What is not considered a marquee market,
team on the prowl for play-making centers
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- With the National Hockey League's free agency period starting four days later than normal, the 30 clubs' general managers were given a different -- and unusual -- set of circumstances following a unique lockout season.
With the doors opening today at 11 a.m. (St. Louis time) and the shopping list for groceries all set to be divided up among those searching for the missing pieces to solidify their respective teams, the 30 GM's were given two extra days to actually seek and communicate with prospective unrestricted free agents, which was something that was never allowed in previous years.
"To me, it's just legalized tampering now," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong joked about the two-day window allowed for GM's to speak to free agents. "I was always amused that on July 1st at 11:01 central time, somebody's signing for $45- or $50-million dollars. This just cleans up the process. And yes I do like this. It seems to be much more above board."
For the Blues, who enter free agency with a glaring need particularly for a center iceman with play-making skills, the search has already taken Armstrong and the Blues to those who will be looking for the proper payday and new challenge with a new team.
The free agent crop for 2013 doesn't have that marquee name. As Armstrong said, "I think it would be a mistake to describe or to have our fans feel that there's the new version of Sidney Crosby or a (Pavel) Datsyuk or (Evgeni) Malkin or (Henrik) Zetterberg or Jonathan Toews in free agency. They're good players in free agency, but that's what they are. They're good players. They're not A-plus players."
So with that thought in mind, the Blues will embark on a process that they can hope lands them the missing parts that saw a team go from a second-round playoff team in 2012 to a first-round team in 2013, as they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings both seasons.
Among some of the bigger-known centers on the market include Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak (Toronto), Mike Ribeiro (Washington), Derek Roy (Vancouver), Matt Cullen (Minnesota) and Stephen Weiss (Florida). It's unclear what Armstrong is searching for but he has been in contact with somebody already.
"We've actually had some communication with some center icemen trying to see if they see a fit with our team and if we see a fit with them," Armstrong said. "We're going to make a deal that will stand the test of time economically. Sometimes you make these deals the first or second day of free agency and you feel really good about them, you sell some tickets and then you spend five years trying to get rid of the guy. We're not going to do something like that. If we can find a player that can come in and help us and do what we believe is the right economics, not just for July 5th but for all next season and the multiple seasons after that, we're going to do it. If not, I'm more than comfortable coming back next season with this group."
The market seems to be thinner more so than usual because players and teams are more so inclined to come to terms on contract extensions before players are hitting the UFA market.
"I think the market is always going to be thinner than it was in the past," said Armstrong, who still has work left to do in resigning his own restricted free agents such as Alex Pietrangelo and Chris Stewart at the top of the heap. "I see a lot of current players staying with their current teams. There's no first- or second-team all-stars in this free agency group. There's no hall of famers in this free agency group, but there's good, quality NHL players."
And even those players considered good, quality players will receive good paydays on this day. Some will get more than they're worth. Armstrong and the Blues have players that will be going into the final years of their contracts (Alex Steen, Jay Bouwmeester to name some of the bigger-named players) that they could look at resigning before hitting the open market.
"We don't want to overpay and one of the things that, rightly or wrongly, I have a hard time giving someone from outside the organization 50-60 percent more than what we're giving guys that we've drafted, that we've developed here," Armstrong said. "We value these players, but we value how they fit into our team. We want to try and sign Jay Bouwmeester, we want to try and sign Alex Steen, we want to try and sign ... like when we signed T.J. Oshie to unrestricted years. We want to sign our own guys to unrestricted years.
"If you go out and do something very aggressive, it's hard then to pick up the phone and say to your own guys, 'Sorry, you can't get that type of finances from us. We only give to guys that don't play here.' That's a hard sell for me."
What appears to be an easier sell is getting players to come to St. Louis, though.
When the Blues had the worst record (21-46-15) the year after the 2004-05 lockout, that becomes a tough sell to get free agents to come to a city that is making the biggest climb up. President John Davidson had to overpay to add a defenseman known for blocking shots and playing in his own end but not a high-end offensive player when Davidson brought in Jay McKee (four years, $16 million). Then there was Paul Kariya's three-year, $18-million contract.
Florida's Stephen Weiss will be one of the more sought-after free agent
centers when the market opens today.
"Free agents have a lot of things they have to put into the equation. It's lifestyle, it's certainly economics, it's term," Armstrong said. "... What we're trying to sell now is that we're a good team because you're going to have multiple options to find the proper guy to play with. I think from a competitive standpoint, this team is easy to sell. I think we're, as Al said, probably a hidden gem in the NHL as far as the lifestyle. When people come into St. Louis, they fly into Lambert (International Airport), they get on the team bus, they go downtown, they go to the rink, they go home. They don't know the surrounding areas of St. Louis that makes this a great place to live. We're trying to sell them the ease of traffic patterns, the great school districts that we have, the lifestyle. the sports town that we are with the Cardinals and the Rams. There's a lot of really good things to sell here.
"I think we're a much easier sell now because we're a competitive team on the ice and all those other things are going to be coming to the forefront. When you're a young player like Vinny Lecavalier and you have three young kids, I think where you're going to hang your hat, you have to think about your wife and kids. I think St. Louis is going to be a huge benefit. The city itself is going to be a huge benefit when we're attracting players. You don't get them all, but I really like the sale that we have."