In the hectic world of NHL free agency, I’ve found there’s really only one reliable imperative: Players don’t want to move their stuff.
Alex Pietrangelo, 30, is the belle of the free-agent ball this offseason, the kind of top-pairing defenseman in his prime who could complete a Stanley Cup puzzle for several teams — and one who is coveted even more for having won the Cup last season.
Pietrangelo’s “stuff” is very much in St. Louis. Based on his recent actions, it appears he doesn’t want to move it.
Now, “stuff” is a nebulous concept. The late George Carlin defined it as your material possessions during his classic bit about having a place for your stuff. (“That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”) In the NHL context, “stuff” refers to the total weight of the anchor that precludes a player from leaving for a new home: family, loved ones, friends, restaurants where they don’t have to pay, that one golf course, their teammates, that one vape shop and, of course, the house they built with their second NHL contract a few seasons before unrestricted free agency.
In Pietrangelo’s case, he was drafted fourth overall by the Blues in 2008, and they’re the only NHL team for which he has played, serving as their captain since 2016. His wife, Jayne, is a St. Louis native. They welcomed triplets in 2018 and a newborn daughter in 2020. They put roots down with a $1.9 million home they built in Ladue, Missouri, in 2017. Their family is a part of the St. Louis community and the Blues family.
If you had told me Pietrangelo would hit the free-agent market a year after winning the Stanley Cup with the Blues, that would have been a surprise. How many big names just re-sign with their current teams? How much temptation to “go to market” is canceled out by the desire to keep their stuff where it is? Steven Stamkos, back in 2016? His stuff was in Tampa. Drew Doughty, in 2018? His stuff was in Los Angeles.
On the off chance that a big-name free agent does sign with a new team, it’s usually because they have stuff there. John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018? Some of his stuff was still in Toronto from his childhood, perhaps even some bed sheets. (This has created some expectations that Pietrangelo, an Ontario native, would do the same.) Zach Parise to the Wild in 2012? Same deal as Tavares, except in Minnesota. Brad Richards to the New York Rangers in 2011? I don’t know, maybe John Tortorella counts as “stuff.”
It’s not a mystery where Pietrangelo’s preferred free-agent destination is. “Obviously, I want to stay a Blue. Of course I do. It’s the only place I’ve known professional hockey,” Pietrangelo said in August, after the Blues were eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals.
But you can’t always get what you want.
Well, at least not in this economy.
The Blues have offered Pietrangelo an average annual salary of $8 million at varying lengths of a deal, including an eight-year contract. But that hasn’t been enough to get a deal done because of the “structure” of the contract: Published reports say that Pietrangelo wants a no-movement clause, and wants there to be a signing bonus built into the latter years of the contract that would mean a cash payout if his contract was bought out. Considering that an eight-year deal would push him into his late 30s, this isn’t an outlandish possibility.
But the captain is essentially asking general manager Doug Armstrong for the two things he has never provided a free agent. The Blues’ roster has some no-trade clauses, but none of them are no-movement clauses. The Blues have only one player with a contract containing signing bonuses: Ryan O’Reilly, who was signed by the Buffalo Sabres in July 2015.
To say their talks have been unproductive would be an understatement. “The situation is teetering,” one NHL team executive told ESPN. “Doug is very good at what he does. Pietrangelo is represented by Newport [Sports] — also very good at what they do.”
If the situation is teetering, then you have to give Pietrangelo and his representatives credit for trying to push it over the edge.
On Sept. 18, it was reported that talks had broken off between the Blues and their captain. Normally, this isn’t anything out of the ordinary on the eve of free agency … except free agency doesn’t start for another two weeks.
The candor with which Pietrangelo discussed the matter with local media was also unique. “Contract talks haven’t gone the way both sides were hoping and unless something changes, it’s in the best interests for everyone to see what the market looks like on Oct. 9,” he told NHL.com. He also did a lengthy interview with Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, with his newborn daughter cooing on his chest, explaining the situation, ensuring his fans there was no animosity and reiterating that free agency is hopefully a last resort.
“I’ve never once said that I’m ruling the Blues out. I’ve never said that. I don’t think you really move on. Whether you’ve played 12 years in a city or one year in a city, I don’t think you really move on until it’s pen to paper and you’re going somewhere else. I truly don’t believe that, because it’s not official until then,” he said. “So maybe it’s in our best interest to see what other opportunities we can have, and maybe Doug has felt the same way, but it doesn’t mean that something can’t happen.”
This was an absolutely brilliant maneuver by Pietrangelo. As an unrestricted free agent, he has only a few cards to play. One is going to market. Another is using all the goodwill he has built up with Blues fans to put some wind in his sails in these talks.
“It’s an effective tactic,” one NHL player agent said, “the power of public sentiment.”
You could already feel that breeze earlier this season when Armstrong traded for Justin Faulk of Carolina and immediately signed him to a seven-year extension. Fans were baffled, hoping this didn’t mean the end of Pietrangelo with the Blues. When Faulk struggled this season — minus-3.7 goals scored above average, to Pietrangelo’s plus-18.2, per Evolving Hockey — it only stoked that frustration.
(Pietrangelo has denied he was upset by the trade or signing.)
Now, that breeze is a gale force, thanks to Pietrangelo being so candid about his plight, so far ahead of the actual “go to market” free-agent date. Social media buzzes with pro-Petro sentiment. Influential Blues fan site St. Louis Game Time wrote an article titled “Why the Blues need to step up and find a way to keep Alex Pietrangelo around.” The very idea that the Blues would play hardball with one of the franchise’s most dedicated players has been deemed abhorrent.
It has become very loud in St. Louis. But former Blues forward Cam Janssen, on his 590 The Fan radio show, playfully mocked the fans’ support of Pietrangelo this week before delivering some hard truths about why he believed the defenseman should just accept their offer.
“They don’t do up-front money and they don’t do signing bonuses. They don’t do it. They’re not going to do it for Petro, they’re not going to do it for [Vladimir] Tarasenko, they’re not going to do it for [Colton] Parayko. They don’t do that,” he said. “So if you want $9.5 to $10 million on the free market, and you’re going to go to another city with four kids and try to adjust, when that city wants everything from you, and you’ve got four kids at home — you think that’s going to be easy? When you buy a $4 million house? Is it really that much more money?”
There will be suitors for Pietrangelo, though how many is a mystery due to the impacted revenue shortfalls for teams because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is the type of player for whom teams will make space to sign. His agents are no doubt painting a picture of potential destinations. Pietrangelo has said his family has started mapping out which situations would be best for them.
But in over 15 years of writing about the “free-agent frenzy,” I can’t recall a more transparent attempt by a big-name player to pressure his team into keeping him around. We simply don’t hear this amount of news, or these kinds of comments, this far out of the start of free agency.
It’s obvious, however, why Armstrong feels he can play some “hometown discount” hardball with his captain, what with this full-court press after talks have broken off and with Pietrangelo’s clearly stated desire to remain in St. Louis.
After all, that’s where his stuff is.
Bubble fit of the week
We haven’t talked enough about this Pat Maroon bubble fit. pic.twitter.com/rKVS7xNDOv
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 24, 2020
Guessing that Patrick Maroon‘s VHS aerobics workout tape from the 1980s is quite arduous.
The three takeaways from NHL bubble confidential
1. Thanks to the many, many of you that read “NHL Bubble Confidential” from yours truly and Emily Kaplan this week, and thanks to the players who were so candid in answering our many questions about the hubs. I’ve been asked in a few interviews what my biggest takeaway was from the piece, and I have to say it’s how uncomfortable the players were with cohabitation in the same hotel as their opponents. There’s something low-key charming about players timing their elevator rides to avoid having to take one with an opponent, or refusing to make eye contact with a guy who just gave them a face wash the night before. It’s all very “Mean Girls,” but without the cafeteria brawl, alas.
2. The story was from the perspective of the players; and like any eyewitness, there might have been a few instances where their information was incomplete. For example, their gripes about a lack of excursions. An NHL source said that they had “boats chartered and golf outings booked” that had to be canceled, at the last minute, because teams lost the game the night before and decided not to take the excursions.
Then there’s the per diem issue, which was pointed out by a couple of players. The NHLPA’s Jonathan Weatherdon told us that there was “an enhanced per diem of $130 USD per day, with no deductions for club-provided meals. For the first five days prior to that, it was $55 for game days and $111 for non-game days in the bubble.” An NHL source said that “their room service charges were over and above their per diems, which were north of $200 per day.”
3. Finally, it was interesting to hear about the future of bubbles. The players we spoke to were adamant about never going into the bubble again … while at the same time admitting that they might be down with returning to the bubble if it’s the only way to play games next season. (i.e. “get paid”). One player also made the point that the seven teams outside the postseason bubbles are going to have a say in this. If the season starts in mid-January, those players won’t have played a game in 10 months. You think they might accept a bubble?
Listen To ESPN On Ice
We’re recording a new ESPN On Ice with guests Ryan Kesler and Frank Provenzano on Thursday. You’ll be able to find that episode, and all our episodes, here.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Leon Draisaitl
Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl won the 2019-20 Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s MVP, as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. He earned 91 first-place votes out of 170 ballots cast. Colorado’s Nathan… https://t.co/oG9gPorZHC pic.twitter.com/tTfJKmv9To
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 22, 2020
The Edmonton Oilers star was not atop my MVP ballot. That’s OK. I’m known for approaching this award from a different viewpoint than many of my peers. But I’m happy Draisaitl won the Hart Trophy, along with the Ted Lindsay and the Art Ross. He had an absolute monster season. It’s not intended to be an insult to Draisaitl if I thought Artemi Panarin and Connor Hellebuyck were more vital to their teams’ success. Or at least had less help.
Loser: Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid
Like I said, I have my own peculiar approach to the Hart Trophy; and if you can defend your pick in a logical manner, I have no issue with anyone casting their vote in a peculiar way. But I do have to question the six voters who had Draisaitl first and teammate Connor McDavid second for league MVP. I can’t fathom how the two most valuable players in the NHL to their team could play the same position on the same team. Wayne Gretzky never had an Edmonton Oiler as his MVP runner-up. Mario Lemieux never had Jaromir Jagr or Ron Francis in second place. Sidney Crosby never had Evgeni Malkin, or vice versa; Stan Mikita never had Bobby Hull, or vice versa. I don’t get it.
While Draisaitl made history for Germany, the NHL Awards were also a big win for the Swiss. Roman Josi is the first Swiss-born player to win an individual honor at the NHL Awards, after winning the Norris Trophy. The Bern native is also the first Norris winner in Nashville Predators history, which is a bit strange when you consider they’ve had Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and P.K. Subban.
Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson? Second for the Norris. Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes? Second for the Calder. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella? Third for the Jack Adams. Sure, we got Hellebuyck winning the Vezina. But overall, it could have gone better for the U.S.-born awards finalists.
Winner: Steven Stamkos
At this point, there’s no telling how much more action Stamkos is going to see in the Stanley Cup Final. But he had more impact in 2:47 of ice time than some players have in two games, factoring in the emotional lift his return to the ice gave to the Lightning. He has been through a lot. He’s an easy player for whom to root, and someone you wouldn’t mind finally seeing lift the Cup.
Not to jinx this thing, but we’ve had only three postseason suspensions — one game each to Drake Caggiula (hit to the head), Matt Niskanen (cross-checking) and Ryan Reaves (check to the head) — despite the fact that there were eight extra teams and an additional playoff round. That’s after we had six suspensions in each of the previous two postseasons. Theories range from players being a step slow to the different emotional dynamic without fans in the building. But sometimes, the playoffs are just cleaner: We had only two suspensions in the 2017 postseason.
The NHL once again had no positive COVID-19 tests in its bubble this week. This news used to garner headlines. Now, it’s just assumed. That’s to the credit of everyone involved in the restart, from the NHL to the players to the doctors to those cleaning the facilities. What a miraculous couple of months, to go from Gary Bettman answering questions about having to make the call on COVID-positive players, to being a week from the finish line without a documented infection.
Discouraging news from the Russian hockey league, which is experiencing a “COVID-19 disaster” according to Aivis Kalnins, as all but one team has experienced at least one positive test.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Tremendous story from Chris Peters on the Brick Invitational Tournament, another Edmonton championship hockey tournament with an exceptional legacy and some “bubble life.”