If you’re a fantasy hockey owner who shares my belief that contract years often serve as catalysts for career years, then your opportunistic little heart must break a little bit when a prominent player signs a mid-season extension. That heartache might be a little more pronounced thanks to Wednesday’s somewhat-surprising signing of Alexander Steen, as the St. Louis Blues wrapped him up for three years, $17.4 million (a $5.8 million cap hit beginning in 2014-15).
That’s not to say that it’s a dumb move for the Blues or Steen in reality, however.
The Blues, in particular, should be lauded for an absolute bargain. While Steen seems to be playing over his head right now, he’s still been a quality player when healthy. Even if he slows down, this isn’t even a $2.5 million annual raise for a guy who seems primed to be a top-line player for the foreseeable future.
Let’s go deeper on the deal on a number of levels.
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With the salary cap shooting up to approximately $71.1 million in 2014-15, Cap Geek estimates that St. Louis will still have $23.46 million in room to work with. That’s absolutely gorgeous considering the fact that the Blues’ core players are wrapped up for the near future. Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk have fairly recent extensions that are beyond cap-friendly considering their production (and for the latter two, potential for greater things). The Blues also don't need to worry about re-signing David Backes ($4.5 million cap hit) until the summer of 2016 and T.J. Oshie ($4.175 million) until the following offseason, giving them an enviable top line alongside Steen that will cost less than $14.5 million for years. How many teams are jealous of the Blues right now?*
Honestly, the more I look at the Blues’ salary structure, the more it reminds me of the Los Angeles Kings’ bargain-laced roster when they won the Stanley Cup. The Kings paid a bit below market for some complimentary pieces (such as Jeff Carter and Mike Richards) while enjoying downright stunning savings on homegrown talent (example: when Quick won the Conn Smythe and Cup, he was carrying just a $1.9 million cap hit).
The Blues have a lot of options thanks to this extra money, although they might not be able to join the ranks of the league’s true big spenders.
That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Blues become a serious trade deadline buyer with this flexibility, which should be scary for their Western Conference rivals since they already have a contender-quality roster.
HA-LACKING A FEW ANSWERS
The Blues find themselves in an interesting situation in one area, though: goaltending.
Those savings could evaporate if the team decides to follow the league’s lead by giving Jaroslav Halak an enormous contract. If I were GM Doug Armstrong, I’d note the fact that Halak has 16 wins despite having the save percentage of a good backup (.908).
It’s clear to me that the Blues also share the Kings’ distinction of providing support that can make a bad goalie average, a good goalie look great and so on. So why not look for undervalued bargains? Instead of going after an expensive guy like Ryan Miller, I’d be tempted to pry James Reimer away and sign him to an affordable contract extension (or do the same with other underappreciated netminders such as Jonas Hiller).
Both Halak and Brian Elliott are in contract years, so it’s an interesting situation to watch. The Blues could very well blow some of their competitive advantage by signing one or both of those guys for more than they need to spend, but honestly, the Blues still would probably boast enviable savings even if they did so.
Beyond the goalies, the Blues have a few other noteworthy decisions to make, although the only guy I'd describe as a core piece needing a deal is Jaden Schwartz. As an RFA, he could come cheap, especially since the team's internal ceiling is Pietrangelo's more-than-reasonable $6.5 million cap hit. Derek Roy could be an interesting (if less than essential) consideration, especially since he's been heating up lately.
Before I get to a more fun thought experiment on contract extensions, I thought I’d ponder what might be expected of Steen.
One thing that must be addressed is luck. Plenty of studies have shown that players who enjoy unusually high shooting percentages tend to regress in future seasons. Steen is connecting on 19.6 percent of his shots, a significant uptick from his career 9.9 mark.
If he was connecting on 9.9 percent of his 112 shots instead of 19.6, he’d have about 11 goals instead of his current 22. One cannot get around the fact that while he’s been a solid goal producer in his career - thanks to this season, he's now crossed the 20-goal barrier three times - he's never scored more than 24 goals (2009-10) in a single season.
Of a larger concern to many, he's only eclipsed 80+ games played twice in 10 seasons coming into this year. You can throw out the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (he missed eight of 48 games), but the trend is still worrisome: he's been limited to 20, 40, 43, 61 and 68 games played before. That's a worry for the Blues as well as keeper league owners.
Many argue that injury proneness is a myth, so perhaps Steen will have more luck in the health department going forward like he has in finding his shot lately?
This is not to say that Steen is a lacking performer, especially since the Blues signed him to such an affordable deal (which I believe will put less pressure on him big picture). Ignoring the 2008-09 season when he was traded from Toronto,** Steen has clocked in around the .65 to .71 point range. If he stayed healthy but reverted back to his old production, people could expect between 53-58 points each season.
I'd guess he's probably more likely to take this jump as a minor breakthrough and clock in at anywhere between 60-70 points each season. Let's not forget that he's getting more ice time than ever with the best linemates he's seen in his career ... and the Blues have every motivation to keep him in a prominent role now. Still, I'm not so sure I'd forecast point-per-game seasons going forward. Luckily, the Blues don't at least need to be that dependent on him, but that depends on how they approach things.
I’ve lamented in-season extensions, but how have those prominent players fared before and after such deals? Let’s take a look:
Steen: Signed on Dec. 18 - Before: 22 goals, 36 points in 33 games played; After: ?
Phil Kessel: Signed before the season kicked off, has 32 points in 36 games. That's a slight drop from his last two seasons, when he averaged a point-per-game. Still, his .89 mark this season at least tops his career average of .76
Daniel Sedin: Signed on Nov. 1; Before (October): six goals, nine assists for 15 points in 15 GP; After (Nov. 1 - current): five goals, 12 assists for 17 points in 21 GP
Henrik Sedin: Signed on Nov. 1; Before (October): three goals, 15 assists for 18 points in 15 GP; After (Nov. 1 - today): six goals, eight assists for 14 points in 21 games
(Interesting that Henrik saw more of a drop-off.)
And just for fun, Henrik Lundqvist: Signed on Dec. 4 (note: he conveniently didn’t play for a stretch between the end of November and his December signing, so the slit stats do the trick here); Before: 3-5-0 with .908 save percentage and 2.84 GAA in October, 5-6-0 with .924 save percentage in November ; After (December): 2-3-2, .883 save percentage and 3.31 GAA
There really isn’t enough of a sample size to draw dramatic conclusions from these post-extension looks, although it’s noteworthy that everyone saw at least a slight dip in production. As great as Kessel is, for instance, I can’t help but wonder if he’d be even better with his livelihood on the line this season.
After the jump: Jagr’s latest bit of history-making and some other very brief bits
* - You think the Edmonton Oilers would trade places with the Blues in a heartbeat or what? The Oilers are seemingly paying everyone $6 million per year before they even appear in a postseason game …
** Too soon, I know, Leafs fans.