St. Louis Blues Playing The Smart Game With 2021 RFA’s

St. Louis Blues center Robert Thomas (18)Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports
St. Louis Blues center Robert Thomas (18)Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports /

Doug Armstrong will never be able to please all St. Louis Blues fans, but that does not mean he’s not doing a good job. In fact, though he doesn’t make huge waves, the man has done one of the smartest jobs of any Blues general manager in a long time, if not ever.

Armstrong continued to play the smart game by re-signing Nathan Walker and also extending qualifying offers to six of the team’s pending restricted free agents. Walker was technically an unrestricted free agent since he hit the age and professional (that includes AHL) experience requirements.

Nevertheless, both actions tick all the boxes for Armstrong. Nobody is going to be jumping up into the air due to these moves, but they keep the franchise healthy and the team competitive.

Walker gets a two-year, two-way contract, which keeps him in the fold without hamstringing the Blues into making a decision on his NHL status during training camp. Walker will likely never be a regular for the Blues, but he has proven to be most capable in short stints.

He has two goals with the Blues the last two seasons, which does not sound great, but it’s impressive when you consider that’s two goals in a total of 13 games played at the NHL level for St. Louis. He knows how to make the most of his brief moments.

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As for the restricted free agents, the qualifying offers don’t mean they’re staying with the Blues, but it means the Blues won’t lose them for nothing. In all likelihood, all six players will wear a Blues uniform next season, but it’s no guarantee.

For players like Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas, the qualifying offer buys the Blues more time. Armstrong retains priority negotiating rights even after free agency begins on July 28.

Other teams can put in offers, but the Blues have the right to match the offer or receive draft pick compensation. The vast majority of the time, teams don’t put in offer sheets for fear of having one of their RFA’s poached away in an act of vengeance.

Kyrou and Thomas are not yet arbitration eligible, so Armstrong could technically leave them on their qualifying offers to save money. However, that’s unlikely since that normally fractures the relationship between player and team. With both players still on the border of what the team believes they can be, they will both probably receive bridge deals with small raises. That leaves the team in a favorable position for the immediate cap and also gives them that carrot to chase for their next, big contract.

Conversely, Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford, Dakota Joshua and Pavel Buchnevich all have arbitration rights. No offense, but Buchnevich is the only player the team might not win a favorable ruling if proceedings reached an arbitration case.

Don’t expect it to make it that far for any of them. Armstrong is not in a habit of letting most players reach arbitration. Vince Dunn is the only player in recent memory that failed to sign the contract in a timely manner and that made no sense because he did not have arbitration eligibility yet.

As mentioned, there is no reason to believe any of these players won’t be signed and in training camp once that starts. The only player that might be a question mark is Joshua and that’s not about his contract status, but more whether he’d be considered as an extra player for the Blues or kept in the AHL for a call up.

While these aren’t newsworthy moves, they’re intelligent. The free agent class of 2021 is weak and thin, so there’s no reason to let players go when you retain team control and already know what they are.

As much as we bag on Sanford, he’s a dependable player. He simply shouldn’t be in a top-six role as he has been. That doesn’t mean he is without value at all and should be let go without a sure replacement.

We saw in 2021 that injuries come in waves – a tsunami in the Blues case – and you need NHL-ready players to fill in. Even if Klim Kostin makes the roster, we should not mind having Sanford ready to jump back in and be hungry to do so.

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There’s no reason to think the team will strain relationships with their two young guns, so the qualifying offers just keep the Blues in control of the outcome for Kyrou and Thomas. You can argue Armstrong could have already had the deals done, but everything happens at different paces with different players.