Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blues bring Stastny to St. Louis

Free agent center gets four-year, $28 million contract to come 
to city he grew up in; team also signs Lehtera to two-year contract

ST. LOUIS -- One of the biggest free agent fishes in the 2014 NHL free agency pool has been fished out of the pond.

And the Blues reeled him in.

The Blues wasted little time when the free agency period started by signing Paul Stastny to a four-year contract worth $28 million. The Blues first signed center Jori Lehtera, a third round pick by the team in 2008, to a two-year contract reported at $5.5 million.

Stastny's salary breakdown is $6.5 million in 2014-15, $7 million in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and $7.5 million in 2017-18 with a full no-trade clause.
(Getty Images)
Paul Stastny (pictured) is the newest member of the Blues
after signing a four-year, $28 million contract Tuesday.

The 28-year-old Stastny will become the third in his family to don the Bluenote when the 2014-15 season starts. He follows his father Peter and brother Yan.

"I wanted to go somewhere I was comfortable with and somewhere I know the lay of the land a little bit," Stastny said. "To me, I went to school in Denver, I've been here 10 years, so to me I've got two homes, so it wasn't really going back home. It made it easier for me, I think it made for an easier transition for my fiancee as well because we know some people (in St. Louis) ... we know the lay of the land a little bit, so we don't have to worry about stuff like that when it comes to moving back and getting adjusted. We can just focus on hockey itself."

Stastny significantly upgrades the Blues at the center position, a spot the team has lacked the past couple seasons in playoff ousters against the Los Angeles Kings (twice) and most recently, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Stastny, drafted by the Avalanche in the second round (44th pick) in 2005, is coming off a 60-point season (25 goals, 35 assists) in 71 games with the Colorado Avalanche. In an eight-year career -- all with Colorado -- Stastny has 160 goals and 298 points in 538 career games.

With Ryan Kesler acquired by the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL Draft, Jason Spezza -- long rumored to be involved in trade talk with the Blues -- going to Dallas Tuesday morning, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was eager to land the biggest free agent center on the market and got him.

"I was certainly hoping that we were going to get into the final grouping," Armstrong said. "I was a little bit nervous this morning when Dallas made their acquisition and what our Plan B would be. We never got to there, but Paul was certainly someone that we had focused on. The five-day window of opportunity allowed us to speak to him and then as the week progressed and there was no news that he had signed, we thought he was getting closer to the market and we felt that if he (did), we'd be a very good fit for him."

It's a bit of a homecoming for Quebec City native Stastny as well. He spent a lot of his childhood here in St. Louis when his father Peter was wrapping up his storied career with the Blues from 1993-95. Paul went to Chaminade High School his freshman and sophomore years before departing to play with the St. Louis AAA Blues and onto the University of Denver.

"Obviously a lot of has been made of this is his home where he grew up," Armstrong said. "When you're a competitor like Paul and a free agent, you're looking for a chance to go where your team has a chance at success also. I felt we provided a lot for him on the ice. He's played with three of our players in international competition. I think he felt the core age of our team is right in his age bracket too. We've been through some tough times and we're looking to add pieces to help us get over the hump. One of the things with these signings ... we're not asking anyone to come in here with a cape on and be Superman. We're just looking for another strong piece to a puzzle that can keep us competitive as we chase Colorado down for the division. They're the champs and they're the first team we have to take a look at catching and then if we're fortunate enough to do that and get into a playoffs, we want to have a guy that can compete at that time of year."

Matt Keator, Stastny's agent, said that it was tough for his client to leave Denver but the Blues were "very aggressive" in their approach.

"His first choice was to be in Colorado. Colorado was great to deal with, but we just couldn't match up on a deal that made sense for both sides," Keator said. "When we turned our attention to the open market, it just more and more seemed St. Louis was the best fit and made the most sense. It's obviously his hometown. 

"Because it's his hometown and because it's a Cup-contending team, Paul took a lot less money and a lot less term that he could have on the open market to sign there. He knows the Blues are committed to being a Cup-contender and he's excited to be there."

Stastny said his gut feeling was St. Louis despite giving the Avalanche every chance to retain him.

"It's a tough decision. I was in a good position," Stastny said. "I had good teams interested in me, and obviously the Avs were always one of those teams. I think in the end, you almost have to take a step back, take all of the emotions out of it and try to realize what's best for me hockey-wise, not just next year, but two or three or four years down the road. My family -- my fiancee and I -- thought that probably going to St. Louis would probably be the best hockey decision for me."

Stastny has represented the United States on five occasions, including the 2010 and 2014 Olympic games, helping the club earn the Silver Medal in 2010.  Stastny also captained the U.S. at the 2013 World Championships, ranking second among all tournament players with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists), and leading the club to the Bronze Medal.  For his efforts, Stastny was chosen as one of his team’s Top Three Players by tournament coaches, and was named to the tournament’s All-Star Team.

With Stastny's addition, as well as Lehtera, the Blues can move some pieces around among their top nine forwards.

"I see a scenario where Paul plays with (Alexander) Steen and (David) Backes," said Armstrong, who indicated Backes could go back to his natural position on right wing. "That gives us quite a bit of strength on the wing, on the size with Backes. And then you have (Patrik) Berglund with (Vladimir) Sobotka and maybe (T.J.) Oshie as another line. One of the things we've had here since I've been here: we're not your normally defined first, second, third line. We're more of a group of nine forwards and I think our group of nine forwards is stronger today than it was yesterday."

Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, Stastny's teammate at the Winter Olympics as well as in Colorado, feels like the Blues continue to make the right decisions.

"My level of excitement is pretty high," Shattenkirk said. "I think it's a great move for the St. Louis Blues, for our team. For me, it's getting a friend back and somebody who I know can contribute to our team. I have a little bit better feel for him than most, but he's someone who's just going to make our team better and that's all there is to it.

"Paul was definitely one of the most coveted free agents this year. I definitely thinks his ties to St. Louis helped him make that decision, but the more players you can get on your team like that, I think it allows other free agents in the future to realize what we're building here. We have a great team put in place and there's been a lot of work to do that from drafts and acquiring through trades ... whatever that may be. We've had to piece it together over the last little bit. Now that it's all starting to come together, St. Louis is kind of emerging as one of those places where people are going to start to want to play."

Lehtera, 26, spent the past three seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and scored 39 goals to go with 79 assists in 125 games. The Blues made an unsuccessful attempt to bring in their third round pick last season.

Talks between Lehtera and the Blues re-ignited at the Olympics, where Lehtera played for Finland. 

The Blues were hoping to sign him last season but Lehtera instead chose to remain in the KHL.
(Getty Images)
Jori Lehtera (right) signed with the Blues after spending the past three
seasons in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

"I had a good chat with him quite honestly at the Olympics at the dining hall," Armstrong said of Lehtera. "I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn't come to an agreement and he said at the end of the day, he felt he made a mistake which was the first step in saying, 'Well, if you can rectify that mistake, if you can get our of your contract, we'd love to have you.' This year was very important for us in the sense that if he had gone back, he'd be an unrestricted free agent at 27 and so this was our last and only  opportunity to deal with him with no outside competition. We'd been dealing with the competition of the KHL and the KHL has been winning up until this year. He was able to get his way out of his contract. Over here, we bought one year of restricted free agency and one year of unrestricted. Having the opportunity to watch him play at the Olympics firsthand, watching all his games at the World Championships, talking to people I know from the Finnish Federation, there's very little question he's ready to step in and be a contributing factor in the NHL. We've been working on this for a while since he said he could get out of his deal, but we've been trying to keep it a little bit under wraps not to get anyone's hopes up. He had to do the work first to get out of the deal before we could do anything.

"He's a big body, 6-foot-2, 210-pounds ... very, very soft hands. Very good passer. When you look at his goals to points ratio, he's certainly a three-to-one passer to goal scorer. He's a guy that can find players. I watched him at the World Championships give some guys some back-door tap ins on the power play. He's just an offensive players where his strengths are his passing skills."

The Blues also signed forwards Philip McRae and Brent Regner to one-year, two-way contracts.

With their roster apparently set, that means the teams remaining unrestricted free agents (Steve Ott, Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow) will move on. Adam Cracknell signed a one-year contract worth a reported $600,000 with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

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