There are at least three veteran options for Blues GM Doug Armstrong to pursue as the NHL free agent signing period begins on Saturday. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Nicholas Hand

The NHL’s unrestricted free agent signing period begins at 11 a.m. St. Louis time on Saturday and the Blues are expected to be active in hopes of landing another forward to address their remaining needs up front.

First, let’s break down the Blues salary cap space entering Saturday morning. The Blues currently have 18 players signed totaling nearly $64.2 million towards the $75 million salary cap, leaving $10.8 million in cap space.

With high-profile restricted free-agent defenseman Colton Parayko still to sign along with newly acquired restricted free-agent forward Oskar Sundqvist, the Blues will still have three open spaces available on the active 23-man roster.

Parayko will likely receive a $4 million to $6 million average annual value (AAV) contract depending upon the length of the deal. If the Blues and Parayko agree to a shorter-term deal, Parayko will likely be looking at a contract in the $4 million to $5 million range. If the Blues can lock Parayko into a longer-term deal, it will likely advance past the $5.5 million to $6 million range.

It is also important to note that Parayko is arbitration eligible, and the Blues and Parayko could elect for arbitration if the sides are unable to reach an agreement in July.
Sundqvist should be a simple negotiation somewhere in the range of $900,000 to $1 million for the restricted free-agent without arbitration rights.

Along with another likely entry-level contract on the salary cap, the Blues will have roughly $3.5 million to $4.5 million of salary cap space for unrestricted free agency entering Saturday without any additional moves this off-season. Per the collective bargaining agreement, NHL teams are also allowed to exceed the maximum salary cap by 10 percent during the off-season but must be cap compliant by the start of the regular season.

The Blues have an immediate need for a scoring line right-winger and there are several potential targets the Blues coul sign on Saturday. In addition, while newly-acquired forward Brayden Schenn is currently penciled in to play center, Schenn is comfortable at all three forward positions and could slide over to right wing if the Blues find another center in free agency.

Here is a look at who should be the top three free-agent targets for the Blues at forward:

1. Justin Williams, right wing

The 35-year-old Williams is coming off another productive season with the Washington Capitals, scoring 24 goals and 48 points in the 2016-17 season. Nicknamed “Mr. Game Seven” for his knack for clutch goals in deciding game sevens in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blues would be thrilled to gain his postseason experience and Cup-winning pedigree.

Williams’ main desire is to win another championship and he will likely take less than market value for the team and fit he feels is best to hoist another Stanley Cup. Williams took less the last time he was in free agency in 2015, signing with the Capitals on a two-year deal for $3.25 million AAV.

Williams is an attractive target for the Blues because he would fill a role similar to Troy Brouwer from two seasons ago, but with additional goal production. With Brouwer, the Blues had a terrific line of Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Brouwer and the addition of Williams would likely reignite the chemistry of Fabbri and Stastny on his line.

2. Joe Thornton, center

The soon to be 38-year old Thornton is coming off knee surgery but remains one of the league’s best passing centers. Thornton only had seven goals last season but his 43 assists were the most of any unrestricted free agent.

Even though Thornton has lost a step, he was productive for the Sharks in the second half of the season and in the playoffs despite needing knee surgery. The biggest question facing Thornton is if he will indeed leave the San Jose Sharks, the franchise he has played for the last 12 seasons.

If Thornton does leave, he will draw significant interest around the league with the Blues being one of the suitors. The biggest issue for the Blues will likely be the amount of term offered to Thornton, who is rumored to be looking for a three-year deal. If Thornton is interested in St. Louis, the Blues would likely only want to commit to a two-year contract. A salary around $5 million would also be a tight fit but the Blues could make another move with a depth forward or defenseman to accommodate the free-agent acquisition within their salary cap.

This is likely the only signing the Blues could make in free agency that would force Schenn back to right wing. While unlikely to occur, the idea of Thornton setting up Vladimir Tarasenko and playing center with his hard-nosed grit and his 6-foot-4, 220-pound body is intriguing for the Blues.

3. Radim Vrbata, right wing

The 36-year-old Vrbata is one of the more underrated free agent options. Even at his age, Vrbata has a tremendous shot and is a strong power-play weapon playing right wing. Vrbata is just one of four unrestricted free agents who scored 20 goals in the 2016-2017 season, and would improve the Blues right wing options that currently include Tarasenko and Dmitrij Jaskin.

Vrbata took a $1 million salary and made another $1 million in performance bonuses last season for a $2 million final cap hit on a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes. He will likely be available on another one-year contract at a similar price and will likely make it past Saturday unsigned, providing the Blues a backup option should they miss out on either Williams or Thornton.

Other second-tier right wing free agents available in free agency include 45-year old Jaromir Jagr, who while clearly losing another step last season did produce 16 goals and 46 points playing every game for the Florida Panthers, and 35-year old Patrick Sharp, who only played in 48 games with the Stars scoring eight goals and 10 assists.

The Blues also have a fourth option if they strike out in free agency which would be internal options through their development system.

Sundqvist is a right-handed shot who could be given a look at right wing. Fellow center prospect Tage Thompson, the Blues first round pick from 2016, is also a right-handed shot and could attempt to make the big squad out of training camp in a right-wing role.

Prospect Jordan Kyrou is a right-winger who scored 30 goals and 64 assists in the Ontario Hockey League in major juniors last season and could receive a nine-game tryout to start the regular season if he impresses in training camp.

Perhaps the most intriguing internal option is Klim Kostin, the Blues 31st overall pick in last week’s draft. Kostin is a left-handed shot but plays his off-wing and is a projected power-forward type at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. While the 18-year old is very inexperienced in the North American game, he does have some experience playing pro hockey in the KHL and scouts believe he already skates at an NHL-level to go with his impressive skill and hands.

If Blues general manager Doug Armstrong does not sign a free-agent forward, it likely signals that he believes one of the prospects can play right wing at the NHL-level immediately. Armstrong has shown a propensity for fiscal restraint in previous free agent periods, making responsible decisions that are best for the health of the franchise both in the short and long-term.

Armstrong’s prior moves and not re-signing David Backes or Brouwer last summer has put him in this position of limited increased flexibility. If Armstrong can provide the Blues an upgrade at forward with a reasonable term on Saturday, the time is now to pull the trigger.