Bernie On The Blues: By Acquiring Justin Faulk, The Blues Are In Better Position To Make Another Cup Run

I was knocked out of work and for a couple of days, spending some time on the injured list. I haven’t had a chance to opine on the Blues’ big acquisition of Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk …

So here goes…

To add skill to their blue line and power play, the Blues gave up rugged stay-at-home defenseman Joel Edmundson and 19-year-old forward prospect Dominik Bokk, and the teams also exchanged insignificant late-round draft picks in 2020, and 2021.

More than anything the Blues gave up money, a lot of it, in signing Faulk to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract that carries an annual salary-cap hit of $6.5 million. Faulk, 29, will be late in his age 34-35 season in the final season of his new deal. The contract extension, which kicks in next season, was a mandatory requirement of the trade.

I’d like to offer a few observations:

1. I trust Blues hockey prez Doug Armstrong. Since the start of the 2011-2012 campaign the Blues rank second in the NHL in wins, points and winning percentage. And “Army” built the first and only Stanley Cup champion in franchise history. That made him the first and only GM to deliver the coveted and elusive chalice to a loyal and passionate fan base that waited 52 years for its own version of the miracle on ice.

2. I like Armstrong’s element of surprise here. With the Blues on the verge of opening the regular season, Armstrong pulled off a deal that prompted substantial buzz within his team, the fan base, and among the hockey literati and on-air analysts. Just when it seemed certain that the Blues were returning virtually the same team (minus Pat Maroon) that captured the Cup … boom!

Armstrong shook things up, and that’s healthy. It’s not as if he shipped away multiple franchise pieces and changed the character of a highly capable team. The Blues have a terrific mix. But every team, even a champion, requires some remixing. Enhance the talent. Put some new energy into the room.

3. I trust Armstrong for constructing a team that historically leans on a strong defense and goal suppression. Not including Vegas, an NHL member for only two seasons, the Blues have allowed the fewest goals and given up the lowest total of shots on net in the NHL since the start of 2011-2012.

4. If Armstrong believes Faulk’s tool box fits with the Blues’ goal-prevention philosophy and foundation, that’s good with me. By bringing in Faulk, the Blues will have three prime right-side defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo, emerging star Colton Parayko, and Faulk. (Is that the best RH cast in the league? Put it this way: it’s on the short list … a very short list.) The Blues already had a deep supply of quality D-men. It’s even deeper now.

5. The Blues’ chronic power-play ailment needed medicine; Faulk should provide a heavy dose. Over the past five seasons (since the start of 2014-2015), Faulk ranks fourth among NHL defensemen with 32 power play goals. The only D-men with more power play goals are Oliver Ekman-Larsson (42), Shea Weber (38) and Brent Burns (34.) And Faulk is 19th among NHL defensemen with 80 power-play points over the past five seasons.

According to ESPN.com, Faulk’s offense overall in 2018-2019 — which graded out at 0.25 individual expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 — would have been the best among Blues defensemen last season.

As Armstrong said at his post-trade news conference: “Justin comes with a very deep and strong resume. We feel he is tailor-made to today’s NHL, a skater, somebody who can transport and move the puck.”

6. Let’s look at the questions — the potential or real weaknesses — in Faulk’s game. I was outspoken in my belief that Kevin Shattenkirk, while undoubtedly a power-play asset, was a weak link at 5-on-5 play. And the statistics backed that up. The Shattenkirk and Faulk profiles aren’t dissimilar. Faulk was a minus 100 at even strength during his Carolina years. But Faulk was a plus 9 last regular season, and a plus 4 during Carolina’s 15-game postseason run. Over his last five seasons with Carolina Faulk’s 5-on-5 Corsi percentage at Carolina was 53.8%, which ranks ninth among NHL defensemen over that time.

Corsi percentage, like plus-minus, can be misleading. Perhaps a more accurate measure is Corsi relative, which compares a player’s possession metrics to those of his teammates.

7. Our friend Greg Wyshinski of ESPN.com sounded off on that part of Faulk’s game: “Where Faulk falters is on the defensive end, where he was on the negative side in metrics relative to his Carolina teammates nearly across the board,” he wrote. “JoelEdmundson was the opposite, on the plus side in shots allowed and scoring chances against. Faulk is very good in one zone. Hint: It’s not the one with his goalie standing in it.”

8. Over the past five seasons the Carolina coaches had Faulk on the ice for just under 46 percent of the defensive-zone faceoffs. That number absolutely can be interpreted as a reflection of their modest level of confidence in Faulk’s defensive work.

9. I checked Hockey Reference for a list of NHL defensemen (retired or active) that are most comparable to Faulk’s performance over the first eight seasons of a career. The top four comparables reflect well on Faulk: Rob Ramage, Derian Hatcher, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Roman Hamrlik.

10. Faulk supplies a lot of minutes, averaging 24:40 per game during his career. That’s another positive; his capacity for logging significant ice time gives the Blues the opportunity to lessen the load on Pietrangelo.

11.  Did the Blues overpay Faulk in his new contract? The answer would be “No,” if we go by recent signings of similar defensemen for similar terms. (Ryan McDonagh, Jared Spurgeon, Cam Fowler, Tyler Myers, Ryan Ellis.) The market is the market. And as time marches on, that annual average cap hit of $6.5 million won’t seem as potentially burdensome as it does now.

12. Now for the elephants in the room: will the Faulk addition and financial obligation impact the Blues’ desire and flexibility to reward captain Pietrangelo with a new contract after the season? Petro can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

I can’t take a Pollyanna view here. Of course the Faulk financials will complicate the effort to re-sign Pietrangelo. But this isn’t just about Pietrangelo, who turns 30 in January … it’s also about Parayko, who turns 27 in May. If the Blues, as anticipated, want to lock Parayko into an expensive long-term contract, the price will be heavy. I don’t see an easy way for the Blues to have Pietrangelo, Faulk and Parayko under long-term contracts at premium rates at the same time.

A big part of this, of course, depends on what Pietrangelo and Parayko want – or are willing to accept — in new contracts.

In a related note, the Faulk deal will reduce the possibility of a new contract for center Brayden Schenn, who can be a UFA after the season. But that wasn’t a realistic likelihood, anyway.

13. Bottom line: does the trade for Faulk enhance the Blues’ chances of defending the Stanley Cup? Does it make them more likely to repeat? Yes and yes. Not that they will repeat; the Blues face formidable odds. But this move puts them in a better position to make a meaningful run at it.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie