Happy trails, Alexander Steen.
The St. Louis Blues announced Thursday the left winger, 36, was retiring from hockey due to a back injury. Steen, drafted 24th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002, split his career between the Leafs and Blues. While he doesn’t leave behind an NHL legacy quite as impactful as that of his father Thomas, Steen enjoyed a highly productive career.
Among fellow 2002 draftees, Steen ranks fifth in NHL games played at 1,018, and only Rick Nash has more goals than Steen’s 245 and more points than Steen’s 622. That partially reflects the fact Nash was the only forward drafted in the top five that year, but it still shows that Steen delivered tremendous value for his draft slot. The Leafs traded Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak in November 2008, and it didn’t take long for St. Louis to win the trade in a walk. Stempniak played 123 games in a Leaf uniform, delivering just 25 goals. Steen played 765 games across 12 seasons as a Blue. He ranks fourth in franchise history in games, ninth in goals, sixth in assists and fifth in points. He contributed at both ends of the ice, could play all three forward positions and was a team-first guy, comfortable playing far down the lineup on the Blues team that won its first Stanley Cup in 2018-19.
Steen entered the 2020 off-season with a murky, undefined injury that had hindered him during the bubble tournament, limiting him to just four games. The malady was revealed this week as a career-ending back injury.
So Steen rides off after an excellent run culminating with a championship near the end. Not bad at all.
He’s done playing, but he’s not done helping the Blues. His retirement creates some crucial salary-cap malleability. The Blues had already placed him on long-term injured reserve but, because of his retirement, while he still technically counts against the cap, the Blues are now allowed to exceed the cap by his $5.75-million AAV, per The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford. It may be tempting to also forecast some extra spending money with top right winger Vladimir Tarasenko on LTIR, but since St. Louis still hopes to get him back during the season, GM Doug Armstrong will likely want to count Tarasenko’s cap hit when projecting the team’s payroll.
But what to do with that $5.75 million? The Blues are already over the cap, currently sitting at $82.68 million, but now they have enough cap space to re-sign RFA defenseman Vince Dunn. If he scores a bridge contract paying him in the $2-3-million range, Armstrong will still have some cash left to add another body – as much as $4.2 million. (The math doesn’t appear to add up at first glance, but there’s a cap technicality factored in. Update to come).
It’s glaringly obvious the Blues need a goal-scoring winger to replace Tarasenko, especially since his long-term ceiling may now be capped after he had a third surgery on the same shoulder. The current depth chart obviously presents an opportunity for youngster Jordan Kyrou to step up, but the ideal scenario has him earning the role with his play rather than inheriting it. The latter can force prospects into roles for which they aren’t ready.
With free-agent spending drying up for a solid month as the flat salary cap handcuffed teams, plenty of quality UFAs remain on the market, including some goal-scoring wingers. A few names the Blues could explore:
Mike Hoffman – Became a full-time NHLer in 2014-15 and ranks 16th in goals since then. He averages 28.6 goals per 82 games in his career. If the Blues offer him $4 million or so for one year, does he take it and mimic the Taylor Hall strategy? There should be more money to spend league-wide next year even with a flat cap – because the Seattle Kraken will swallow up more than $80 million in salaries as a team likely to spend to the cap.
Anthony Duclair – The best option if the Blues don’t want to max out their budget for Hoffman. The burner Duclair blew past 20 goals in an abbreviated season. With the right linemates, he could still score 30.
Mikael Granlund – Not a pure goal-scorer, so he doesn’t work as a “poor man’s Tarasenko” replacement, but Granlund brings high-end skill and has flourished playing in a two-way role before, as he did with Jason Zucker and Mikko Koivu during the Minnesota days.
Andreas Athanasiou – Just a season removed from scoring 30 goals. Terrific speed and hands. Joining a veteran-laden team like the Blues could rein in his volatility.