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Hochman: Petro returning to Blues makes sense, but there's no guarantee he'll be back

Hochman: Petro returning to Blues makes sense, but there's no guarantee he'll be back

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Blues take on Predators

St. Louis Blues' captain Alex Pietrangelo (27) gains possession of the puck in the third period as the Blues take on the Nashville Predators at Enterprise Center on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, in St. Louis. The Blues lost to the predators 4-3. Photo by Lexi Browning, lbrowning@post-dispatch.com

Let’s say you’re a baseball player who grew up in St. Louis. You love your Cardinals. But you get drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. You play a decade-plus for Toronto, emerge as an All-Star, team leader and fan favorite. Then, you help lead the Blue Jays to a World Series championship. You’re a Toronto hero. You’ll never buy a Labatt Blue in that town again.

But the season after you win the elusive title, you’re a free agent. The Cardinals haven’t won a World Series in a long time. You could be the missing piece — you could be the guy who returns home, plays for the Cardinals and leads St. Louis to a World Series title. Oh, and you’ll be one of the highest-paid players in the game at your position.

Look, this isn’t to say Alex Pietrangelo is leaving St. Louis for Toronto.

But why does seemingly everyone in St. Louis seem so sure he’s staying?

The Blues captain and St. Louis sports icon is a free agent when this season is up — whenever this season is up. Or, frighteningly, perhaps there won’t be any more hockey in the 2019-20 season, and the next time the Blues lace ‘em up, it’ll be the 2020-21 season. There is so much uncertainty right now during this pandemic.

But at some point, presumably in the coming months, the defenseman will have to make a decision. And there are uncertainties involving his decision, some which existed even before the pandemic. Namely, the Blues don’t have enough cap space to currently afford him.

Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t either.

If Pietrangelo was going to sign with Toronto — he grew up 31 miles from there (excuse me, 50 kilometers) — the Doug Armstrong of the Leafs would have to make some savvy financial moves to clear cap space. That Leafs team could be enticing to a free agent because of numerous high-price stars on the roster, notably Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares (oh, and goalie Frederik Andersen was an All-Star this season).

But the actual Doug Armstrong, the envy of the league for his Cup title, must get creative with his roster, too. He told this newspaper that “we still want to sign Petro.” But the Blues are currently committed to $79.4 million in contracts for 2020-21, per CapFriendly.com. The cap this season was $81.5 million. Before the pandemic, there was talk around the league that the 2020-21 cap could be somewhere within the range of $84 million and $88 million. Again, that was before the pandemic. The salary cap, to begin with, is based on league revenues. The league didn’t make much revenue once the season stopped prematurely.

It’s very possible the salary cap for next season will be the same as this season: $81.5 million. That means the Blues have about $2.1 million space for next season. That could get them restricted free agent Vince Dunn. But what about Pietrangelo?

As Post-Dispatch reporter Jim Thomas detailed this past week, bringing back “Petro” would mean getting rid of someone else. Maybe two players. Trading goalie Jake Allen and buying out forward Alexander Steen could make it work, but the latter move the Blues seldom do. It would be a big deal to buy out a team veteran and Cup winner. But business is business.

It’s hard to imagine Armstrong saying the Blues decided to miss out on the “Petro” sweepstakes because they had to hold on to Allen and Steen. But even if Armstrong makes those moves — or any financial-freeing moves — it doesn’t guarantee that another team won’t offer Pietrangelo more money in free agency.

A looming question is: How does the pandemic and the league’s economics change the potential amount of money Pietrangelo will sign for? Can he still get the $9 million per year (or even $10 million) that seemed likely before the pandemic? We can’t be sure of anything right now involving the National Hockey League’s economics, but with an anticipated hit to revenue, it’s hard to imagine a disproportionate increase in the value of long-term contracts.

The primary reason people think “Petro” will stay in St. Louis isn’t even financial-based. It’s simply the idea of: It’s "Petro." At this point, how could he go anywhere else?

After all, the kid from the Toronto area was drafted by the St. Louis Blues. He played a decade-plus for St. Louis, emerged as an All-Star, team leader and fan favorite. Then, he helped lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup championship. He’s a St. Louis hero. He’ll never buy a Budweiser in this town again.

Indeed, there is so much comfort in St. Louis for Alex Pietrangelo. And we haven’t even mentioned yet that he married a St. Louis native and has young triplets.

But we don’t know what dollar amount could take him from that comfort. And while the Blues seem to be stacked with talent for the coming years, so are other teams, such as the Colorado Avalanche, who have an astounding amount of cap space for next season.

Pietrangelo has already climbed hockey’s Mount Everest. He was the captain of a team that won its first Stanley Cup since entering the league in 1967. But what if he wants to go climb a new mountain? What if he yearns for a new challenge? For instance, the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup was … 1967.

Look, here’s thinking that Pietrangelo will sign with St. Louis.

But during the offseason before the 2020-21 season, whenever that is, we can’t forget, at that point, he’s not “St. Louis Blue Alex Pietrangelo.” He’s “NHL free agent Alex Pietrangelo.”

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