Jori Lehtera is one of the players Blues GM Doug Armstrong should be able to move this summer to open space under the salary cap. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Nicholas Hand

The biggest question being posed entering the busy off-season month of June for the Blues is how general manager Doug Armstrong will be able to upgrade the roster with little salary cap space entering the summer.

On paper, the Blues currently have an estimated cap hit for the 2017-18 season of $68.5 million which would create salary cap space of roughly $4.5 million on a $73 million salary cap ceiling. That salary cap space will be utilized to sign restricted free-agent Colton Parayko.

However, $73 million is the minimum salary cap ceiling projection for next season. The NHL and NHLPA will negotiate a salary cap inflator, per the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), that could push the salary cap five percent higher to a salary cap ceiling of more than $76 million.

It is unlikely that the NHLPA agrees to the full five percent increase due to the increased escrow that would result from the salary cap inflator. NHL players currently have 15.5 percent of their season’s salary withheld into an escrow account to cover any offsetting difference between their collective salaries and 50 percent of the league’s Hockey-Related Revenue.

Player escrow is going to be the number one issue in collective bargaining negotiations when the players’ association likely exercises their right to re-open the CBA in 2020. Players are growing increasing frustrated by the escrow agreement; however a modest rise in the upper-limit of the NHL salary cap is likely for the 2017-18 season.

Regardless of a stagnant or increased salary cap ceiling, what is being overlooked by many in regards to St. Louis’ salary cap situation is that the Blues have movable assets on their roster due to a low-term and manageable cap hits.

Those in St. Louis will point to center Jori Lehtera’s contract as an albatross that the Blues cannot move due to his $4.7 million cap hit and under-performing play.

There are three keys working in the Blues favor in regards to moving Lehtera in the expansion draft or via trade: Lehtera only has two years of term left on his contract, the demand for centers in the league, and the Blues ability to retaining salary in a trade.

Let’s start with the Las Vegas Golden Knights option. Vegas is looking to acquire as many assets as possible as they build their franchise. Vegas can benefit by either selecting Lehtera in the expansion draft or by acquiring Lehtera via trade.

One of the NHL’s requirements of the Golden Knights in the expansion draft is they must take on at least 60-100 percent of this season’s $73 million upper salary cap limit. That means Vegas’ 30 expansion draft choices must have a collective cap hit of at least $43.8 million.

The Golden Knights will be looking for unprotected players around the league with salary combined with short term to meet this requirement without taking on contracts that could burden the club for more than their first two seasons. Lehtera fits this profile and he also plays the position that will be hardest for Vegas to acquire in the draft.

Working against the Blues is that Vegas might see other Blues options as more attractive alternatives for the expansion draft such as defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and forwards David Perron or Dmitrij Jaskin. However, Vegas is also looking for players that they can flip in future trades in return for picks and prospects.

This is where a Blues trade of Lehtera to Las Vegas can make the most sense for both clubs. Vegas is going to struggle to acquire any sort of depth at the center position, and for Vegas’ motives, Lehtera will be one of their best options. The Blues also possess the ability to retain 50 percent of Lehtera’s contract in a trade with Vegas.

Under this scenario, the Blues would still hold a $2.35 million cap hit on Lehtera for the next two seasons, but that would provide the Blues a better option than a buyout which would place a $1.6, $1.3, $1.6, and $1.6 million cap hit for the next four seasons, respectively.

Besides Lehtera, the Blues have other trade candidates with cap friendly salaries and term in Gunnarsson and Perron.

The 30-year old Gunnarsson has two-years remaining on his contract with a $2.9 million cap hit each season. Gunnarsson is a steady defenseman who has trade value around the league with more teams needing defensive depth than not.

The Blues are in the advantageous position of having strong defensive depth in their system with prospects Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman and Vince Dunn poised to step in at the NHL level.

Perron is another trade candidate to open up cap space, with only a year remaining on his contract carrying a $3.75 million cap hit. While Perron had a disappointing playoff campaign this season, recording only one assist in 11 games, he was a productive regular season performer scoring 46 points with 18 goals.

Perron only has a limited no-trade clause with a three-team no-trade list so Armstrong can make him available to a majority of teams. Prior to his signing with the Blues last July, Montreal was showing interest in the Quebec native and is a team to look at if Perron is on the market.

Gunnarsson, Lehtera, and Perron represent $11.75 million in cap space that is likely movable in some way for Armstrong ,which will open up significant cap space to make a move this off-season even without any increase in the salary cap.