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Who stays? Who goes? Schwartz heads list of Blues' pending free agents

Who stays? Who goes? Schwartz heads list of Blues' pending free agents

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In many ways, Jaden Schwartz plays a big man’s game in a small man’s body. He’ll hound pucks in the corner. Go net front on offense. Doesn’t back down from contact. He’s fast. Determined.

In short, he’s coach Craig Berube’s type of player. And he’s the headliner in this year’s group of pending free agents on the Blues.

It’s a group that includes eight unrestricted free agents, with notable players such as Mike Hoffman, Tyler Bozak and Carl Gunnarsson joining Schwartz in that group. There are also seven restricted free agents with expiring contracts, including Vince Dunn, Ivan Barbashev, Zach Sanford, Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas.

While keeping in mind that restricted free agents almost never leave, unless you want them to leave, that’s still a lot of work for general manager Doug Armstrong and his front office team this offseason. They have plenty of time, however, given that free agency has been pushed back nearly a month – to July 28 this year from the usual July 1.

After locking in goalie Jordan Binnington to a six-year, $36 million contract extension during the just-completed season, the Blues have about $15 million of salary cap space.

Realistically, that’s not enough to re-sign the four unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents listed above. But the Blues will lose some salary in whoever Seattle selects in the expansion draft July 21. And they may not want all those players back anyway. Or vice versa.

It starts with Schwartz, the senior member of the Blues in terms of continuous service, having played his first game for the team more than nine years ago on March 17, 2012. Since becoming a full-time player during the 2013-14 season, Schwartz has scored 19 or more goals in five of eight seasons.

But due in large part to injuries, he has run hot and cold lately, with only 11 regular-season goals in the 2018-19 Stanley Cup season, followed by 22 in ’19-’20 and just eight in 40 games this season.

“It was a tough year for him for sure from an offensive standpoint, not producing,” Berube said. “He wants to produce and we need him to produce but that didn’t happen.

“Now, he gives you everything he’s got on the ice. Hard worker, extremely hard worker and competitive player. Real good team guy. He had injuries this year. He was banged up a little bit down the stretch for sure but nothing that kept him out of the lineup.”

Schwartz, who turns 29 next month, missed 15 games from mid-February through mid-March with what was believed to be an oblique muscle injury.

He had a tough lead-up to the season as well, with the passing of his father Rick to a heart attack at age 59 in November.

“Schwartz is a player that we talked to before the season and he was very adamant that he was comfortable waiting (to negotiate a new contract),” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “And I understood that, with him going through a lot of things personally. Now we have until the end of July to figure out if this relationship’s gonna continue.”

For now, Schwartz is taking a little down time with the season just ended, his agent told the Post-Dispatch, before they start thinking about a new contract. Schwartz averaged $5.35 million a year on the old one. With the combination of a flat salary cap, what figures to be a slow market, and Schwartz’s down year in goal production, it’s possible the Blues don’t offer a raise on the next contract.

Will Hoffman return?

As for Hoffman, Armstrong said perhaps optimistically that he could envision a scenario where the hard-shooting winger returns.

“I certainly want to sit and take some time and talk to our entire staff,” Armstrong said. “Mike, he’s a goal-scorer. And I think he was certainly in the top portion of our team in points. When we needed goals when our season was on the brink, I thought he stepped up and played.

“It’s that communication and bonding that takes time with coaches and teammates. Sometimes you say, ‘OK, I envision this player working with that guy.’ And it doesn’t work out that way.”

Hoffman finished third on the team in goals (17) and tied for third with Brayden Schenn in points (36). His seven power play goals were a team-high.

But his ice time per game (15:04) was his lowest total in six years, it took a long time before he saw regular duty on the first power play unit, and he was benched for three games by Berube from March 28 through April 9.

So does Hoffman, who made $4 million this season, even want to come back?

And does Berube, who at times wasn’t thrilled with Hoffman’s defense and checking, want him back?

“What I was really impressed with Mike though, was he hung in there, he battled, he worked, he waited for his opportunity, and then he produced,” Armstrong said.

What about Bozak?

Bozak is in a different category. He’s a stabilizing role player who plays defense, kills penalties, wins faceoffs and scores a goal every now and then. After missing 21 games with a concussion, and then three more with an unrelated upper-body injury he was strong down the stretch with four goals and 10 assists over his last 18 regular-season games. But at age 35, his career is winding down.

He’s finishing off a three-year, $15 million deal, but probably would have to accept less than $5 million a year to remain a Blue.

“Bozy’s a good pro, and I’ve enjoyed him for three years,” Armstrong said. “And if it works out, that would be great.”

Gunnarsson, 34, also is on the downside of his career, and was sharing the No. 6/No. 7 defensemen role with Robert Bortuzzo before his season ended with a right knee injury Feb. 22 after playing in only 12 games.

He made a modest $1.75 million in the ’20-’21 season, so perhaps the Blues bring him back, particularly if they lose a D-man in the expansion draft.

Among the team’s restricted free agents, as long as the Blues make a one-year qualifying offer, they retain the rights to that player. Dunn, Sanford and Barbashev are eligible for arbitration, which makes is a little trickier, and potentially contentious.

One of the Blues’ other arbitration-eligible RFA’s, forward Jacob de la Rose, reportedly has a contract offer from Farjestad in the Swedish Hockey League in his native country.

“I think this will be an active year, not only potentially here in St. Louis but around the league,” Armstrong said. “Any time you have expansion you have teams trying to do what’s best for them whether it’s not exposing players to Seattle, making trades in which they feel they’re in a better spot, or just giving Seattle a list of players. And then a flat cap for the foreseeable future.

“So I think it’s gonna be an interesting summer.”

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