The Alex Pietrangelo contract negotiation is far more interesting – and far more public – than many of us would’ve expected even a few weeks ago.
It was clear the St. Louis Blues would have to move a lot of money around to fit their captain on the payroll, but that process had already begun when GM Doug Armstrong sent goaltender Jake Allen to the Montreal Canadiens earlier this month, clearing a $4.35-million cap hit from the books. Still, the work wasn’t done. Even after the Allen move, the Blues barely cleared $5 million in cap space.
And that number would have to almost double for Pietrangelo to fit under St. Louis’ cap. After leading the Blues to a Stanley Cup last season and equalling a career best with a fourth-place finish in the Norris Trophy vote this season, Pietrangelo has a strong case to command a max-term contract in the range of the $9.059-million AAV Roman Josi received from the Nashville Predators or, at the very least, the $8-million AAV of John Carlson’s deal with the Washington Capitals. The Blues’ reported offer of a $7.7-million AAV has been upped to more like $8 million, per Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, but the terms of the offer have not been nailed down, and that appears to be a problem for the Pietrangelo camp.
In a cards-on-the-table interview highly unusual for a top-tier UFA just weeks before going to market, Pietrangelo told Rutherford he was disappointed to not have a deal yet. “You spend your whole career somewhere, and to have a situation where you go through this, the reality kind of hits that there’s a chance you’re going to be wearing a different jersey one day. It’s kind of a tough pill to swallow when you have your heart somewhere. But again, this isn’t a blame game on either side. Both sides have their own opinions, and sometimes things just don’t work out.” You can read the in-depth conversation in Rutherford’s article here.
So it appears a very real possibility Pietrangelo goes to market. The question is…where? Let’s break down some of the possible landing spots for the rangy defenseman based on the latest reports from insiders such as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun and TSN’s Darren Dreger.
1. ST. LOUIS BLUES
It’s a catch phrase of mine: “Never discount the existing team among the top candidates to re-sign a guy.” And that rule applies more to Pietrangelo than most. He’s spent his entire career with the Blues since they drafted him fourth overall in 2008. He’s been their captain for four seasons. He won a Cup there. His wife Jayne is from there, and they’ve started a family there. He’s openly stated his desire to stay there.
Yes, he’s expressed his disappointment at not having a contract yet, and the Blues told him to test the market, but it’s likely a lot of posturing on both ends. Armstrong will still likely have to move a body out. Jaden Schwartz and Tyler Bozak have a year left apiece at $5.35 million and $5 million, respectively, and their no-trade clauses aren’t completely prohibitive. Schwartz submits a list of 15 teams to which he won’t accept a trade, while Bozak can only veto 10 teams. Also working in the Blues favor, of course, is the ability to put injured right winger Vladimir Tarasenko on LTIR, though it would just be kicking the can down the road, requiring the Blues to be cap compliant later. Moving Schwartz or Bozak is the more likely path to making room for Pietrangelo. Bozak is probably the player St. Louis would rather move, but Schwartz has more trade value.
2. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
It’s tradition to link any top UFA to the Leafs, whether the fit is logical or not, and the John Tavares signing in 2018 likely validated every rumor monger. Now the Leafs seemingly can be linked to anyone.
That said, there’s fire to the smoke in the case of Pietrangelo. The Leafs are indeed interested. He’s the exact type of player they need: a true No. 1 defenseman and proven winner who plays the right side and can handle monster minutes in all situations. It’s no secret the Leafs’ top priority is to find that top-pair horse. The challenge, as always, would be fitting Pietrangelo under the cap of a roster that is already the league’s most top-heavy. In some ways, doing so via trade would be easier. As a quick example: a swap built around, say, William Nylander and the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba would move money both ways. Bringing in Pietrangelo would add a step for GM Kyle Dubas, who likely would rather clear salary by dealing middle-six forwards like Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot than sacrifice Nylander.
There’s little doubting there would be interest on Pietrangelo’s side. He hails from King City, Ont. a short drive north of Toronto. It’s not that every player who grows up in the GTA wants to be a Leaf – it’s that Pietrangelo specifically is thought to be one of the players warm to the idea. He’s good friends with Leafs captain Tavares, as they played together as kids on a team that also included Steven Stamkos and Michael Del Zotto. So if talks truly break off for good with the Blues, the Leafs are firmly established as a member of Pietrangelo’s shortlist.
3. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights are oh-so close to winning a Cup. They looked like the best team in the league for much of the bubble tournament before their offense dried up against two piping-hot goalies: Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko and Dallas’ Anton Khudobin. Personally, I believe Vegas’ No. 1 team need is a true frontline center. Cody Glass may mature into that within a couple more years, but he’s not necessarily going to be that guy by 2020-21, and Vegas is very much in its win-now window.
So why chase Pietrangelo if the D-corps isn’t Vegas’ No. 1 need? Because elite players like him don’t hit the market very often, and any top-tier Cup contender has to kick the tires. Per Dreger, Vegas is believed to be on Pietrangelo’s shortlist along with Toronto. Signing him wouldn’t be easy, especially with a Robin Lehner contract on tap, but the ensuing trade of Marc-Andre Fleury’s $7-million cap hit would free up some space. Fitting Pietrangelo would mean trading another core roster member, though. The Golden Knights have nine players under contract for 2020-21 carrying cap hits of $5 million or higher, and eight of them have trade restrictions of varying degrees built into their deals.
4. CALGARY FLAMES
There’s probably no turning back for Flames GM Brad Treliving. With six seasons under his belt in Calgary, his tenure is the league’s 10th-longest. During that span, Calgary has won two playoff series, including the 2020 play-ins over the Winnipeg Jets. It’s possible this core, led by playoff disappointments Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, doesn’t have the horses to make a deep run and that Calgary would be better off rebuilding around Matthew Tkachuk. But that’s a gameplan for a new GM hire with years of runway from ownership. For Treliving, rebuilding would be an admission of failure, so he has to try and retool this team.
Calgary has five defensemen becoming UFAs this summer, including stalwarts T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic. There’s a big opening on that blueline. Adding Pietrangelo would combine with Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin and a healthy Juuso Valimaki to make one of the league’s best D-corps. The Flames also can afford to be free-agency players with $16.9 million in cap space. If they want to go all-in on becoming contenders, they could use a significant amount of that to chase Pietrangelo and a new starting goaltender. The window is now, as they have no major RFA to worry about this off-season unless you consider Andrew Mangiapane major.
The Flames can offer a core of talented players and, unlike the teams listed above them here, can pitch Pietrangelo an AAV to reflect his true value without having to clear out cap space.
5. FLORIDA PANTHERS
Wait. Aren’t the Panthers rumored to be trimming $10 million from their payroll? That means projecting their on-paper cap space of $20.96 million to more like $10.96 million. Key top-six forwards Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov and Erik Haula are all set to walk as UFAs, while Florida’s list of RFAs includes defensemen MacKenzie Weegar and Josh Brown.
So how could Florida and new GM Bill Zito be in on Pietrangelo? Well, it’s a matter of resource deployment. The Panthers have some high-ceiling winger prospects who look NHL ready and could replace Hoffman and Dadonov: Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett. Since this team badly underachieved on the defensive side of the puck, none more than Mike Matheson, could Zito be willing to commit a big number to Pietrangelo? The Panthers are already spending more than $24 million on Matheson, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and and Anton Stralman, and ownership could be averse to another big-ticket UFA after Year 1 of Sergei Bobrovsky went so poorly. But there’s no denying the need for defensive help, and the Panthers need to start making deep playoff runs during the prime years of Ekblad, Aleskander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. (Update: A trade sending Matheson to Pittsburgh for Patric Hornqvist is being reported on but not confirmed as of press time. That would only increase the odds of Florida chasing a defenseman…)
Other teams to watch: Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens