The St. Louis Blues made a somewhat unexpected trade early on Day 2 of the 2014 NHL Draft, sending defenseman Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and a fourth-round pick.
The 6-foot-tall, 236-pound Polak was the Blues’ strongest and most physical defenseman, and he often struck fear into opponents, famously inspiring the quote from coach Ken Hitchcock, “You don’t want to open that Roman Polak door”, after a brutal hit he delivered in the 2011-2012 playoffs. However, the 28-year-old wasn’t much of a threat offensively, and his play dropped off a bit in 2013-14 after he suffered a leg injury at midseason. It wasn’t expected that the Blues would get rid of Polak, but after the fact it’s not extremely surprising.
The 27-year-old Gunnarsson, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound Swede, is not known as nearly the physical presence that Gunnarson is, but he has the ability to rough people up when necessary. He had 166 hits during 2013-14. He’s also historically been a better player in the offensive zone than Polak, having registered at least 15 assists in each of his first five NHL seasons. There is a bit of injury risk with him, as he had significant hip surgery following the season.
Polak’s cap hit was $2.75 million for the next two years, while Gunnarson’s was $3,150,000. However, Toronto is going to retain $630,000 of his salary, which saves the Blues roughly $255,000. This extra money could give the Blues some extra spending space as they try to pursue free agent center Paul Stastny. To replace Polak’s physical edge, the Blues will likely need 6-foot-1, 220-pound Ian Cole to step up and settle into a regular role. If Cole (or anyone else who the Blues acquire in free agency) can reliably fill that role, while Gunnarson helps boost the offensive attack, the Blues can consider this move a definite upgrade for 2014-15.