A little less than four years ago, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong made a decision that greatly impacted his franchise. That decision was to let Blues captain David Backes walk in free agency as the Boston Bruins were offering Backes an additional year in his new contract that the Blues were not willing to do which ultimately led to Backes signing in Boston. Backes, a former 2nd round pick by the Blues in 2003, had spent the first 10 seasons of his career in St. Louis while serving as captain from 2011-2016. Prior to his signing in Boston, he had just captained a Blues team to their deepest playoff run in 20 years, as the team finished just two wins away from a Stanley Cup Final appearance before being ousted by the San Jose Sharks in six games.
Losing your captain on the surface never looks good for a franchise. Backes was beloved in St. Louis for his aggressive play while also being able to contribute offensively. The news of Backes signing with the Bruins on July 1, 2016 came as a shock to St. Louis, as they were losing their captain who was fresh off helping lead the team to the Western Conference Final where Backes finished tied for second on the team in playoff points. Despite the Blues’ successful campaign during the 2015-16 season, Backes had turned 31 and was showing signs of slowing down. While playing in 79 games during that 2015-16 season, Backes totaled only 45 points, the lowest point total of his career (minimum 70 games played) since his second year in the league when he had 31 points in 72 games during the 2007-08 season. His aggressive play style was taking a toll on his body and it was clear Backes was on the back nine of his career.
The Blues and David Backes going separate ways ultimately did benefit the Blues long term, as Backes’ point total declined each year he was in Boston as he totaled just 94 points (39 G, 55 A) in 217 games with the Bruins over the span of four seasons while maintaining his $6M cap hit. Backes of course also faced off against his former team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. But Backes was ineffective, recording no points in the first four games of the series before being made a healthy scratch in the last three games of the Final where rookie Karson Kuhlman took his spot. Backes of course then watched many of his former teammates in St. Louis hoist the Stanley Cup as they defeated the Bruins 4-1 in Game 7 at the TD Garden. Then in the following 2019-20 season, Backes would see his time in Boston come to an end, as he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in a package that sent Ondrej Kase to Boston. Overall, for the Blues, the bullet was dodged in not re-signing Backes.
Now here in 2020, Doug Armstrong is faced with another situation where his captain is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Alex Pietrangelo was previously an assistant captain under David Backes before he left and has now served as Blues captain since the 2016-17 season. Pietrangelo has developed quite the rapsheet over just the last few seasons: he has been named an All-Star in two of the last three seasons, is about to pass Al MacInnis for all-time points by a Blues defenseman, is third all-time in assists by a Blue, and of course scored the game winning goal in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final to then become the first ever St. Louis Blues player to hoist the Stanley Cup. Pietrangelo led the Blues in assists during the 2019 playoffs and finished third overall on the team in points, behind only Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly and Jaden Schwartz.
Pietrangelo, who turned 30 back in January, is widely regarded as one of the best defensemen in the NHL today. During the 2019 offseason, the NHL Network rated Pietrangelo as the 11th best defenseman in the league currently, However, many of the defensemen ranked ahead of Pietrangelo are only known for their offensive side of the game, not so much defensive. Analytical studies have been conducted by those such as Sean Tierney of The Athletic, who have made the case that Alex Pietrangelo is the best overall defenseman in the NHL when both the offensive and defensive sides of the game are accounted for.
The current situation Pietrangelo is in with his career is far different than what Backes’ situation was in 2016. As aforementioned, Backes was 31, steadily slowing down, and it was clear he likely only had a few years left in the league as a solid contributor. On the flip side, Alex Pietrangelo is 30 and was having his best career year during the 2019-20 campaign as he totaled 52 points (16 G, 36 A) in 70 games. He had already hit his career best in goals with 16 and was on pace to break his career high point total of 54 set back in the 2017-18 season. But of course, Pietrangelo would not have the chance to net his career in points (yet) as the 2019-20 season is currently on hold because of COVID19.
Nonetheless, Pietrangelo has shown zero signs of slowing down and even if his offensive production were to drop 4-5 years into a seven or eight-year extension, he would still be a serviceable defenseman for the duration of his contract. Pietrangelo has never been a health concern either, as he has missed less than 10 games of a season in nine of his 10 full NHL seasons. Doug Armstrong should be doing everything in his power to keep Pietrangelo in St. Louis for the rest of his career. The two parties are not too incredibly far apart either, as the Blues are looking to land Petro for an eight-year extension at around $8.25M AAV while Pietrangelo’s camp is looking more toward $9M AAV according to Elliotte Friedman.
Could the Blues survive without Pietrangelo? Sure, there is a decent chance as Colton Parayko is a budding superstar and the Blues have an incredibly well-rounded defensive core with the likes of Vince Dunn, Justin Faulk, Marco Scandella, and company. They also have young defensemen Niko Mikkola, Scott Perunovich, and Mitch Reinke nearing NHL ready. However, if the Blues lose 27 to free agency, do not expect a David Backes-esque drop off from Pietrangelo. He is likely going to be playing at an elite level until at least age 35 if major injuries do not occur. So, for those saying “look at how David Backes turned out” regarding Alex Pietrangelo’s current contract situation, I would strongly recommend changing your stance and be hoping that Pietrangelo is wearing the Blue Note for much of the next decade.