Monday, May 13, 2013

Armstrong: team will look if signings/trades make sense

Blues' GM said priority is to take care of their
own, disappointed in ending but proud of season 

ST. LOUIS -- After scoring only 10 goals during their first-round playoff exit against the Los Angeles Kings, immediate connotations point towards the Blues' immediate need to sign/acquire a goal scorer or two.

But while speaking to the media during Sunday's locker room clean up following a six-game defeat to the Kings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong offered the following:

"This is a public cry that for any GM that has 50 goal scorers and wants to send them to St. Louis, give me a call," Armstrong said. "This doesn't happen. You have to deal in reality. The reality is with free agency the way it is now, teams tie up those elusive top-end goal scorers.

GM Doug Armstrong

"I spent the last few days going over the top 20 scorers over the last few years, each year they're drafted by their own teams. ... They draft them ... (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (John) Tavares, (Steven) Stamkos were drafted by those teams. In coming upon the players in this room, to find out how to produce when the lights are the brightest to score those goals, if I can find a guy that can come in and help us score those goals, certainly we're going to look at doing it. But to think that that player is out there and teams just give them away and say, 'Geez, it's St. Louis' time to win, we'll give you (Alexander) Ovechkin,' you've got to deal in reality."

It's now up to Armstrong and the Blues' management team must head into an offseason searching for ways to improve or if possible, upgrade a team talented enough to succeed but still trying to knock down that elusive playoff door that's seemingly been padlocked since the Blues arrived in town in 1967.

But the thoughts of a second straight playoff exit at the hands of the Kings were still fresh in the minds of Armstrong, coach Ken Hitchcock, players and everyone involved in the organization.

"Certainly frustrating, disappointing, a lot of emotion over the last 24 hours," Armstrong said. "I think frustrating (and) disappointing is the way to put it, but now it's time to do a true reflection on where we're at as an organization, where we are, where we are going to go, how we're going to get there."

Armstrong reflected in where the Blues were where he got here and where they are now and points to those signs of progress as considerable building blocks.

"As frustrated and disappointed as I am, I'm still excited," he said. "When I got here five years ago to where we are today, through the work of a lot of great people that are currently here and no longer here, we're moving in the right direction and that's a positive. There's disappointment in our playoffs, but we're not going to throw the baby over the bath water. We are making strides. It's difficult at this time for maybe people to see those strides, but we are a much more competitive team this year against the L.A. Kings than we were a year ago, which is a positive. I said to the players we were a bad team, then we were a bad team that had a good year. Now we're a good team that was supposed to have a good year and we finished sixth in the NHL (29-17-2). That's pretty impressive.

"My belief in playoff success is you knock on the door, you get to the door enough times, sooner or later you'll get through. Where we are now is we're at the door consistently for two years, we're going to get back there and if we put ourselves in this position year in, year out, at some point we'll get through. I truly believe that we're moving in the right direction."

It will be 46 years of Stanley Cup futility for the Blues franchise, who were an expansion team that came into the league the same year as the Kings. They ended their drought with a championship in 2012.

"One of the things that I said to the players: I have sympathy for the St. Louis fans, but the reality is the failures of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90's, 2000s, they don't lie at the feet of T.J. Oshie, they don't lie at the feet of David Backes, they don't lie at the feet of Brian Elliott," Armstrong said. "That's somebody else's issue. We're a better team now than we were two years ago. That's the way I look at it. To live in the past and try and exercise ghosts is irrelevant."

The Blues are a better team now, which is why Armstrong felt like they could compete for the Stanley Cup, which many outside hockey predictors also indicated during the preseason.

"I really felt that this was ... we talk about a window opening and that core group being there. This was one of the times the window was open and we didn't get through," Armstrong said. "The disappointment in that and now it's the mandate to come back and get to this point again and change where we are today, but I felt that this was a team that I believed what the pundits said that we were a Cup-contending team and we didn't get there. But again, we're not going to throw the baby out of the bath water and reinvent the wheel when I don't think it needs reinventing."

Many questions will be faced for Armstrong and company moving forward. What are the team's plans for their restricted free agents, guys who can walk as unrestricted free agents, the three-headed goalie situation which sparked a confrontation between Hitchcock and Jaroslav Halak prior to Game 4 against the Kings.

The goalie question is certainly one to keep an eye on, as the Blues ended the season with Brian Elliott getting the bulk of the action but he and Halak each have another year remaining on their contracts (Elliott with a $1.9 million salary and Halak at $4.5 million). There's also Jake Allen, who will be a restricted free agent but one who will make things interesting moving forward. Armstrong called his goalie situation a "cloudy" one.

"He's certainly proven based on his work this year that he's at the point now where I don't think now going back to the American Hockey League ... I don't think he needs more seasoning," Armstrong said of Allen. "He's one of three right now. He doesn't need waivers to go back to the American Hockey League, but he has proven to me that he deserves an opportunity to play in the NHL.

"I think anything could happen. It was a difficult year for both Elliott and Jaro and I think Jake took great advantage of it. He's proven to us now that he has to go in the equation. Brian got off to a poor start, resurrected himself and had a great finish. Jaro unfortunately had (two separate groin) injuries. We were giving him the ball, he played four of the five (games), and then he got injured again and the season progressed and he didn't get back in the net. It's a cloudy issue right now to be honest with you -- our goaltending situation -- because of how the season's progressed and it's a positive cloudy in one sense (because) Jake has given us things that we have to look at."

Hitchcock's view on the goaltending is pretty simple: Let the competition begin.

"We've got three under contract," he said. "We're in a tough position for three goalies, but we're in a great position organizationally-wise. We've got three good goalies. I'm not sure what we're doing to be honest with you from a play standpoint. All I know is if you're under contract, I'm assuming your coming back and you're going to be ready to go and let the competition stand where it is. That's what training camp's for. I'm looking forward to actually having a training camp myself. I haven't had one here yet. That's three good goalies into two good nets. Who knows where that goes, but I know right now, I'm not sure of the contractual status of Allen. I'm not sure if he has to go on waivers or not. I'm not sure on that. I don't know the rules there, but all I know is we've got three good goalies. Tough on the goalies, good for the coach.

"The stuff with Jaro, that's an every day occurrence. Arguments and discussions that go on with players and playing time and all that stuff that was discussed in the media today, that's the ongoing stuff. If he wasn't pissed and disappointed, I'd be surprised and I don't care. To me, if you're under contract, get ready to play."

The list of the team's restricted free agents is why it may be difficult for the Blues to go out and bring in players when shopping season opens on July 1. The list (defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kris Russell and Ian Cole as well as forwards Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund and Allen) all will be due pay raises, particularly Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk as well as Stewart, who led the Blues in goals (18) and points (36).

Armstrong said the team plans to qualify all their restricted free agents, including ones that played in the American Hockey League, then will attempt to try and sign each one of them.

"Ownership understands that the window is open now and we have to take care of our own," Armstrong said. "I don't see this as being a huge free agency offseason for us. I see it more taking care of our own business and then seeing if we want to re-arrange some of the chairs via trade. I don't see the player out there that's going to really move the needle a lot through free agency.

"The easiest thing is to show somebody the door, the hardest thing is to bring somebody through the door that's better. We can all clamor for a new GM or a new coach or new players, but that's the easy part. The other one is bringing in a better person that's leaving."

"Are we frustrated, yeah," Armstrong continued. "We have players that have produced in the past that haven't been able to get us over the hump in the playoffs, but they're still in those prime years. Ultimately, I think Ken hit it the best that we need the home grown talent to start producing in the most important times. With that being said, I believe that the home grown talent can produce at the times. But if we can improve our team, that's our mandate. We're always looking to get better, but as I said, the easiest thing is to show somebody the door, but it's foolish if you're not bringing somebody in that's better."

The list of home grown players, aside from Backes, Oshie, David Perron, Berglund and others, could very well also fall into the lap of the younger draft picks, like Vladimir Tarasenko, who just finished his first season. Top picks Dmitrij Jaskin, who made a pair of cameo appearances with the Blues this season, as well as Ty Rattie, who just helped the Portland Winterhawks to a championship in the Western Hockey League, could make impacts but unlikely unless they dazzle in camp. Both are likely destined to play for the Blues' new AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.

"Certainly Tarasenko has been given a challenge and a mandate to go home. I was very impressed with his season, but I look at it maybe differently than everyone else looks at it as far as stats," Armstrong said. "He came over here, smaller ice surface, demanding schedule, new culture. Now he has to go home and he has to come back in and be a player that we can count on. He was a player that we brought in here that we were going to bring along slowly for a year. Him not playing in the playoffs isn't unusual for a lot of players his age, but he's left with a mandate that, 'Your name is on the board in an important spot now. You have to come back and you're not going to get the leeway maybe that a first-year player gets in the second year.' We are going to count on him.

"With Rattie and Jaskin, we want these players to be good players, but I think there would be a frustration with our fan base that if we just put these guys in there and they don't perform, where are we at? If these guys come in and have great training camps and they push guys out of work, they're going to get that opportunity. But I still think that we're a team that if you view yourself as a contending team, you probably don't put six first-year players on it."

As far as the unrestricted free agents, the prominent names include Andy McDonald, Jordan Leopold, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, and Adam Cracknell.

Cracknell is all but certain to return, as the Blues will look to keep him off the market after an impressive showing playing on the fourth line -- aka the 'CPR Line' -- with Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo, a pending restricted free agent, is expected to get a hefty
pay raise heading into the 2013-14 season.
"It's still early for that," Armstrong said when asked about the UFA's. "I'm going to meet with the coaches in the next 10 days or so, get their evaluation. Then I'll sit with (Vice President of Hockey Operations) Dave Taylor and our staff and go over where are our unrestricteds and how they fit in. We'll let them know at the appropriate time, but the emotions are pretty raw right now."

A wildcard who could make things very interesting is Jori Lehtera, the team's 2008 third-round pick who finished a 17-goal, 48-point season with Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL.

"We have to as an organization decide whether we have ... a player like Lehtera over in Russia," Armstrong said. "A) does he want to come over and B) where do we fit him in, and if he comes over and we put him in, who's he replacing. A lot of these things have to get ironed out behind the scenes. That's what we're going to do now.

"We talked to him as soon as the (KHL) season ended about coming over (this past season). He was off of a concussion. We thought about bringing him over to play this year. It just didn't work out. We've talked to him about what his plans are for the summer and next season. We'd like to have him. It's up to him whether he wants to come."

The Blues went from a good start to a rocky middle to a strong finish. When the season was on the brink, they responded with a 12-3-0 April and pushed their way into the playoffs, and that's what Armstrong appreciated the most.

The fortitude of the players," he said. "When the season was on the brink, when we weren't sure whether we were a good team or a team that had a good year a year ago, how they responded the last two or three weeks. It's not what people want to hear, but I do have to take satisfaction that we finished sixth in the NHL in a good league. That doesn't happen by accident. There are some good things that might not feel like it today for the fans, it might not feel like it today for the (general) manager, but that's why a 10-day reflection period is necessary because you don't want to make mistakes."

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