Thursday, April 30, 2015

Blues to make Tarasenko top off-season priority

Leading goal scorer set to become restricted free 
agent, prone to offer sheets; Armstrong: "he's the primary guy"

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko deferred comment on the subject; Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was more than willing to let it be known.

The one point that was made clear: Tarasenko will be a Blue for a very long time, and he will be a well-compensated one.

The 23-year-old Tarasenko, who led the Blues in goals (37) and points (73) in his third season, is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. The Blues own his rights, of course but that doesn't mean Tarasenko can't be susceptible to an offer sheet from another team.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (right) celebrates a goal with teammate Paul Stastny
in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round vs. the Minnesota Wild.

But Armstrong made his point on that issue sternly.

"We'll match whatever he gets," Armstrong said. "That's easy."

And with that in mind, as the Blues have a number of issues to address during what will be a crucial off-season, from a player personnel perspective, taking care of No. 91 on the roster report will be the top priority.

"We are not going to be active in signing other players until we get him taken care of," Armstrong said of Tarasenko. "Meaning we're going to take care of our restricted free agents, but we're not going to ... he's the primary guy. He knows it, the hockey world knows it. 

"The St. Louis Blues will not be in a spot on July 5th if he's not signed, not to be able to match any offer sheet that's out there. And if it means allowing players to go to free agency, if it means making players sweat it out on what their deal's going to be, he's the priority for us."

Tarasenko, whose three-year entry-level contract paid him a base salary of $900,000 and bonuses of $850,000, could conceivably get anywhere from $4-5 million-plus per season on a new contract on the low end and $6-8 million on the top end. And with commissioner Gary Bettman announcing a projected salary cap of $71.5 million for the 2015-16 season, Armstrong will have to craft what he offers and what Tarasenko's camp feels is proper market value for a player that is four years removed from having unrestricted free agency rights.

But the two sides, including Tarasenko's U.S.-based agent and former Blues goalie Mike Liut, could work out a creative contract that could benefit both sides in the short and long term.

"The caveat on his deal is going to be term and compensation based on the cap," Armstrong said. "You hear maybe a $4 million swing from the different side on what the cap's going to be. That's a lot of money in a cap system. 

"... I haven't had any talks. We talked in training camp, (Tarasenko) wanted to wait. I approached it again midseason; he wanted to wait. ... He's earned the conversations that we're going to have. We might not give him exactly what he wants, but I'm not going into this not respecting what he's accomplished and not respecting what he can accomplish."

Tarasenko was not in the mood to talk contract in the immediate aftermath of the Blues being eliminated by the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round series.

"Wrong question to me. Not for me," Tarasenko said. "Not general manager, not agent, not me right now.

"... Tough to say goodbye for like another six months. Next game is October. Every day you feel more worse because the day after you feel OK. But I keep watching highlights and news about hockey and I was like, 'We can be there.' ... I think we feel so bad right now, everybody. Our season is over a little bit earlier than we want to. I don't have words right now. I need time to figure out what's going on. I'm just frustrated right now."

Tarasenko gives the Blues an elite finisher not seen around these parts since Brett Hull was busy lighting the lamp 527 times. Tarasenko shows the qualities of a 40- and perhaps one that can be a 50-goal scorer.

"'Vladi' had a big year," teammate Alexander Steen said. "Just kept evolving; not just the goal-scoring stuff, but the little stuff. I think he stuff guys talk about that get unnoticed, the little stuff. He's really focused a lot on those details and has grown as a player and I think off the ice as a person as well.

"He has that talent. He's an extremely talented player. I've said so many times if we're just able to give him that one chance, eight out of 10 are in the net. He's an extremely lethal sniper and a very important piece of our team."

Teammate Kevin Shattenkirk agreed.

"We kind of all had a pretty good idea how special he is as a player," Shattenkirk said. "I think the thing that really allowed him to take the next step this year was the confidence and having this be his third year, that's when you start to feel comfortable. You're learning the ropes the first two years. He made big strides this year. He still has some room to go. That's a pretty fortunate thing for us."

Tarasenko, who had departed to join Russia for the World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic, knows his game can get better, especially being a more complete two-way player but he's more known as a team player. His bottom line is what the team can accomplish.

"I think you always can improve your game," Tarasenko said. "This is the part I don't want to talk about right now. Like I tell you before, I didn't care about skill level in your goals. I just wanted team to keep playing. We need to find out and improve on our mistakes and try next year.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. He's
in line for a big pay raise and could become the team's highest-paid player.

"It's not really good when you lose to somebody, especially in the first round when you have a great year. We won our division. I don't know what else I can say."

Tarasenko will have plenty to say when he dots the 'I's' and 'T's' on a new contract. And this is one Armstrong and the Blues want to make sure it gets done properly before anything unforeseen is allowed to happen. 

Armstrong, who left town to take in the Chicago Wolves' playoff series in the American Hockey League, then off to the World Championships to engage in talks with Vladimir Sobotka, will open dialogue with Liut in the very near future.

"The elite paid players are on their third contracts or fourth contracts," Armstrong said. "They're not on their second contracts. He's going to be very well-compensated on a second contract. But you make more money when you have more rights. He doesn't have unrestricted free agency rights and that's just the nature of the beast. 

"You look at the two guys we just played, (Ryan) Suter and (Zach) Parise. As a restricted free agent, they weren't getting $100 million. They became unrestricted, they got their money. That's the business. He gets it, Mike gets it, I get it."

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