St. Louis Blues: Jori Lehtera, Carl Gunnarsson most logical options for Golden Knights

Nov 23, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera (12) passes the puck as Washington Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson (90) looks on in the third period at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 23, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera (12) passes the puck as Washington Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson (90) looks on in the third period at Verizon Center. The Capitals won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

While David Perron is almost certainly the best player left unprotected by the Blues, Jori Lehtera and Carl Gunnarsson can satisfy needs for the Golden Knights.

As the St. Louis Blues prepare to lose a player when the Vegas Golden Knights announce the 30 players they’ll be selecting during Wednesday night’s NHL awards, it seems that most people are expecting the Blues to lose winger David Perron. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Jeremy Rutherford wrote Tuesday about the possibility of the Golden Knights selecting Perron–which is probably as likely an indication as any that he’ll be the player selected–but there are still several other routes Vegas could elect to take as they poach a player from the Blues on Wednesday.

The 29-year-old Perron obviously has his attractive qualities, as he scored 18 goals and added 28 assists while playing well in his own zone and staying healthy for all 82 regular-season games and 11 playoff games last season. With that said, he had just one point during the playoffs, and while he’s a solid second or third-line contributor, the Blues could easily replace him with a player–namely Magnus Paajarvi or Zach Sanford–who could deliver solid third-line production for much less than the $3.75 million Perron is scheduled to make next season. His salary is reasonable overall, but on a team that needs to conserve every last dollar to re-sign Colton Parayko and build depth, dumping his contract would make a huge difference.

The Golden Knights will have a bunch of wingers available to them who are similar to but arguably more intriguing than Perron, including Jimmy Hayes, Matt Moulson, Troy BrouwerAlex Chiasson, Jussi Jokinen, James Neal, Pontus AbergCal ClutterbuckClarke MacArthur, and Bobby Ryan, among others. All of those guys are veterans with solid reputations who are set to make at least a couple million next season, and there’s enough of them to build a solid veteran core from.

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On the contrary, there aren’t as many solid centers available to the Golden Knights. They could elect to take Minnesota’s Eric Staal or Erik Haula, but the most intriguing defenseman in the draft is the Wild’s Matt Dumba, so they may not be able to get either of those guys. Detroit’s Luke Glendening and Darren Helm are solid options, but Vegas can only take one of them. Depending on how Wednesday’s events shake out, the Golden Knights may end the day with Chicago’s Marcus Kruger projected to be a center on one of their top two lines, and that’s not really a good thing.

On some level, every NHL team goes into the season expecting to make the playoffs, but the Golden Knights’ chances of competing are extremely low this year, and they should plan accordingly. While the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers qualified for postseason play after moving from the WHA to the NHL for the 1979-80 season, no true expansion team has reached the playoffs in its first season since 1967-68–when the NHL had just 12 teams–as the Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, and Philadelphia Flyers all advanced to the postseason in their respective first NHL campaigns. Thus, Vegas can afford to take more than a few gambles early on, as those moves will look really good if they work out and won’t be criticized at all if they fail.

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That’s why–not trolling here–it might actually make sense for Vegas to take a chance on Jori Lehtera, who just two seasons ago was a 14-goal, 30-assist faceoff whiz who played well in his own end, and who as recently as the 2015-16 season delivered a respectable nine goals and 25 assists with a plus-12 rating.

Lehtera had the worst season of his career in 2016-17, posting career worsts in games played (64), goals (7), assists (15), plus-minus (minus-6), and faceoff percentage (49.2%). He did look better during the playoffs, though, collecting four points with a plus-5 rating in eight games.

Since he’s 29 years old and hasn’t really been the same since having ankle surgery in 2015, there’s reason to believe that Lehtera was a one-year wonder of sorts. But on a team like the Golden Knights that really doesn’t have anything to lose next season, he’d definitely be a worthwhile gamble.

Lehtera’s contract could provide a twofold benefit to the Golden Knights. First of all, his $4.7 salary would go a long way towards helping Vegas reach the salary floor of $55.4 million in 2017-18, and his salary of $5 million in 2018-19 would do the same as the floor is likely to go up again next year. But if he turns into a top-six center again with a change of scenery, that’s a perfectly reasonable contract, and the Golden Knights would be getting a solid value for two years, as opposed to the one year they’d get out of Perron.

Worst case scenario, he’ll be an experienced veteran who can win some face-offs, and it’s not like his contract will ever tie the Golden Knights down in a situation where they’re actually competitive and spending anywhere close to the cap.

A more conservative option for Vegas if they’re looking to avoid Perron and Lehtera could be defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. There aren’t exactly a ton of intriguing defensemen available for selection, either, and while the 30-year-old Gunnarsson doesn’t put up points like your typical top-four blueliner, he’s very dependable defensively and does a solid job of moving the puck.

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If Vegas isn’t going to take Lehtera, who is clearly in the doghouse of GM Doug Armstrong, the Blues would probably prefer to lose a defenseman. They have six NHL defensemen, including Gunnarsson, under team control beyond 2017-18, but they’ll need to create playing time soon for top prospects Vince Dunn and Jordan Schmaltz, who don’t really have anything left to prove in the minors. Former third-rounder Jake Walman might not be too far behind, and 23-year-old Petteri Lindbohm still might have a future in St. Louis.

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While Gunnarsson is a solid contributor, the Blues could probably replace him with a more dynamic player such as Dunn for a much cheaper cost. It’d basically be a win-win for both sides, as it would free up $2.9 million in cap space over each of the next two seasons and would create playing time for young players, and that’s about as much as the Blues can ask for in a situation like this.