Last week in Las Vegas, general manager Doug Armstrong said it would be tough to “bring the band back together” after winning the Stanley Cup.
So far, he’s doing a pretty good job of it. On Tuesday, Armstrong sent out qualifying offers to nine of the Blues’ 11 restricted free agents, including all seven RFAs who were on the Stanley Cup roster. That’s normally a pretty good sign that those players will return.
On Thursday, just four days before the start of the free agency period, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson agreed to terms on a two-year deal worth $1.75 million per year. Gunnarsson was scheduled for unrestricted free agency; his return to St. Louis leaves only Pat Maroon unsigned among the team’s UFA’s of note.
“Carl provides our group stability on the back end,” Armstrong said Thursday. “He is a proven player that can play with any partner.”
No word yet on whether negotiations took place at the locker room urinals. That, after all, is where Gunnarsson told coach Craig Berube he needed “one more chance” against the Boston Bruins during the intermission between the third period and overtime in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Gunnarsson needed another chance after hitting the post with just 1 minute 57 seconds remaining in regulation. He got another chance — and buried it — with an overtime goal that gave St. Louis its first Stanley Cup Final victory in franchise history, 3-2, at TD Garden.
After scoring his first goal in 56 playoff contests, Gunnarsson confirmed the urinal tale.
“I can’t deny that,” he said after Game 2. “That’s where it happened. That makes it even more fun, I guess. It’s a good story.”
The story continues now that Gunnarsson has re-upped for two more years with the Blues. With Gunnarsson’s return, the top seven defensemen from the Stanley Cup champs are under contract for next season. (Or in the case of restricted free agent Joel Edmundson, he has been tendered a qualifying offer for next season.)
Gunnarsson had just completed a three-year deal that averaged $2.9 million per year, so he’s returning for less. So there’s something to be said for “fit” — and Gunnarsson certainly is a fit with the Blues — not to mention a chance to play for a championship-caliber team again.
Had he not returned for what could be described as a team-friendly deal, it’s debatable whether Gunnarsson would be back. After the team re-signed defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Robert Bortuzzo to new contracts during the season, Gunnarsson appeared to be the odd man out on the blue line.
Bouwmeester, 35, also re-upped for less money than his previous contract, signing a one-year deal for $3.25 million in early April after playing for $5.4 million in the just-concluded season. So in Gunnarsson and Bouwmeester, the Blues are bringing back two players who earned a combined $8.3 million in 2018-19 for $5 million next season — a net savings of $3.3 million.
In any event, coupled with the Bouwmeester and Bortuzzo signings, Gunnarsson’s return seemed particularly tenuous what with young defensemen Niko Mikkola and Mitch Reinke ready to make roster pushes once training camp begins in September after spending last season in San Antonio.
But here is Gunnarsson, back with the Blues with a new contract at age 32.
“Thank you St. Louis and the Blues,” Gunnarsson said via his Twitter account. “So happy and grateful for the opportunity to stay in STL for 2 more years. #LGB”
He already has played in 581 regular-season games, a pretty good run for someone drafted in the seventh round, No. 194 overall, by Toronto in 2007. Gunnarsson came to St. Louis as part of the Roman Polak trade with the Maple Leafs in 2014.
Known as “Boom-Boom” by some, Gunnarsson is more of a defense-oriented defenseman, his Game 2 heroics against Boston notwithstanding. He has never scored more than five goals in any regular season, and has just 28 career regular-season goals in 10 NHL seasons — five with Toronto followed by five with St. Louis.
But he is a fundamentally sound defender who rarely is caught out of position, and as coach Craig Berube says, is very effective in making “small area” plays. With his steadying influence on the blue line, good things usually happen with Gunnarsson on the ice as witnessed by his plus-15 rating in 2017-18 and his plus-8 rating this past season.
As Armstrong mentioned, Gunnarsson has played just about anywhere and with anyone on the Blues’ defensive pairings, but Berube likes him in particular with captain Alex Pietrangelo.
Slowed by a nagging wrist injury, Gunnarsson played in only 25 regular-season games for the Blues this past season — a career low. But he appeared in 19 of the Blues’ 26 postseason games, part of an informal playoff rotation that also included Edmundson and Bortuzzo. He was true to his plus-minus ways in the playoffs, going plus-6 in those 19 games.
Signing Gunnarsson leaves the Blues with $15.5 million in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, and leaves the Blues with six unrestricted free agents: Maroon, Chris Butler, San Antonio goalie Jared Coreau, Michael Del Zotto, Chris Thorburn and San Antonio defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon.
Pending UFAs have been able to speak and meet with other teams since Sunday, and there have been reports that Maroon is drawing interest from several teams, according to Canada’s The Sports Network, including Calgary.