When it comes to sports, we all like to think we live in this idyllic world where everything is fair and talent wins the day. The cold, hard truth of it is that the St. Louis Blues will have to make their final roster decisions based mainly on their salary cap situation.
That does not mean they won’t give looks to guys that deserve it. Klim Kostin will probably get a look at the start of the year, if for no other reason than it might not suit the Blues to send him to the AHL in a contract year.
Jake Neighbours is also making life quite difficult for the coaching staff. He has looked quite comfortable in a top-nine role during the preseason. He has also gelled quite well with some of the team’s better players.
Yet, Neighbours is likely the most expendable when it comes to constructing the 2021-22 roster. The Blues can send him back to juniors, where he does not have to clear waivers, and also would get to play in another World Junior Championships.
Other names in the mix to make the team are newcomer, James Neal. Neal is on a professional try out contract, so he is not counting against the salary cap at the moment. However, he is getting paid handsomely from a buyout in Edmonton, so he would be likely to take the league minimum to stay in the NHL.
You have guys leftover from championship teams. Makenzie MacEachern is familiar with the Blues style and is more a prototypical fourth line guy at this stage.
The same can be said for Kyle Clifford. Clifford did not play with the Blues’ Cup team, but he’s won in Los Angeles and still knows how to drop the mitts to stick up for his teammates.
The interesting thing about the Blues roster decisions is that each fringe guy brings something different to the table. Kostin and Neal aren’t burners, but they can score and are bigger bodies.
MacEachern and Clifford are going to bring more of the physicality. Neighbours has simply done a little bit of everything in the 2021 preseason and fit with just about every line.
I don’t envy the choices Doug Armstrong and Craig Berube will have to make. But, circling back to the topic, the salary cap and player options may help make some of those decisions.
Most in the media with the team seem to think Neighbours will make the team out of camp, mostly due to the fact that he has nine NHL games he can play without burning a year of his pro contract. However, the knock on that is that the team cannot send him to the AHL. Neighbours must either stay with the Blues or be sent back to his junior team.
Neighbours gets paid over $800,000 in the NHL, so his cap hit would put them over the limit once Oskar Sundqvist comes back. That means keeping him after his nine games still forces the team to put someone through waivers.
It would seem highly unlikely the Blues would put Clifford in the AHL, unless they thought he would be called up immediately upon an injury. Is anyone interested in him for a trade? The market is very weird right now, but I can’t see the phone lines lighting up, so Clifford may have to stay.
Neal has done enough to stay. That much is clear. Yet again, his presence forces the team to make financial decisions once Sundqvist comes back.
The interesting thing for the Blues is they have a little more wiggle room than most teams to make these choices. Their cap space will increase right before the season because Sundqvist is not listed on LTIR yet, so they don’t have that relief listed on CapFriendly.
Based on future LTIR and roster spots available, the Blues could actually keep Neighbours and Neal around. Kostin’s fate may be decided due to the fact he would not have to clear waivers.
The Blues decision there will be whether they want to give Kostin a longer look in the NHL and risk putting MacEachern through waivers or if it is safer to put Kostin in the AHL and wait for an injury. If they parted ways with Clifford, that would free up money and options but it feels unlikely.
Additionally, the Blues will have to decide if they want to figure out their cap situation now or wait until Sundqvist is back. Theoretically, St. Louis can keep $2.75 million worth of players on their team to use up the space vacated by Sundqvist. If you do that, you have to drop multiple players when he returns and that makes it all the more likely one or more players get noticed on waivers.
Personally, I would get whoever you want through waivers done right away. Name slip through the cracks when the entire league has two or three guys on waivers and other teams are fearful of grabbing one just to have their own waiver player claimed.
I would put MacEachern in the AHL and start the year with Neighbours, Neal, Kostin and Clifford in those fringe spots. Neighbours has earned it, Kostin needs to get a look to figure out whether he’s worth resigning and there are still plenty of games on the schedule where you need a guy like Clifford.
It will be interesting to see what choices are made. It may all boil down to money and options though as opposed to who has “earned” something.