The immediate reaction to Alex Steen's new deal with the St. Louis Blues, which will pay him $5.8 million against the cap in each of the next three seasons, was to scoff.
Giving a player like Steen $5.8 million a season during a period in which he will age from 30 to 33 seems a bit foolish, when you consider it's about a 63 percent raise for about one-third of a career season.
Remember all that talk that he might be able to keep up with Alex Ovechkin in the goal-scoring race? It was ill-founded, and it seems that when a guy stops shooting 23.8 percent, which he did in scoring 20 goals in his first 25 games, things get a lot more difficult; to wit, before Thursday's two-goal effort he had just two goals in his previous nine games, on 28 shots, in the month of December, which portends that regression is here, and will probably stick around for most of the rest of the season. Very few guys, you see, can shoot better than 20 percent for a full season in the NHL these days.
In fact, the Blues have a little bit of history in this regard, having watched Brad Boyes explode from being about a 20-goal guy (this is Steen's career average, for reference) to netting 43 in 2007-08 thanks to a season-long 20.8 shot percentage. He got a raise to $4 million a season for the next four, during which time his output dropped to 33, then 14, then 12, then he was traded to Buffalo and never heard from again. Boyes' $4 million cap hit was, at the time, was about 7 percent of the $56.7 million cap, and that portion declined as the limit rose substantially.
The same logic seems to apply here. Yeah, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong seems to have basically assented to paying Steen somewhere between what Martin St. Louis and Taylor Hall make based on this one 25-game start that's so outside the bounds of what reason and history dictate he can be reasonably expected to produce going forward. But to the earlier point about the percentage of the total cap this deal will eat up, it's also marginal; assuming the projections for a $71.1 million cap stand, $5.8 million is only a little more than 8.1 percent. That's going to shrink as the cap goes up and up and up in the next few years, especially thanks to the new Canadian broadcast deal and so on.
So no, this is not going to be a deal that removes flexibility for St. Louis, and while it's going to become a not-great comparable for any decent two-way forward who can score 20 goals, the cap's going to be so high in just a couple of years that it might matter not at all.
Or, more likely, it might end up looking like the above-mentioned Boyes contract if you view it in terms of goals and assists. Boyes became burdensome and something of a joke as his goal total dropped. And he at least had youth on his side, being just 25 when his deal was signed, some 64 games into that 43-goal campaign. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as they say so often, and while Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider would joke that his team is impervious to the lessons repeatedly taught by such axioms, is it not to some degree fair to say the Blues are in the same sinking ship?
All signs point to Steen not necessarily even being a $5.8 million player right now, so apart from cashing in on the start this year, his production is going to decline after he turns 30 later this season. This is, again, speaking merely from a production standpoint.
And so with that having been said, it must be noted that Steen is not merely a Brad Boyes type who got lucky for two months. The underlying numbers seem to indicate that he is an elite driver of play, with his corsi-for (56.8 percent) 31st in the NHL prior to last night among players who had more than 28 games. He's also second among Blues forwards in this regard, with only Vladimir Tarasenko ahead of him, and as you might imagine, the sophomore gets far easier zone starts (62.8 in the offensive zone to Steen's 46.9) against much softer competition (Steen faces the hardest of anyone on the team, while Tarasenko ranks eighth).
Sure, the Blues are an excellent defensive team, but Steen pretty much leads the way in that area, pretty much regardless of the players he has on the ice with him. While scoring diminishes over time, and Steen's likely will by a considerable margin, the ability to drive play typically does not. His corsi relative the last two seasons, during which he's faced nothing but the toughest competition has been steady at 6.9 and an even 7. That's meat-grinder stuff, though it's important to keep in mind that pretty much everyone on the Blues is pretty comfortably above-water in this area. This is the kind of team they are. Hell, seven guys are above 55 percent.
So yes, Steen is a top-line forward making 8 percent of the cap — and declining — by himself, and if you think he's a 20-goal guy, which he might not be even a year from now, then you have to really, really value his defensive play. Perhaps they should, given what he's produced in the last 80 games or so, but unless St. Louis is pioneering a brave new NHL in which they and they alone pay for shot attempt production, and not goals, then they're paying a premium for it.
It's a very interesting concept, I think, that the Blues are willing to pay so much money for a guy because he's going to set a career high in goals this season simply because he got extremely lucky for less than one-third of the campaign, while also being able to (rightly) point to his dominant possession numbers as a reason he's worth it.
But if that leads to everyone involved generally feeling as though this is a reasonable and pretty much unassailable deal, which is what it ends up being at the end of the day, then that's very clever indeed. Not everyone is going to be able to succeed with a contract like this, of course, because Steen is a unique player in a very rare situation, in that you don't see too many corsi darlings like him have their stats explode out of nowhere like this.
Steen is the kind of guy NHL teams should value. He is in every sense a titan of two-way play, and you can say it's the system to an extent but he's succeeding in that system like no one else. That's valuable. More so than, say, David Clarkson, who just got slightly less money for more than twice as long because he, too, got to 30 goals one time. On the other hand, he's only occasionally been a positive driver of possession, and never against anything resembling the kind of beef Steen faces.
That the Blues have taken advantage of this in such a way that keeps Steen's term down while ensuring he gets paid, and further sets him up for a new and reasonable deal when he's going to be winding down his career is shrewd, and it should be the blueprint for every GM going forward.