Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blues lock up restricted free agents Steen, Sobotka

St. Louis otherwise quiet as free agent
market opened up Thursday morning

ST. LOUIS -- Many teams were busy shelling out large paychecks to some of the big-name free agents Thursday. The Blues and new general manager Doug Armstrong stayed clear of the financial fracas.

The Blues were busy replenishing their own needs by locking up some of their restricted free agents.

Armstrong inked forwards Alex Steen and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka to contracts on Thursday.

Steen, coming off his best offensive season, signed a four-year deal worth a reported $13.45 million, while Sobotka, acquired at last week's NHL Entry Draft, signed a one-year contract for a reported $750,000.

Steen made $1.7 million last season. Sobotka earned $625,000.

The moves came on a day when the NHL opened up the free agent market and when the biggest fish, forward Ilya Kovalchuk, was still on the open market. But plenty of big-name players were plucked from the ranks with large number deals.

"We're not actively looking to sign anyone as of today," Armstrong said Thursday, his first day as executive vice president and general manager after taking over for Larry Pleau. "Once the market defines itself, we'll get out there and make our phone calls."

Steen, 26, and Sobotka, 22, were two of the Blues' nine restricted free agents that have come to terms after forward Matt D'Agostini signed a one-year deal last month.

"Four years ... I'm more than happy," Steen said Thursday. "St. Louis is where I want to be. The Blues really gave me a shot at playing both sides of the game. It's been a while since I got that chance. I look forward to another great year with the guys."

Steen set career-highs in goals (24) and points (47) last season in 68 games. He tied for the team lead in goals and fourth in points. Sobotka tallied four goals and 10 points in 61 games with the Boston Bruins last season.

"Not only was he a very good player last year for us on the ice, but he's an excellent role model and has leadership qualities that we think are very advantageous to our younger players moving forward," Armstrong said of Steen. "The four-year term, we think it gives him some stability and it gives our organization some stability for that core age player.

"We were 100 percent comfortable he was coming back regardless of the long-term deal. To get him signed to a long-term deal to solidify our core moving forward, I believe if you can get those players between the ages of 26-31, that's really the prime hockey-playing part of their career. Alex is just hitting that."

Even though Blues President John Davidson said in April that the Blues were "not in a position to spend $10 million dollars a year," there has been widespread speculation that the Blues were one of a few teams that would be a good fit and likely destination for the 27-year-old Kovalchuk, who finished last season in New Jersey.

Armstrong quickly doused those flames.

"There's a certain point in an organization that you feel comfortable making that plunge," Armstrong said. "Right now, with our younger players continuing to grow, we think it's better for the long-term to find out the growth pattern of these players. Once we do that, we'll have a much better direction of where we want to go.

"Kovalchuk is a great player, but he's not the right player for this organization at this time."

Even though Armstrong has three of his restricted free agents locked into contracts, there are also deals awaiting players such as Erik Johnson, David Perron, newly-acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is eligible for salary arbitration, Cam Janssen, D.J. King and even Jonas Junland.

"We've had conversations with all the agents," Armstrong said. "... We're such a far date away from training camp. I'm not that concerned. I'm comfortable and confident that everyone will be in training camp."

There's also the issue of the Blues potentially bringing back any of their unrestricted free agents, namely defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Mike Weaver. Both have expressed interest in returning but hit the open market on Thursday.

"I've talked to both of those players about coming back," Armstrong said. "I would have no problem if we could fit both of those players in here. It gives really good competition for the younger players to fight to get on the roster. If not on our roster, they can go hone their hockey skills at the (AHL) for however long necessary. We're open to either scenario.

"We're certainly trying to keep the level of communication open and the dialogue very professional. We understand the players' desire to find out what the market is for them. We said to them if you'd like to come back to us and talk about a contract when you have a good understanding of the landscape, we'd have interest in both those players. If not those players, we feel we have good, young players here that can fill that void. Or there's still a vast number of free agents out there that we can look to bring in."

And if the Blues choose not to go the way of the free agent, they have the luxury of working out trades, which Armstrong already has done with the acquisition of Halak and Sobotka.

"As a (general) manager, you're always talking to people," Armstrong said. "You're always finding out what's available. You never know what tomorrow holds. Someone might call with a trade that you can't pass up and can really improve your team. If that happens, we'll do it, we'll explore it. If it makes sense for us, we'll take the plunge. It would have to be the right idea moving forward."

But for now, the Blues are banking on their core group to pick up the scoring slack.

"We believe the strength of our team and the success of our team's going to come from the people that ended the season here last year," Armstrong said. "Obviously, we believe we've made two good acquisitions with Jaro and Sobotka. But the core group of our team, our younger players are no longer considered younger. Actually, they're in their second, third (and) fourth years in the league. We expect them to be every day contributors. There were players that were here last year that we could consider veterans that are going to be needed to take their game up to a different level. The strength of our organization is we believe both of those things could happen. We're not looking to remake our team from the outside. We're looking to grow internally."

* NOTES -- Former Blues goalie Chris Mason found a new home Thursday, signing a two-year, $3.7 million deal with the Atlanta Thrashers. The deal calls for Mason, 34, to make $1.6 million in 2010-11 and $2.1 million in 2011-12. ... The Blues also announced the hiring of Dave Taylor as Director of Player Personnel. Taylor spent the last three seasons in the same role with the Dallas Stars and worked briefly with Armstrong after serving 30 years with the Los Angeles Kings as a player and member of the Kings' front office.

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