Backes, Steen give green light on doing what it takes to win,
endorse Stastny signing; Armstrong sticks with guns on contracts
ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong had an idea in mind. It was one that the Blues' general manager felt could improve his hockey squad in a significant area.
But there was one sticking point, in the eyes of Armstrong, and it was that in today's day and age, should the Blues explore the free agent market and delve into the bidding process for a marquee free agent, they would have to likely pay at or near top dollar.
Enter Alexander Steen and David Backes, the highest-paid forwards on the team and two of the team leaders. What if the Blues were to pay someone more than what they were making? Would it offend them? Would they accept it?
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
David Backes (42) was one of the Blues players who endorsed GM Doug
Armstrong to do what it takes to sign a player like Paul Stastny (middle).
Steen signed a three-year, $17.4 million extension last season that averages $5.8 million in annual average value. When Backes signed his five-year, $22.5 million extension in 2010, his $4.5 AAV was considered to be top dollar at the time.
But times have changed, salaries escalate and it's a sticking point the Blues knew at some point they'd have to deal with.
But the way the Blues are conducting business, their players' beliefs and what they are trying to accomplish in winning a Stanley Cup, Armstrong got the answer he was looking for when he reached out to the two players.
"Term was one of the issues that we didn't want to go past," Armstrong said when talking about signing potential free agents. "We try and have an open dialogue with our players and I reached out to Alex Steen and I reached out to David Backes, two of our go-to forwards, two of our go-to leaders and I told them that if we got into the free agent market, there's been a shift in the market maybe since they've signed and I said, 'We're going to have to go substantially past what your average compensation is.' Both players ... to their credit (and) not surprisingly, both said, 'We want to win. You do what you have to do to make us a better team.' So with that knowledge, it was much easier to move forward."
And with that said, the Blues were able to aggressively pursue their player, target him and get him lock, stock and key. Center Paul Stastny, who grew up in St. Louis, signed a four-year, $28 million contract that carries a $7 million AAV.
Stastny, 28, instantly becomes the Blues' highest-paid player in AAV (even surpassing the $6.5 million AAV given to defenseman Alex Pietrangelo prior to last season) but in the name of winning and supplying the team with the necessary resources to put a better on-ice product together, Armstrong had the necessary ammunition to target his guy as well as get the blessing of ownership to move forward. And it didn't matter that someone who has never graced the home team's locker room yet would earn the most money.
Another early playoff exit, this time at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, would not deter ownership from pursuing what was necessary to upgrade the Blues. And the players have a complete understanding that upgrades would be necessary ... and welcomed.
"It started when Tom Stillman and the local ownership group bought the team," Armstrong said of the Blues owner. "We heard the rhetoric that I think everyone hears when a team buys (that) we're committed to winning, we want to win a championship, blah, blah, blah. All 30 owners say that, but our ownership stepped up with the (Jay) Bouwmeester trade, stepped up the signing of Stastny, allowed us to go out and give a lot to the future assets away to bring (goalie Ryan) Miller in and then that didn't work out the way we didn't want it to.
"As an organization, they had an option. They could say, 'Well we gave it a shot, let's pull it back.' Their approach was exactly the opposite about two days after we were eliminated (by the Chicago Blackhawks). It was, 'We're disappointed. What could you have done different? How can we help you and what do we have to do to give you the opportunity to have success?' We were a cap team last year. One of probably 10 teams that was slightly over the cap, and with this signing, we're going to be a cap team again. Now maybe we can create a little bit of space to make moves later, but we're a team that's trying to compete with the other top teams."
When the Blues came out of the 2005 lockout, they plummeted to the bottom of the standings. Free agents would shy away from signing with the 30th-ranked team. Fast forward to today, the Blues are now a prime landing spot, and not just because Stastny has roots growing up in St. Louis but because they are a Cup contender and continue to fortify that foundation as one.
"I look at St. Louis and their window to win a Cup is now, and for the next seven or eight years, so I'm excited," Stastny said. "There's a variety of scary players on this team and whether some are natural centerman, or they're playing wing, or vice versa, you can move different pieces and I think that's what makes good teams really special.
"They have the ability to make ... three or four lines or they can go top heavy and make two really effective lines. I think it's always a good option to have when you have so many good players available."
What the Blues have shown in recent years is the penchant for not throwing out bad, lengthy contracts that carry high dollar amounts. The 28-year-old Stastny is considered to be in the prime of his career. He could have gone to the highest bidder, which meant he could have commanded a five-, six-, seven-year or higher contract and perhaps northward of the $7 million average he got.
The Blues wouldn't budge on term, and that's a credit to Armstrong and staff in investing in players for the right amount of dollars and term.
Matt Keator, Stastny's agent, said his client took a lot less money and less term because he wants to win. And the Blues' aggressive approach was also a feather in their cap, even if it meant only getting four years.
"That showed that there was interest right from the start," Keator said. "They were definitely one of the teams that were aggressive and very communicative with us. In the end, it worked out well."
"There was a comfort level we felt we could go to," Armstrong said. "As much as it was, the dollar figures was very large, but the term was as important to our organization in a sense that the final year of his contract, Paul will be 31 years old. There's no question in my mind that Paul can keep his level and probably get better in different areas over the term of his contract. What we wouldn't have been able to get into would have been a six- or seven-year contract. We don't have to scratch too far around the NHL to find out how some of these are ending up, and we don't want to be one of those. I don't believe you can run your team trying to get into an arm's race. You have to do what you think is best for your own franchise and move on.
Paul Stastny was one of the marquee players on the
market when the free agency period started. He
signed with the Blues for four years and $28 million.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs. You look at Paul's former team, Patrick (Roy) has done a tremendous job there. They're a top team. Obviously (Stars GM) Jim Nill is really putting a mark on Dallas. Chicago's Chicago and Chuck Fletcher's very aggressive today in getting (Thomas) Vanek (in Minnesota). I really think the competition's strong in just our division. Our conference is very strong obviously. We're just looking to become a competitive team and stay that way."
The Blues will go into another season tabbed as an elite team, and the organization continues to make the necessary choices to make that a yearly occurrence.
"As usual, Doug Armstrong has done a phenomenal job of putting the right pieces in play," said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, a teammate of Stastny with the Avalanche and USA Olympic team who helped make a sales pitch. "I had a couple quick conversations with him just to chat, but nothing crazy. He kept it pretty close to the chest for the most part. I'm sure he had plenty of people talking to him and trying to pull him in every which direction. More than anything, I just said, 'Good luck with the decision and hopefully you come to St. Louis and we'd love to have you.'"
Blues players wanted him, and Armstrong helped put the finishing touches on a contract for Stastny.
Just like that.