The Blues either made an intelligent move or they took a massive gamble Monday when they re-signed restricted free-agent defenseman Erik Johnson to a two-year, $5.2 million contract extension.
The deal continued a trend of short-term extensions for the Blues' young players, which will save a few dollars now and could turn out to be a financial blessing if they don't develop as expected.
But if Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NHL draft, progresses as many believe he will, the Blues could be writing a hefty check when the contract expires.
"We don't want to get into the projection game," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said.
The $2.6 million annual average is less than speculated. But despite scoring 10 goals and registering 39 points last season, Johnson had little leverage in the negotiations. When NHL players complete their three-year, entry-level contracts, they are permitted to receive offer sheets from other teams — which their current club has the right to match. But Johnson, 22, didn't have that luxury because he had accrued only two years of service after missing the 2008-09 season because of a knee injury.
Johnson had been hoping for a longer-term deal. But after a lengthy negotiating process, he is the fold, six weeks before the Blues report to training camp.
"My agent called me and told me what the Blues were offering," Johnson said. "I just said, 'I want to sign, let's get this going, I want to come into camp ready and refreshed and nothing hanging over my head.' We were mulling over some options for a while, but this is what we wanted to do. I'm very grateful that the Blues have invested this in me."
Johnson had an up-and-down season in 2009-10, his first back from knee surgery. Though he finished with double-digit goals, a first for a Blue' defenseman since Chris Pronger had 14 in 2003-04, Johnson went 31 games without one. But he netted nine points in his final 13 games.
"We certainly feel he's just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do for a full 60 minutes ...," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We felt he finished extremely well."
Johnson, who has been working out in St. Louis this summer, weighs 233 pounds. He's added some muscle but still hopes to shed a few pounds by the start of the season.
"I don't know a player who's training harder or wants to have a better year'' than Johnson, Armstrong said.
Johnson's surgically repaired left knee is fine, he says.
"That was an issue last year," Johnson said. "Now it feels like my other knee. It's absolutely no issue anymore."
The key for the Blues with Johnson's new contract, like David Perron's two-year extension, is that he will be restricted free agent when his new deal expires.
"Once they turn pro, we have their rights until they turn 27," Armstrong said. "We hope that these players play here long past that, but they're restricted free agents till that time.
"... I think it's a really good 'bridge' contract."
Said Johnson: "The Blues want us to define who we are as players, and we get a chance to do it on these two-year deals. I'm still a young player. I've got a lot of years left ahead of me and right now it's just great to get the deal I got."
Johnson was the last of the Blues' restricted free agents to re-sign. The club isn't expected to make any other signings, meaning the current roster is expected to be the same on opening night, barring trades.
With a salary-cap ceiling of $59.4 million and a floor of $43.4 million next year, the Blues have spent approximately $48 million toward the cap. That's the average of the club's contracts; the actual payroll for next season is $43.3 million, which is down about $4-6 million from 2009-10.
"We have five experienced defensemen, two experienced goalies ... and our forwards are solid,'' Armstrong said. "I know that Davis is excited, drawing up the line combinations and defensive pairings.
"It's August and a lot of the work is done by the coaches now. But with that being said, you never know what could happen tomorrow. If nothing happens, we're really excited about the group."