. That would be borderline irresponsible even for a puck-moving defenseman at the top of his game; Faulk meets neither of those criteria. One could argue that given the right offensive system Faulk might start earning that monster paycheck. In the flat-cap era, taking on a contract of that size based on a what-if scenario seems foolish.
But here, again, we run into the problem of the Carolina Connection. The fact that Faulk was such a big part of the Hurricanes during Ron Francis’ tenure as GM creates the risk that Francis won’t be able to objectively consider other possibilities. Without that link I doubt Faulk would be getting even a moment’s consideration from the Kraken. But there is always the risk that the connection is too strong, and Francis will defy reason and take on a contract that will handcuff him and his team for the next half-decade. Let’s all hope he doesn’t.
The injury to Tarasenko and the pending free agency departures allow St. Louis to protect essentially all of the point-producing assets on the roster. Which is not to say that the remaining options are bad — well, not all of them are bad — just that the juiciest morsels will still be wearing a Blues jersey this fall.
We are projecting that the Blues will use the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:
Forwards: Ryan O’Reilly, Braden Schenn, David Perron, Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Sanford, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou
Defensemen: Torey Krug, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn
Goaltender: Jordan Binnington
We’ll add in here that there are a number of prominent players who will become unrestricted free agents this summer, and as such will likely not be considered. They include forwards Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Tyler Bozak, and Mike Hoffman, as well as defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Surprisingly, nobody who sees regular time in the Blues’ lineup is exempt from the draft. The Washington Capitals are the only other team we’ve reviewed with no roster players exempt.
Once you get past the expensive sniper, the remainder of the forwards have one thing in common: hits. It’s just a matter of how tall and how fast you want your bruiser to be.
RW Vladimir Tarasenko, $7.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. In his prime, Tarasenko was a friggin’ machine. The bulky, shoot-first forward could seemingly score at will. He had the potential to change the direction of a game whenever he was on the ice, and for opposing teams neutralizing him was both essential and nearly impossible. Then the shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, and Tarasenko has not returned to form. The question now is, will he? At $7.5 million that’s not a risk any sane person in the flat-cap era would be willing to take. But how about with a lower price tag? Stick a pin in that, we’ll come back to it.
RW Sammy Blais, $1.5 million AAV, signed through 2022. 6’2″, 205 lbs. and a bit of a dirty streak. Essentially this is the guy who, his team down 3-0 early in the 2nd period, throws the crushing check against the other team’s top scorer and causes a line brawl. 111 games played, 32 points, 347 hits.
C Ivan Barbashev, $1.475 million, RFA. More talent, more speed, and modestly fewer hits. He was a regular contributor during the Blues’ Stanley Cup Run, notching 26 points and delivering 86 hits during the regular season; then in 25 playoff games he had 6 points, but leveled 87 hits. He’s a decent play-maker, good instincts, and has a deceptively quick and accurate wrist shot. He is listed as a center — though his face-off win percentage has been little more than mediocre and is in decline — but fills in on left wing up and down the Blues’ roster.
LW Kyle Clifford, $1 million AAV, signed through 2022. You’ll recognize the name from his days with the LA Kings, where he accumulated two Stanley Cup rings — along with 1,449 hits (that’s not a typo) in 660 games. (That number becomes even more impressive when you see he averaged only 10:17 in ice time per game.) His days of crushing checks are mostly behind him, but not his pugilistic tendencies. When you search his name on YouTube you’ll find the video of Clifford fighting Ryan Reaves from 10 years ago positioned right above the video of Clifford fighting Ryan Reaves from 2 weeks ago.
On defense, it’s a matter of what size stay-at-home defenseman you want: XL, or XXL. We’ve discussed Justin Faulk at length, so here are the other alternatives.
LD Marco Scandella, $3.275 million AAV, signed through 2024. Scandella is the XL option — 6’3″, 212 lbs. — and comes with 11 years of experience playing for Minnesota, Buffalo, and briefly Montreal before landing in St. Louis. He’ll chip in for about 15 points during a full season; in 98 games the last 2 seasons he is a combined plus-21; he excels at shot-blocking, and contributes monster minutes on the penalty kill.
RD Robert Bortuzzo, $1.375 million AAV, signed through 2022. Bortuzzo is XXL — 6’4″ and 216 lbs. — but is the better option of the two. Better point production, much better plus-minus numbers, more hits, a decent helping of blocked shots, and big TOI numbers when the Blues are short-handed. A shorter contract and less than half the price doesn’t hurt either; he could be a decent bottom-pairing option for the Kraken’s inaugural season.
What’s Behind Door Number One
Many teams are looking at the expansion draft as a way to help solve, or at least reduce, cap- and contract-related problems. St. Louis will likely be one of those teams, faced with the twin anchors of the Tarasenko and Faulk contracts combined with the need to renew contracts for five restricted free agents in the off-season. There may be a deal to be done, but I don’t hold out much hope that a quality roster player will be part of the package.
We’ll start by saying that if there is no deal, the Kraken do have two viable options for inexpensive and reliable roster players in Barbashev and Bortuzzo. Neither of them is going to set the highlight reel on fire, but they’re affordable and capable of delivering on what they’re doing right now, if little more. They could also end up being viable trade pieces either in the immediate aftermath of the expansion draft, or at the upcoming season’s trade deadline.
However if St. Louis is in a bargaining mood, I expect that what’s behind door number one will look something like the following: the Kraken select a pending UFA from the AHL ranks — a Nathan Walker, a Curtis McKenzie — and St. Louis will give Seattle either a first round pick or one of their upper-tier prospects; plus the Kraken also agree to take on their choice of either Faulk or Tarasenko with 50% salary retained by the Blues. That frees up some cap space for St. Louis, gives Seattle a roster player at a sizable discount, and offers the Kraken a little incentive for their trouble. And hopefully Ron Francis pushes them for a sweetener like Zach Sanford.
That’s what St. Louis might want. Whether Seattle is willing to agree to that kind of a deal is another story. Faced with the choice between an expensive, long-term contract for a useful player and an expensive, short-term contract for an injured one, I think the wise move is to minimize the risk by ensuring a shorter term. If Tarasenko is incapable of playing to his full abilities, at least the deal is just another 2 years. And if he does end up returning to form, you land an impact player with tremendous scoring ability at well below market value.
You can check out Tarasenko, Faulk, Barbashev, Bortuzzo, and the rest of the Blues this weekend when they host the Colorado Avalanche. Game time is 12 noon this Saturday, April 24th, broadcast nationwide on NBC.