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Blues’ future made brighter by locking star players up on good contracts

St. Louis now has its best players all signed to reasonable long-term deals, which is a good sign for the next few years.

St Louis Blues v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The St. Louis Blues made what’s likely the final big move of their offseason by signing star defenseman Colton Parayko to a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension on Thursday. Parayko was a restricted free agent, and the deal allowed both sides to avoid an arbitration hearing that was about to begin.

Now the Blues have their stud blue liner locked up at a reasonable $5.5 million cap hit through the 2021-22 season, the latest in a series of smart signings by the team to turn over to a new era. St. Louis has never won the Stanley Cup before, but with moves like this, the franchise is positioning itself to create that opportunity in the near future.

Over the past two years, Blues GM Doug Armstrong has done one of the most challenging things for any executive of an NHL team: he signed his top young players to reasonable long-term extensions that could potentially be bargains. Parayko is the cherry on top, but this sundae was a couple years in the making.

The first long-term deal the Blues signed to establish their new core was winger Vladimir Tarasenko for eight years and $60 million in July 2015. At the time, it was a massive commitment to a player who had just two full NHL seasons under his belt. Instead, St. Louis now seems ahead of the curve as RFA prices have exploded with big deals for the likes of Connor McDavid, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and others.

Tarasenko is precisely the kind of high-scoring superstar who could’ve commanded even more money if he was signing now. But the Blues smartly realized where things were headed and wanted to make sure to lock up Tarasenko for the max eight-year term. Now that $7.5 million annual cap hit looks like a bargain for someone who has 116 goals and 222 points over the past three seasons.

A year after signing Tarasenko, the Blues were at it again by committing to goaltender Jake Allen and forward Jaden Schwartz on deals running through 2021. Allen had never been a full-time NHL starter before, having split the previous two seasons with Brian Elliott. Schwartz was coming off an injury-shortened year, but already had two 25-goal seasons under his belt.

Both deals look pretty good now.

Allen didn’t have some monster breakout 2016-17 season — his .915 save percentage in the regular season is identical to his career mark — but he proved capable of filling the starter’s role at a reasonable $4.35 million cap hit. Schwartz similarly lived up to his new deal with 55 points and sterling possession statistics over 78 games.

Then in the 2017 playoffs, we got a glimpse of Allen’s upside as he singlehandedly took down the Minnesota Wild in the first round with a stupefyingly dominant effort. St. Louis got eliminated in the second round, but Allen’s .935 save percentage over 11 games hinted at his potential. Even if Allen doesn’t take a major leap, he’s still an average or slightly above-average starter getting paid at a fair rate. If he keeps that up, he’s worth it. If he can capture more of that Wild series glory, he’ll be a bargain.

Those moves gave the Blues their 40-goal winger, starting goaltender, and a good secondary scorer at reasonable cap hits, but could the team really swing that again with a young defenseman in a league where they’re put at a premium?

It turns out the answer is yes.

Parayko’s deal might end up being the best of the bunch. He’s only played two seasons, but he’s already proven that he can be a good top-pairing defenseman in the NHL. Whether you’re looking at point production, driving possession, or the ability to play in all situations, Parayko has it.

The Blues were pushing for a two-year deal worth $3.4 million or $3.6 million in arbitration, while Parayko asked for a one-year deal worth $4.85 million. Either one would’ve saved St. Louis money in the short-term, but the team almost surely would’ve paid for it in the end trying to re-sign him in a year or two.

The top comparables for Parayko’s new deal are Rasmus Ristolainen, Seth Jones, Hampus Lindholm, Dougie Hamilton, and Jaccob Slavin, according to Cap Friendly. The jury is still out on whether Ristolainen will live up to his potential, but the other four contracts look like bargains. Parayko’s contract also reportedly doesn’t include any signing bonuses, so there’s less risk on the Blues’ part in case of another lockout.

Now St. Louis is one of the few teams in the NHL that not only has its best players locked up long-term, but all of them at reasonable costs. Yes, there are some questionable contracts on the books, such as Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, and Jay Bouwmeester for a combined $15 million per year. Nobody would argue Paul Stastny is still worth $7 million, either.

But a couple of those contracts are relatively short (Stastny is off the books next summer, Bouwmeester a year after that), and the Blues’ shrewd dealings with their stars have left them some breathing room. It’s easier to overpay a role player here or there by a million bucks when you’re saving at least that much on a star like Parayko.

Over the next four seasons, St. Louis will pay Tarasenko, Parayko, Schwartz, and Allen a combined $22.7 million annual cap hit. As some of the other deals come off the books, it’ll be a chance to add talent to surround those cornerstones. If the Blues can execute that stuff as well as they did on those four big contracts, the Stanley Cup drought could end sooner than later.