By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong just completed his first season as the general manager of the Blues and sat down to discuss a variety of topics. He details his disappointment in not making the playoffs and that the nucleus of the team is already here, among other things:
What does this team need going forward?
I'm going meet with the coaches over the next couple of weeks and dissect the group individually and then as a team. I think the nucleus of our team moving forward is here right now. We're going to continue with this group the way it's constructed. What I saw this year is, when we sustained long-term injuries, we didn't have the depth. And it wasn't the depth in the minor leagues. It was probably the depth at the NHL level to go up the lineup. I think if we can add some depth, that's one area that we'll look at. My feeling is that the heavy lifting is going to be done by the players that were on the ice now.
This year, we entered the season staying out of free agency because we wanted to see how some of these players were going to play. I thought some players, we got a good read on. David Backes is the player that we thought he was going to be. At his age now, I don't see a lot of change in his game. I think he's going to be a consistent 60-70 point player. I think he's going to be a consistent physical force, and a consistent leader. Two players we were hoping to get a better read on that we didn't were (David) Perron and (T.J.) Oshie, both due to injuries. We were going to give them that opportunity, and David obviously only play 10 games and T.J. missing the real meat of the season, we weren't able to get a good read on how he fits, not only in the league, but how he fits on our team.
On the backend, we started the season hoping Petro (Alex Pietrangelo) was going to be NHL-ready and be surprised if he was going to be a go-to, count-on player. Obviously we were pleasantly surprised. He's a player that you're always concerned how players are going to respond the second season, (but) I'm not concerned that he's not going to come back and be the same player moving forward. I think he's experiences in junior, at the world junior championships ... he doesn't seem to have a game that's going to be exposed. The last 15 or 20 games when teams were playing against the Blues, that name was circled, be aware of him, be aware of his creativity ... and he responded well to that. That's the biggest challenge for a first- or second-year player, you're not a new face. Teams circle your name. Our opponent will go in and say these are the players we've got to be keyed on, and Petro, I'm not concerned will have a fallback at the end of the day. I'll be proved right or wrong by his actions, but I think he's the type of player that's not going to have a big valley in his second year. Then in goal, I thought Jaro came in, had the great start, had the great finish, but what we need to do ... I don't think Jaro needs to be a top 2-3 goalie in the league for us to have a successful season, but I think Jaro should demand of himself to be in the top 10 in the all the categories that goalies are judged on. I think if he's able to get into that area that we'll be a playoff team and a very dangerous playoff team. I think learning the conference was one thing, also learning what it means to be a starter, preparing mentally and physically, understanding the challenges that are there in the dog days, is something ... I expected there to be a learning curve and there was. Now I expect that curve to be finished. I expect him to settle in to the goalie that he's going to be. We need him to be the goalie that we traded for.
Because of the youth on the backend, do you think you need to add a veteran defenseman to go with Barret Jackman?
I think the same holds true on defense that it does up front. Depending on what's available, depending on my meetings with the coaches on what we need ...veteran players are important on a team that wants to move ahead. We have to judge a lot of things on the players that we have returning. What type of role they're going to take? I want to really dig down when we talk about Petro? Where do we see a player like (Nikita) Nikitin? Ian Cole showed flashes of what he's going to be. I think there's going to be a lot of internal work that has to be done ... usually it's early June when the trades start happening, when teams start talking about what they need to do. Then usually there are very few trades after the draft. It's usually the free agent period and then you'll get into August when the trades start up. I think we'll have a really good indication after our meetings. I want to meet with our pro scouts and do the proper due diligence. Unfortunately, we have nothing but time on our hands right now, so we might as well use it.
If you do bring in a veteran defenseman, what does that mean for guys like Ian Cole and Nikita Nikitin, who would be battling for a sixth or seventh spot?
If you bring one in (via) free agency, then you have to make space for them. If you bring one in via trade, you might not have to make space for them. They might be taking someone's job. I think it's best to wait and find out, if we bring one in, how we bring them in ... and how it's going to affect the players coming back.
Do you expect the coaching staff to remain intact?
Yeah, I do. Obviously Davis (Payne) and I will sit down and discuss that. I'll meet with Davis and his staff when I return from Europe. We'll go over it, but I think it was a great learning curve for that coaching staff to have to deal with what they've had to deal with, and I don't see any reason why, if they want to return, why we wouldn't go ahead with them.
That means extensions for (assistant coaches Brad) Shaw and (Ray) Bennett?
You have a number of restricted free agents. Where do those negotiations stand? How quickly would you like to have that taken care of?
I'm not concerned with expediting that. My experience in the past has shown that if there's a deal there to be made, you make it. And if there's not a comfort level, you let July 1 (come). Every player has the option to become a restricted free agent. They have the option to see there's one team out there that covets them to the level of giving up a lot of draft picks, and then the team has to respond. What makes these Type A personalities, they think there always 'The guy.' So sometimes you have to let them run the course and find out that maybe there's not the offer sheet and they've got to come back and negotiate. And if there is, you respond to it. If there's a deal there to be made, I'm all in favor of making it. But there has to be a comfort level from everybody that now is the time to make it. And if I talk to some guys and they say 'Now is the time,' great. July 1, the pendulum is right in the middle. It swings back and forth on leverage, and right now, there's no timing issues.
Have you been told what your budget will be for 2011-12?
No. We haven't had any indication from ownership on what the number will be next year. Obviously with Mr. (Dave) Checketts' situation, looking to sell the team, I certainly respect that there are other things more important right now. And with that being said, there's no immediate rush to have a budget for next year right now.
Would you normally have a budget right now?
I think all teams work differently. At different times, this cap system is change. A lot of teams know their budget as soon as they see that cap number, a lot of teams know at different times. As a manager, when you get the information, you just deal with the cards that you're dealt. I'm in no rush because I really believe that the nucleus of our team is here. I'm 100 percent guaranteed that whatever the budget is, we're going to be able to get our restricted free agents signed, so I'm not concerned about that.
So you have a good idea where each of those restricted free agents is going to fall in salary-wise?
Yes, we do. Obviously during the season, you think about negotiating and you think about arbitration. Players that have arbitration rights, you follow what their comparable group is going to do, you have an understanding what that number is going to be. You have a good understanding of what you're willing to pay, and they have a good understanding of what they're willing to accept. It's much more of an arm-wrestling with a player without arbitration rights than it is with arbitration rights, because with arbitration rights everybody knows that there's a mechanism there for a third party to judge your worth. For a player without rights, two parties have to agree on a worth.
Did you agree with what David Backes said about people using the Blues' youth and injuries as excuses?
I didn't hear David's comments in their entirety, I'm not sure who's making excuses for injuries. I'm not. I'm shocked if the players are. So, you deal with the cards that you're dealt. Other teams have injuries. It's a reality of our business. We're paid to get a job done and we're paid to make the playoffs. And, quite honestly, we're all paid quite handsomely to do that, and we didn't accomplish that. There's outside factors that come into that. But I'd be disappointed that if we got to next Oct. 14, and someone gets a concussion, and the guys say, 'Ok, this year's over.' That's not the mindset you need. Again, I'm not paraphrasing that's what David said. Injuries are part of the game. I did read his comments. I do understand where he's coming from. The fans have been very patient building with youth. But we're not a young team anymore. I think that's been very clear with everyone that I work with, coaches, players. We're not a young team anymore. That is gone. We want to make it very hard for young players to get on this team. Internally, we don't have to count on players without NHL experience to get us to an area that we want to get to. The players that are going to get us to where we want to get to are here now.
There's a lot of talk about top-six forwards, defensemen and goaltending. But what about the third- and fourth-line forwards. How can you build them up and make the team better?
That gets into the depth of your team, that NHL depth. I'd like to publicly say it, the person who took the greatest advantage of his opportunity was (Chris) Porter. He came in and he really stepped up. In his role, he was the most effective of the call-up players in my opinion. He was the one guy that came in and really said that he wants to position himself to be on the cups of being an everyday NHL player. (Ryan) Reaves came up and played well, too, but no one was more consistent at that than Porter. So I want to give that accolade to him. A lot of players are going to be coming back on two-way contracts. A lot of players are going to have to fight and earn that spot. If we have the depth and these players don't earn that right, then they have to start in Peoria. I'm excited about what Porter did, I'm excited about what Reaves did, I'm excited (Vladimir) Sobotka back again, (B.J.) Crombeen ... I think there's good depth there.
Do you expect Cam Janssen to be back next season?
I haven't met with any of the coaches yet on any of the players, not just the unrestricted guys. It'll be something that we digest. We'll probably make those decisions, not in May, but more into June.
Do you feel a need for his role, even if it's not him?
I think that Cam lent a comfort level to the players. But I think Ryan Reaves also lent a comfort level to the players. My vision of the NHL is that there's more and more light heavyweights on each team ... do you need a one-dimensional player? I'm not saying that Cam is a one-dimensional player, but do you need a guy with a singular element that outweighs all the others. Or is a team toughness attitude the way you want to go. That's an organizational decision that I want to sit with our coaching staff about, and quite honestly, I want to talk to our players. They're on the ice, they know what's going on on the ice. I'd like to get their input on the different styles that are needed to be a competitive team. They're the ones in the trenches, they know exactly what's going on. It would be foolish for me not to tap into the experience of our veteran players, like a (Alex) Steen, like a (Andy) McDonald, like a Backes ... to get their input on today's game.
Do you think Reaves is to the level that he can handle the job from Day 1?
I think he's going to come back, he's one of those players that's restricted. He's going to come back in, he's going to be given the opportunity in training camp to play some games without a safety net, without other guys in there. All indications are from when he played, he looked very comfortable with some pretty big guys in this league. He's a huge man, he's got great size, he can skate ... there's a lot of really intriguing things there for that player. Probably a lot like (Columbus') Jared Boll. That's the one that keeps popping into my mind. If he continues to grow, a player like that.
Based on what you know now, would David Perron be in the lineup next year?
No. Based on, he hasn't changed from Game 11. You have to pass the protocol of being able to go symptom-free for a time. That's when the clock starts on doing the test. He's not to that level yet. If the season was to start tomorrow, he would not be in it. He would not be playing. The reality is, time being an ally in David's situation, we're going to give this time. But if we get into mid-summer, and he's at the same position he is this summer, we have to hope for the best, but plan for him to not be part of our roster ... until he clears. That's just the nature of the beast. It's an ugly part of the business, where you care about the individual as a person, you want the best for them, but you can't leave roster spots on the hope and the wish and the maybe. His health will tell us how close he is, or how far he is. Then you have to respond to it. But we don't have to make that decision as an organization until July at the absolute earliest. Again, he could spike positively in the next two weeks, or he could spike negatively. I don't know enough about concussions, I don't know how he's going to feel.
You said Perron won't be ready for the 2011-12 opener the way he is "now." Some will take your answer to mean that he definitely won't be ready for the opener. Are you saying that?
Thanks for clarifying. When he got hurt, did I expect him to be back on January 1? Sure. Did I expect him to be back on February 1? Sure. Did I expect him to be back March 1? Sure. Do I expect him to be back? Sure, I expect him to. But all those dates are getting clicked off the calendar and that piece of paper getting thrown away and you get into the next month. I was trying to say, if training camp started tomorrow and we had one month, I wouldn't expect David to be on the ice. Now, that's not the case, so I'm not trying to be evasive, but I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know how he's going to feel. What we have to do now is get David healthy enough just to be able to train to play. With these concussions, we all know, he can't train yet. He doesn't have the ability to go for a six or eight mile run or ride the bike for an hour. He's still showing symptoms, keeping him inactive from physical exertion.
Perron has been tight-lipped about his symptoms, but one thing that has cropped up is his neck pain. Is he dealing with something in addition to concussion symptoms?
Not trying to be evasive, but I need to know the time, I don't need to know how the watch is built. Whether it's neck related, back related ... at the end of the day it's a concussion. And when the trainers tell me that those symptoms are gone, then he moves forward. I'm not one to try and dig in and find the studies to say, 'Ok, you should be doing this.' These doctors and trainers get paid to make those decisions.
If you don't have Perron, do you need another skilled forward, or are you happy with the skill level of this team?
I like the skill, I like our ability to score goals in different ways. I think we've seen that over the last 20 games, that we have the ability to score goals in different ways. Our power play can be a determining factor in a positive fashion for this team. There's enough skill there. Again, depth is an area that we might want to address ... you ask a coach, you'd always like more skill. I don't mind our skill level though. We have to learn, our skill players as well as everyone, has to learn how to defend and defend leads. We have to play much better in one-goal games. We have to shut games down. Talking to a couple of (general) managers, you have to gain points in 70 percent of the games. You have to find a way to grab a point. You can't let that game slip away. There's a couple of examples in my mind that we lost some points in the third periods of games. All of the sudden, that turns into a streak of four or five games without points. It's a difficult league when you need 97 points to get into the playoffs. You better be grabbing points on most nights, and to do that, you better learn how to defend a lead, and you better be comfortable playing in one-goal games.
How would you rate Davis Payne's performance?
I thought Davis got his eyes opened. I say that in a positive fashion. He came in last year in a difficult situation, but faced very little adversity from the time he took over, except taking over a new job and a new team. But the team responded, they played well, we went through the season, there was too big of a gap to close. But he wasn't dealing with a lot of injuries, wasn't dealing with player trades. He didn't have a lot to deal with, except just keep pushing that group forward. I think in his first full year, he had to deal with training camp at the NHL level. When you're dealing with minor-league players, you're dealing with, 'OK, how can I help you get to where you want to go to.' They need the coach as an ally as much as anything. At the NHL level, quite honestly, it's more business oriented. You're dealing with players that are arbitration-eligible, going to be unrestricted free agents. Those are things that as a minor-league coach, you're not dealing with as much of that. It's more of a, 'Hey, we're in this together, I've got to get you to where you want to go to.' Well now they're here. So he had to learn how to deal with that, and I thought he did a very good job. I thought it benefited him being from the AHL, an ever-changing roster and getting them to buy into a system. I thought he did a good job with that. I thought he did well given the circumstances that he had to deal with on different occasions. The one thing you like as a manager, not once did I hear it from him ... the grumbling about the players. The wrong players, we need, we need. The coaches' job is to coach the players that they're given. I thought Davis did a fabulous job of not playing the 'What if' card, or the 'We don't have enough card.' Every time I talked to him, it was 'We've got to win.' Sometimes you feel you're getting that in lip service, but I thought he coached like that, too. He coached with the expectation of needing to win. He coached giving the guys the opportunity to present a different spot in their game. All in all, I thought it was a great learning experience for Davis. Probably more than he needed, or wanted, but I think it's going to make him a better coach moving forward.
What can you tell us about Vladimir Tarasenko and the possibility of him playing with the Blues next season?
I'd like him here next week (laughing). For sure, we'd love to have him over here. Let me rephrase that, I'm glad he's not here next week because he's currently trying to make that Russian national team for the World Championships. I hope he makes that. That's an unbelievable experience for a young player. We obviously have players going over, and if he could gain that experience playing against some NHL player, it's only going to make him stronger. But with that being said, we'd love to get him signed, we'd love to get him over here. Is he NHL ready? He'll have to decide that in training camp. I'm not a big believer, like with Petro ... you don't count on them. You hope for the best, but you plan for them to be 20 year old players, 19 year old players.
I'm probably skewed more than the norm, in the respect for the league, in that it's a man's league. These guys are trying to earn a living. If you're an experienced player on the St. Louis Blues, you want the guy that can help you win, because that's how you make your living. They're not here to baby sit, they're not here to guide guys on, we're not maybe where we were three or four years ago, with a bunch of young guys. They want the future to be now, those players. So if Tarasenko gets here, he's going to be given the opportunity to prove that he's an NHL-caliber player. Now the reverse side of that is, sometimes when you're a better team, it's easier to bring a young player on because there's no expectation that we need you to move the needle the extra 10 percent or eight percent to make us a playoff team. I think the situation with Tarasenko is very good. Watching him play at the international level at the Worlds, I'm going to get a chance to see him play hopefully a couple of times over the next month or so, he looks as NHL ready as any of the players at the World Juniors. And some of those players are going to make the NHL next year, I guarantee it. Now he has to deal with the language, he has to deal with the culture, he has to deal with guys that want his job. I guarantee you the players we talked about earlier aren't going to say, 'I didn't know Vladi was coming here, send me to the minors.' That's not going to happen. He's going to have to come in here and do something he's never had to do in North America, fight for a spot, create a space for himself, create a comfort level for a coach to say, 'I need him on the team.' As much as we want, or hope, or wish, it's really irrelevant. It comes down to the athlete getting the job done out on the ice.
What's the outlook on the backup goaltending position, and is Ben Bishop a player who could be that guy?
That's going to be a good discussion moving forward. (Peoria) is entering the playoffs right now. Ben has an injury. I feel for Ben because he came up here and played very well, went down there and as you get into the most exciting time of the year, he sustained an injury, so Jake has got the ball right now, and he got that team into the playoffs. He's got the net right now. We're going to have to decide. I'm going to spend a lot of time with (Blues goaltending coach) Corey (Hirsch) to get the understanding of what he believes is necessary. If it's not Ben Bishop, then it's either going to be Ty Conklin or someone else. Could be Jake. Let's say Jake Allen gets in the net, and all of the sudden, they're celebrating a championship, you have to look at him maybe a bit differently than a week ago. I think there's competition at the American League level that's going to give us some answers, and there's also some real strong dialogue with Corey Hirsch and Davis Payne on where we want to go, what we want to be, how those guys can help us get there ... and also an understanding of what's available. But I want to preface that by (saying) Jaro is the guy. Jaro has to be the guy that we described earlier for us to have success.
If Allen led Peoria to the AHL championship, you'd give the Blues' backup job to a 20-year-old?
You never know.