Friday, May 18, 2012

Blues' immediate future will be determined by budget, future CBA

Changes will be made to current roster despite highly successful regular season

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When his Blues were swept out of the Western Conference Semifinals by the Los Angeles Kings, general manager Doug Armstrong didn't waste any time turning his attentions to a plan looking ahead to next season.

Yes, there's the uncertainty of the current collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire on Sept. 15, but until someone tells him to stop working, Armstrong will continue to build the Blues as he sees fit -- and to improve on one of the best seasons in franchise history.

And with new ownership in place in Summit Distributing Chairman and CEO Tom Stillman leading the way along with 15 other local investors, there's a level of anticipation among the Blues community wondering which direction the hockey operations will go now that ownership stability is in place.

Of course, there's a question of a budget, which will determine just what the Blues will do when the summer season kicks in. When asked if he'd like a larger budget to work with, Armstrong didn't waste time responding with a laugh: "I'm a [general] manager, you always want a bigger budget."

(Getty Images)
Should the Blues have interest in Nashville's Ryan
Suter if he hits the open market on July 1st? He
would give the Blues a terrific 1-2 punch with Alex
Pietrangelo on the blue line. But he will cost
a lot to acquire.

The Blues' payroll was in the bottom 10 of the NHL this past season [$54,872,778], and judging by the remaining four teams left competing for the Stanley Cup, only Phoenix is not in the top 15.

"History's shown that the teams that spend at or near the cap are successful," Armstrong said. "I don't think you have to spend to the cap to be successful, but you have to be competitive in being able to sign your own players. I think that's the key for us staying competitive is signing our own players right now.

"As we all know, there's a new NHL landscape coming on. This CBA expires on Sept. 15th. The NHL and NHLPA will work on what the parameters are. I've been through three or four of these. There's no sense trying to rub a crystal ball because I'm not going to come up with the right answers. I'll get our budget for next season and then we'll find out what the ground rules are and when the CBA is done and we'll respond to that."

The Blues will have a group of unrestricted free agents [Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Chris Porter and Kent Huskins] as well as restricted free agents [T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Chris Stewart] that they will have to make decisions on, then proceed as they see fit. Armstrong and Stillman will discuss parameters of a budget in the near future.

"We'll do that over the next couple weeks," said Stillman, who will also look into extending Armstrong's contract, which has one year remaining on it. "There will be, on my part, a lot of listening there. I'm not going to come in and start making pronouncements. I'm going to learn, learn more first."

Added Armstrong: "That is something that will have to take place here by early June ... to get a budget so we can focus on what we need to do. There's no reason to speculate on that until everything is settled. ... In due course they'll let me know the new parameters to move forward and we'll move forward."

How Armstrong proceeds is also predicated by the fact that the Blues will have even bigger decisions and contracts regarding their own players to look at following the completion of next season. Andy McDonald and B.J. Crombeen can become UFA's, but the list of RFA's includes Patrik Berglund, Matt D'Agostini, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kris Russell, Ian Cole as well as a number of prospects playing in Peoria.

"That's the manager's job is to be able to project one year, two years, five years down the road," Armstrong said. "The one positive is that I'm 100 percent confident that by next July 1st I'll know what the next CBA looks like. [Unrestricted] free agency could be 22, it could be 32. You just respond to that.

"I have a game plan in mind. I don't like to share my game plans very often, but I do have a real true feeling over what we need to do over the next 12, 24, 36 months and at the right point, I'll share that with the right people."

Can the Blues move forward without making any drastic changes? When one doesn't win it all, of course they'll look at ways of making things right. And everyone wants to know if the two most prized UFA's in New Jersey's Zach Parise and Nashville's Ryan Suter [should they hit the open market July 1st] will be on the Blues' radar. Both are going command big dollars and five-plus years on new contracts and have 29 other teams [including their current ones] vying for their services.

(Getty Images)
New Jersey's Zach Parise (front) would give the Blues
an instant infusion of offense if they were to sign the
unrestricted free agent to be.
Despite the second-best record and point total in franchise history (49-22-11), the Blues were still 12 wins away from winning it all, and that means all the regular season accolades weren't enough to push through 16 more wins.

"I've never started a season where I didn't think winning a Stanley Cup shouldn't be our goal," Armstrong said. "We believe we've made progress, but I'm not satisfied. I don't know how when you're not the team at the end that's having a parade that you had a good season. We've made steps towards it, but if we're satisfied now, then we're not going to move forward. If the players believe they've accomplished something, then I think they're going to have to look in the mirror and say what do you really want to accomplish."

Of course, being swept in a four-game series has a lot to do with not being satisfied.

"I think when you lose 4-0, you got beat soundly, and we got beat soundly by a very good L.A. team," Armstrong said. "They beat the No. 1 seed, they beat the No. 2 seed and now they're [beating] the No. 3 seed. L.A. was a team that we played earlier in the year in October ... they gave us our lunch. I thought at that time they were one of the best teams in the league. They seemed to go through an extended period of time where they were trying to find their footing, and they found it at the right time. They were preseason Stanley Cup favorites for a reason. They're showing it now. But they were a better team than we were over the last two weeks. We have to find a way to be able to compete with them. We couldn't do it this time."

However, it doesn't mean the Blues will overhaul the roster. A team that led the NHL in goals against (165) doesn't need much change on the back end as long as the goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott build off their Jennings Trophy season, but improved goal scoring is certainly an area that could use a boost, as the Blues were 21st in the league with 206 (2.51 per game). And if both Jackman and Colaiacovo are not brought back, there will be a void on the left side of the defensive unit.

"You look at the teams that are in play for the Western Conference championship, I would say that committee approach is working pretty well for them," Armstrong said. "I think in the NHL, it is scoring by committee, it's game by committee. The floor is so close to the ceiling now in the NHL. There are no elite super-teams. There are no really bad teams. What you want to do is to get yourself into that top six or seven and stay out of that bottom six or seven because everybody else is the same. This year we were able to get out of that midpoint ... we were able to get out of that bottom point. That was the first step. We got out of that bottom six. We stepped right through the mid-level to the upper echelon.

"Our goal is to stay up at that upper echelon so we're not battling every March just for the right to get into the playoffs. That's a huge challenge. That's not easy to do, but that is our challenge."

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