St. Louis Blues: What to Make of Doug Armstrong’s Offseason Plans

Mar 2, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong smiles as he speaks with media during a press conference for the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey at Intercontinental Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong smiles as he speaks with media during a press conference for the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey at Intercontinental Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

Along with head coach Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong held a nearly hour-long press conference on Tuesday morning. What can we take away from Armstrong’s comments about how he plans to approach this offseason?

On Tuesday morning, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock held their season wrap-up press conference, discussing Hitchcock’s one-year contract extension and impending retirement after 2016-17, as well as their plans to once again make the Blues a Stanley Cup contender in Hitchcock’s final season. While the statements in these press conferences are often vague and of a political nature, there can be some interesting information to be taken away from them.

Here are a few interesting things to ponder regarding Armstrong’s comments on Tuesday:

  • David Backes probably won’t be re-signed unless Armstrong can get something accomplished on the trade market.

While Armstrong remarked that Backes has “a lot of good years left in him”, he also made it a point to say that Backes is 32 years old, basically suggesting that the Blues can’t afford to break the bank long-term for a big, physical player who’s only going to get slower from here on out. By stating that the Blues’ top goal this offseason is to get forward Jaden Schwartz, a restricted free agent, signed to a long-term deal, Armstrong classified re-signing Backes, a player who’s going to be one of the better unrestricted free agents available on the market this July, as the Blues’ second priority. The Blues have already lessened the available cap space available for bringing Backes back by re-signing Carl Gunnarsson and giving Joel Edmundson a raise, and that pool will only be further minimized if the team brings back forward Vladimir Sobotka, who will be playing on a one-year, $2.725 million-dollar deal whenever he decides to return from the KHL.

Considering that they’ll have five unrestricted free agent forwards this offseason, four of which they’d like to retain, it seems that the only feasible solution for bringing Backes back would involve freeing up some salary via trade, whether that involves moving Kevin Shattenkirk or getting rid of a goalie.

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  • Armstrong doesn’t appear to be totally close-minded to the idea of trading Brian Elliott, though he clearly recognizes his value.

When asked about the Blues’ goalie situation for next year, Armstrong didn’t exactly sound as if he was dead-set on keeping both Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, saying “I can see us coming back with both goaltenders.” He seemed to place more focus on Allen’s bright future, stating that “I think Jake is still pushing towards being an upper-echelon goalie.” While Armstrong may just be trying to leave the door cracked open for a move in case he gets an incredible offer for Elliott, the second half and postseason star, it might actually be advantageous for the Blues to pick a number one goaltender and move forward with a less expensive backup in 2016-17. Since Elliott is five years older, slightly costlier next year, and coming off a better season, he’d seem to be the more logical trade candidate.

If the Blues were to move Elliott, it could free up much of his $2.5 million-dollar salary next year and give the team more flexibility to keep Shattenkirk and/or sign their unrestricted forwards. With that said, Armstrong later made it sound as if he plans on having a spirited goalie competition again this fall, saying that “Jake’s preparing to wrestle (the starting job) back in September.”

  • Armstrong wants the team to get faster, and that could be the primary focus of the team’s wheelings and dealings this offseason.

One interesting thing that stood out during the Blues’ deep playoff run: though they were certainly a speedier and more skilled team than the one that lost to the Minnesota Wild in the first round a year ago, they still seemed to be flustered by the suffocating speed that the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks brought on all four lines. This is by no means to say that an attack based on more strategic puck movement and hard-nosed physicality can’t work in the NHL anymore; after all, the Los Angeles Kings won a division doing it this year, while the Blues were able to take down Chicago and win two games against San Jose.

Armstrong repeatedly emphasized the importance of speed in today’s game on Tuesday, though, particularly speaking to its prevalence on the blueline and stating that we might be in an age where a team can only afford to have one stay-at-home “bruiser” among their defensive corps. (Among the Blues’ regular top six this year, that guy was most commonly Joel Edmundson, though he is infinitely more skilled than, say, Roman Polak). The Blues appear to be in good shape where defensive speed is concerned, though if they decide to trade Shattenkirk, it will be important that they replace him with a guy such as Jordan Schmaltz or Petteri Lindbohm, rather than with an attacking defenseman like Bortuzzo.

It should be interesting to see what direction the team goes to improve speed among the forwards, too. If Backes departs, that would definitely be an opportunity for the club to replace him with a speedier guy like Ty Rattie or, eventually, Ivan Barbashev. Also, though Ryan Reaves is a solid skater in his own right, it might be interesting to see if guys like Scottie Upshall and Magnus Paajarvi are kept around in order to add more speed to the fourth line and make it more comparable to the skillful fourth lines that teams like Chicago and San Jose use.

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  • Vladimir Sobotka will probably be back, though we’ve been fooled before.

Armstrong seemed cautiously optimistic about forward Vladimir Sobotka, who’s spent the past two seasons in the KHL, returning to the Blues next season: “I talk to his agent maybe once every few weeks…I think he’s coming back…I thought he was going to come back a couple times during the season, we had conversations, he was getting himself out of his KHL deal…for whatever reason it didn’t work out.” With the way Armstrong described the situation, he’s heard this story too many times before to reasonably be confident that Sobotka’s going to be wearing the Bluenote in the fall. While Sobotka packed a nice bunch as a bottom-six forward prior to his departure, maybe it’d be better if Sobotka ultimately decided not to return.

Obviously Sobotka’s addition will take up more precious salary cap space that could otherwise be used to retain guys like Backes, Troy Brouwer, Scottie Upshall, and Kyle Brodziak, though his ability to provide aggressiveness, a little bit of offense, and the ability to play both center and the wing means that the Blues could afford to let a fourth-liner like Upshall or Brodziak go. With that said, the organization might be a bit overly nostalgic about what Sobotka can bring to the organization for nearly $3 million, considering that his career bests in games played and goals scored are 73 and nine, respectively. Meanwhile, Upshall played for $700,000 this season, skating in 70 games while offering six goals, eight assists, and superior speed and durability to Sobotka. The Blues are fixated on getting the one-year, $2.725M deal that they were awarded in arbitration from Sobotka, but it should be interesting to see how well the undersized grinder actually fits their current style.

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  • Ty Rattie is going to get a real chance to contribute during 2016-17.

When asked about players at the AHL level who could potentially make the jump to the NHL next season, the only player who Armstrong specifically took the time to mention was winger Ty Rattie, saying, “He’s played three years in the American Hockey League now…he needs to get a very good look at what we’re doing here.” Though there are still questions about the 6-foot, 180-pound Rattie’s ability to play effectively in his own zone, he answered questions about his ability to be offensively productive at the NHL level in 2015-16 by scoring four goals and adding two assists in 13 contests with the Blues.

Rattie might not be the best fit for a fourth-line role, which is where he’d likely spend much of his time next season, especially if Backes and/or Brouwer is brought back. With the way the league is trending, though, it’s necessary for all four forward lines to bring some offensive ability, and since Rattie can bring solid speed and a little bit of physicality, he could end up being a nice role player who can rotate in and out with Ryan Reaves as matchups dictate come October. If a spot should open up among the Blues’ top nine, he’d certainly also rival Dmitrij Jaskin as a worthy candidate to enter the fray.