Monday, April 18, 2011

Blues appear set to tweak, not overhaul current squad

Team needs to address own RFA's,
likely make minor moves to bolster roster

ST. LOUIS -- With the uncertainty of their ownership situation being the Blues' most glaring priority heading into the summer, it still makes one wonder what the makeup of the team will look like in a few months.

Will the Blues, near the bottom of the 30-team NHL as far as payroll is concerned, be aggressive when the free agency period kicks in on July 1? What kind of buyers will the Blues, 38-33-11 in 2010-11, be when the doors open and the bidding wars begin?

If one asks general manager Doug Armstrong, don't expect any type of Brad Richards signings.

"I think the nucleus of our team moving forward is here right now," Armstrong said. "We're going to continue with this group the way it's constructed."

So to make things clear-cut, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Chris Stewart, Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie and a healthy David Perron along with the remaining supporting cast is going to be the group that will lead the Blues into next season and possibly beyond.

Some areas that the Blues will likely look into include depth at forward, perhaps a veteran defenseman and maybe a backup goalie. But Armstrong wanted to make clear that any type of move/moves the Blues make will be to plug holes, not make any drastic overhauls.

"What I saw this year is, when we sustained long-term injuries, we didn't have the depth," Armstrong said. "And it wasn't the depth in the minor leagues. It was probably the depth at the NHL level to go up the lineup. I think if we can add some depth, that's one area that we'll look at. My feeling is that the heavy lifting is going to be done by the players that were on the ice now."

It doesn't necessarily mean the Blues, who were 10 points out of a playoff berth in 11th place in the Western Conference, won't take a dip into the trade route again. After all, who expected that deal last summer to acquire Jaroslav Halak? And did anybody see that blockbuster Armstrong pulled off with Colorado that brought Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk back in February?

But for those who were disappointed the Blues didn't go cash-crazy last summer when there was a plethora of players available, consider that Armstrong, going into his first full season as the team's GM, wanted to see how a growing lineup would come together.

"This (past) year, we entered the season staying out of free agency because we wanted to see how some of these players were going to play," Armstrong said. "I thought some players, we got a good read on. David Backes is the player that we thought he was going to be. At his age now, I don't see a lot of change in his game. I think he's going to be a consistent 60-70 point player. I think he's going to be a consistent physical force, and a consistent leader.

"Two players we were hoping to get a better read on that we didn't were Perron and Oshie, both due to injuries. We were going to give them that opportunity, and David obviously only play 10 games and T.J. missing the real meat of the season, we weren't able to get a good read on how he fits, not only in the league, but how he fits on our team."

Management and coaches have to be impressed not only with the makeup of the Blues' roster but to see a younger-tiered group come together and finish with a flurry (6-1-2 in the last nine).

When asked if he thought his team was a better hockey team than the one that started off 9-1-2, Blues coach Davis Payne said without hesitation, "Yes, I do.

"We've got some players who understand what is it going to be like, how our team looks going forward, how we play, the type of responsibilities they are going to have," Payne added. "It's the Patrik Berglunds who are going to get top-line minutes, it's the Kevin Shattenkirks and (Alex) Pietrangelos that contribute in high volume ... you can go up and down the lineup. The experiences that have been gained over this last stretch, it says Niki Nikitin's going to be a player going forward, Ian Cole's going to be a player going forward. I hate to stop when you get part of the way through the lineup, but the way we can play, the way we can attack, the way we can defend, I absolutely believe we are a better hockey club."

The onus, at least temporarily, will once again be on the majority of this current group, and the players understand that loud and clear.

"Everybody has to step up and be that much better ... 5-10 percent better," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who has one more year remaining on his current four-year deal. "... If there is somebody that's maybe struggling, then everybody else has to pick up their game to compensate it. It's a team game and that's the way winning teams do it.

"You can look ahead and be very excited about this team and what we have in the locker room right now."

As much as they'd like to keep the current group together, the players are fully aware that there will likely be some changes that take place.

"It's the reality of the business," Backes said. "There's going to be guys that are in this room at the end of the season that aren't going to be back. There's going to be some new faces that hopefully are contributing to our lineup right away. With the moves that have been made so far, you see this team moving in the right direction and you expect more great moves by the management to help us in here. And then we need to perform once we're in here."

Does Backes have any suggestions?

"I'm not going to do the GM job for him," Backes joked, referring to Armstrong. "... I'm certain there's a plan that he's evaluated for the entire season. He sees a few deficiencies. We can always improve at forward, defense, goaltending was pretty solid this year. ... We'll see what happens when we get our 23 guys on the roster at the beginning of next year. We'll need a tight-knit group that comes out of the gates fast and is able to sustain that the whole season."

One area that might consume much of Armstrong's time once the playoffs are over with is getting his own players resigned. The Blues have eight players that finished the season here that will be restricted free agents along with another five down in Peoria.

"I'm not concerned with expediting that," Armstrong said. "My experience in the past has shown that if there's a deal there to be made, you make it. And if there's not a comfort level, you let July 1 (come).

"Every player has the option to become a restricted free agent. They have the option to see if there's one team out there that covets them to the level of giving up a lot of draft picks, and then the team has to respond. ... If there's a deal there to be made, I'm all in favor of making it. But there has to be a comfort level from everybody that now is the time to make it. And if I talk to some guys and they say 'Now is the time,' great. July 1, the pendulum is right in the middle. It swings back and forth on leverage, and right now, there's no timing issues."

If the Blues make the leap into the top eight in the West next year, they'll need similar -- if not better -- production that Backes (31-31=62 points), McDonald (20-30=50), Steen (20-31=51), Berglund (22-30=52), Stewart (28-25=53), Matt D'Agostini (21-25=46), Oshie (12-22=34), Pietrangelo (11-32=43) and Shattenkirk (9-34=43) gave them this season without making any headline transactions. Plus, last year's first-round pick Vladimir Tarasenko could be a factor as well.

"We've got things that are in place right now that make us an effective team," Payne said. "Our job is to take those pieces as coaches and mold them into a functioning unit and be the best team that is a playoff team. I believe the guys that are in there now are capable of that.

"I know that Army is going to take a look at all avenues for improving the team and make those necessary adjustments. We're going to spend and obviously have time to spend on defining what our lineup looks like, what our depth looks like, how we feel these guys have gained the experiences as the year has gone on, that young d-core ... the Nikitins and the Coles, Shattenkirks, the way Carlo (Colaiacovo) has played towards the end, Jacks being in that mix, obviously Petro and Roman's year we're very pleased with. There's some great options in there. How those options end up looking is something that Doug is going to make decisions on and we'll have conversations on what gives us our best chance to not only get in but win."

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