Since the NHL lockout in 2004-05, the surprise in the size of the contracts signed in the opening week of free agency has worn off.
But with another lockout potentially looming, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said that teams were dealt another "eye-opening" financial obstacle when they went searching for free agents this month.
The headline players in the class were forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. The Blues were not involved with either of the players, who eventually signed monstrous, matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild.
But included in each of those deals, a byproduct of players' fears about the collective bargaining agreement expiring Sept. 15 and lockout ensuing, were $10 million signing bonuses.
The Blues did express interest in free-agent defensemen Matt Carle and Jason Garrison, and in fact were heavily involved in negotiations with Carle. But he signed a six-year, $33 million contract with Tampa Bay, and Garrison inked a six-year, $27.6 million deal with Vancouver.
The annual average for Carle ($5.5 million) would have given him the highest cap hit on the Blues' roster next season, while Garrison ($4.6 million) would have been slightly under the current highest average on club (Andy McDonald, $4.7 million).
In addition to those hefty contracts, Carle and Garrison each received $3 million signing bonuses. According to Capgeek.com, their $3 million bonus ranks ninth-highest in the NHL - tied with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who scored 60 goals last season, and twice as much as Chicago's Duncan Keith, who has won a Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.
"I guess I'm never really surprised at what happens in the NHL on certain dates," Armstrong said. "Any time there's an artificial deadline, there seems to be a lot of activity. We certainly saw some very lucrative contracts handed out, some lucrative contracts with signing bonuses handed out, which seems to be a phenomenon that you only have as you're entering into the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement. I don't know if surprised would be the right term as it is eye-opening."
So now, after coming up empty in free agency, the Blues are expected to carry out their search for a top-four defenseman by exploring the trade market. Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester and Phoenix's Keith Yandle might be available, according to reports, and the Blues are thought to have some interest.
Whether it is Bouwmeester, Yandle or another established defenseman, clubs are expected to ask the Blues for a package that could include a top-six forward. But Armstrong said this week that he would not be inclined to move a player from that core group.
"One of the things that this new system has created is you see after a while rob Peter pay Paul," he said. "If you have a hole, you create another hole to do it. I would rather do it with draft picks if I could. That's what I tried to do at the entry draft."
The Blues have several assets such as forwards Jaden Schwartz and Ty Rattie, along with an extra second-round pick in next year's draft, a result of the trade that sent goalie Ben Bishop to Ottawa last season.
"I'd like to try that moving forward, try doing it with non-rostered players if possible because I like our group of forwards but I don't think we have an excessive amount in any one position," Armstrong said. "If we can do it with spending a little bit of our future, I think we're in a spot to do that because of the great work by our amateur scouting staff and Larry Pleau and John Davidson of gaining all of these assets right now. I think our cupboard is fairly stocked that we could go a year if necessary without a pick or two."