NHL Mailbag: What do the Blues need to do to repeat?

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Can the Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions? (Getty)
Can the Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions? (Getty)

Things have settled down a bit in the week and a half since July 1, but as I was writing this, news of the Micheal Ferland signing (which we’ll certainly get to below) broke. It’s been that kind of free agent period.

Multiple players — some of them quite good — still need to be signed, traded, re-signed and all the rest, so there’s probably going to be plenty to talk about for the next week or three. We’ll worry about the rest when August gets here.

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Let’s go:

Stephen asks: “You’re Botterill and have amassed a ton of bodies on D. Looking around at the cap and RFA situations, who are your targets for a Ristolainen return?”

First things first, I think the book might be out on Ristolainen: He’s not that good.

There was a time when he was considered highly valuable — to the point where Sabres fans didn’t want to trade him for Taylor Hall straight up — and GMs would likely have felt the same way. But those days are gone. He’s a little better than replacement level but not by as much as people would have guessed would be the case as recently as 2016.

So the thing is, you gotta find a sucker. Who is a team that would value what Ristolainen brings to the table and would take him at all or part of his $5.4-million cap hit? What you’re getting if you’re the Sabres is the cap room, and whatever the return happens to be up front is a bonus.

I doubt we’re at the point where a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins type is an expected return. Apparently interest around the league has been tepid, so you’re probably also looking to take back a bad contract, and this wasn’t a front-loaded deal so it’s not like there’s value there, either.

Maybe call the Flyers, I dunno.

Rob asks: “The Blues found their stride in January and were the best team in hockey for the remainder of 2019. They’ll likely return a near-identical team for 2019-20. What do they need to do to repeat?”

I’ve said plenty of times by now that as long as they play as well as they did in the second half of last season, they don’t need Binnington to go bananas again like he did for a big chunk of the year. As long as he can be league-average (which is possible, especially behind a team with that quality of defensive system), they should be as good or better than they were last year.

Put another way, Binnington’s performance was unsustainable, but they needed it to dig out of the Mike Yeo hole and likely won’t need anything close to it next season. That said, it would also help if Ryan O’Reilly was borderline MVP candidate again, and they might need a bit more from Tarasenko, but maturation from some of the younger players on the roster (specifically Zach Sanford) might not make that quite as necessary.

Craig asks: “Is this the year the Caps topple down the standings?”

I mean, “topple.” They won the division last season. Another 100 points. And they got it with a league-average goaltending season. There are some areas for concern, coaching and aging being chief among them, but there’s still plenty of talent on that roster.

I think “topple” is an overstatement but yeah there’s a decent chance they finish with fewer than 100 points for the first time since, what, 2014?

I guess I kinda just feel like you can think what you want about their core as it gets older, but we’ve been saying “the bottom’s gotta drop out soon” for a year or two by now and it hasn’t happened yet. Doesn’t mean it won’t, but they’re not gonna go from 104 points to 85 or anything.

Mike asks: “You can go back in time to save one player whose best years were wasted. Who do you save and where do you trade them?”

I put post-lockout Ilya Kovalchuk on the Sharks. Oh my god, him and Joe Thornton together for their primes? Thornton got Jonathan Cheechoo to 56 goals in 2005-06. Kovalchuk scored 52 that season (albeit with some pretty helpful linemates in Marc Savard and Marian Hossa). Kovalchuk could have put up 60-plus easy with Thornton.

Maybe that gets the Sharks over the hump. It definitely gives Kovalchuk a little more help so he doesn’t play incredible dead-end hockey for the Thrashers through 2010. He had 230 goals and 437 points in 394 games for Atlanta after the lockout, with an ever-diminishing supporting cast. Not a single season under 40 goals between 2003 and 2010.

Honorable mention goes to Going For It-era Jarome Iginla, obviously.

Glenn asks: “What are the Islanders’ best options for adding a top-six caliber forward on the trade route prior to this season?”

I’m asking honestly here: What do the Islanders have that they would give up (so, not a top prospect or their first-round pick) and would also get a forward who helps them out?

There are some capped out teams that might be looking to make a deal — Vegas? — but you gotta give to get and I don’t see the Islanders having a ton they would part with to get Mat Barzal some help.

It’s a tough situation but they have some cap space to sign someone who might be able to help out, albeit not much. We’re talking a Ryan Dzingel type, or Thomas Vanek. You might also be okay to roll the dice on Oscar Lindberg or Pontus Aberg maybe being something (though he probably isn’t) or maybe that Derick Brassard isn’t totally done.

But otherwise, not much to you can do that’ll make a big impact.

Dan asks : “What the hell is Labanc thinking?”

He took the shortest possible deal Doug Wilson would give him so that, when the team isn’t trying to re-sign Joe Thornton, he can get some of that Joe Thornton money.

One imagines he wasn’t going to sign a two- or three-year bridge deal for $3 million per or something like that, and the Sharks weren’t really in a position to cut him a huge long-term deal either. This was his best option to go short.

I think Wilson said at the time, this is Labanc betting on himself in a major way and if he has a big year, maybe scores 20 goals or something, he’s gonna get a bunch of money for a long time. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a shocking contract but he was just trying to make things work. That’s his prerogative.

Ben asks: “After signing the Ferland contract, how much is Benning going to pay to get out of cap hell?”

Yeah so there are two things with this contract. The first is that the deal itself is fine. The term (four years) is fine for a 27-year-old and the money is hardly outrageous at $3.5-million AAV.

The second is that this is Benning tying up money in another guy who’s fine but is hardly going to be racking up 50-point seasons for years to come. He’s a 40-point guy with solid underlyings and if that’s all he ever is, the deal will be okay.

But as I said in yesterday’s column: It’s what this contract is trying to accomplish that doesn’t make sense. The Canucks are trying to maybe be the fourth- or fifth-best team in their division so they can sneak into the playoffs and get clobbered by the No. 1 or 2 seed in the West. That’s job preservation from Jim Benning, not reasonable asset management.

Let’s put it this way: The Canucks are already committed to almost $35.3 million AAV on the roster for 2021-22, among just seven players. Those players: Loui Eriksson ($6 million), Bo Horvat ($5.5 million), JT Miller ($5.25 million), Ferland ($3.5 million), Roussel ($3 million), Jay Beagle ($3 million), Tyler Myers ($6 million), and the last year of Roberto Luongo’s cap recapture ($3.033 million).

A lot could change by then, cap-wise, because the U.S. TV deal is up, but even if the cap his $100 million by then, more than a third of it will go to Eriksson and Beagle at 37 years old, Roussel at 33, Myers at 31, and dead money for Luongo.

But then you also need to account for new deals to Brock Boeser (this summer), Jake Virtanen, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and more. That gets expensive fast.

The point, though, is that by then Benning probably won’t have this job anymore anyway. So what does he care?

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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