The wisdom of the St. Louis Blues to avoid the 2024 NHL free agent market

This year's free agency period was one of the most expensive for NHL teams yet, and with the rising cap ceiling many clubs took advantage and tried to spend big to improve their team. This free agency period was one of the most player-friendly in recent memory with many signing massive long-term deals that would not have been possible before. Did the St. Louis Blues dodge a bullet by having a quiet free agency?
Pavel Buchnevich, who recently received a long-term contract extension by the Blues
Pavel Buchnevich, who recently received a long-term contract extension by the Blues / Steph Chambers/GettyImages

NHL free agency this year was, as always, a blur.

Several players found themselves on new teams and inheriting hoards of money, including new Nashville Predators Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Marchessault, and Brady Skjei. In fact, Stamkos got the richest deal by AAV (average annual value), though new Boston Bruin Elias Lindholm signed the contract worth the most total money.

Many free agents signed extensive long-term deals with their new teams that will be very hard to move off of down the line. Free agent contracts are always a risk, but it felt that this year, NHL franchises threw caution to the wind when doling out money.

The extremely player friendly market of the 2024 NHL free agency

Generally, teams hold more leverage when making deals with free agents because of salary cap constraints. Many teams, especially contending ones, have similarly limited cap space, therefore players must sign only within the limits of a team's terms.

This year however, players held all the leverage and got themselves paid.

The NHL salary cap is expected to rise $4M for each team this year, which is equivalent to one or two more value signings. This gives teams a margin of flexibility to distribute more money.

How many NHL GMs decided to spend this was by adding years or money to free agent contracts. Free agents and their representatives used this rising cap as a bargaining chip to receive richer contracts, and many teams were happy to oblige.

One team that passed on the flurry of massive contracts this year was the St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues are building a contender

After a season where the club missed the playoffs but still exceeded most expectations, the franchise had some potentially massive decisions to make coming into this offseason.

The Blues front office had to make a call: push the chips all in to scrape into the playoffs and chance at a run, or take the longer and more painful route to build the team and truly contend in 2 or 3 years?

The wisest path is often the path of patience, and it is what Doug Armstrong and the Blues front office ended up choosing.

The only large contract the Blues gave out was to their franchise winger Pavel Buchnevich. This will keep a Blue for his remaining years of good hockey to help keep the team competitive.

If the St. Louis Blues are probably a couple years off from being a true cup favorite again, signing long-term and expensive contracts now would only hurt the team right as that contention window opens up.

The most productive years for many of these free agents are right now and some decline should be expected towards the back ends of their contracts; additionally, these large contracts will be harder to move as these players age and regress.

Therefore, Doug Armstrong's decision to exercise patience was prudent, as they truly want to build a contender. Rome wasn't built in a day or in one free agency period, and the Blues 20XX Stanley Cup winning team won't be either.

The risk of expensive contracts, present and past

The Nashville Predators are relevant not only as one of the Blues biggest Central Division rivals, but as an example of a team that chose to go all in for a chance to win a Stanley Cup title.

Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos, who the Predators signed to a 4-year $32 million contract / Joel Auerbach/GettyImages

Landing 3 of the biggest fish of any free agency period should be a massive victory for that front office. But money doesn't buy championships, and the Nashville Predators took a massive gamble.

The Predators last year barely made the playoffs at 99 points with a 47-30-5 record. They rode the success of star goaltender Juuse Saros and all-star skaters Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi. They had some solid role players helping around this core three, but no other real stars to build around.

In addition, many of their star players are entering the latter years of their NHL careers. Faced with the same question as retool or push the chips on the table, the Predators chose the quick but uncertain path to success.

Their three big free agents were all above 30 years old, and Stamkos and Marchessault are both over 33 years old. The Predators took a big risk signing all of these players until they're 37 or older.

This year, the average free agent contract was $2,579,083 per Spotrac. This is the highest mark by far since 2019, where the average landed at $2,785,043. That year saw many high profile free agents hit the market, all signing for large and lengthy contracts for this year.

So how do they compare? Many of the contracts in 2019 were extensions, which isn't quite the same as signing a UFA, but the money is very similar.

By AAV, the highest paid players of the 2019 offseason were Artemi Panarin (NYR), Mitch Marner (TOR), Sergei Bobrovsky (FLA), Mikko Rantanen (COL), and Sebastian Aho (CAR).

By team success alone, all of these clubs have been very potent forces in many seasons, but only two of them have gone all the way to win a cup, and they were very recent.

Using Nashville as our example for this year, their gambit becomes increasingly risky considering the ages of their players already under contract in addition to how old their new additions are.

There is no guaranteed way to build a Stanley Cup winner, but there are ways to increase your chances exponentially or do the opposite.

Doug Armstrong took a very real but somewhat more painful approach to building the St. Louis Blues for the coming years, but those who spent big in free agency this year may come to regret their decisions in only a handful of seasons.