Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blues sign Ott, lose Sobotka to KHL

Veteran forward resigns for two years, $5.2 million; Sobotka opts 
for deal with Avangard Omsk for reported three years, $4 million per season  

ST. LOUIS -- In a strange and surprising twist of events Thursday, the Blues brought back Steve Ott into the fold with a two-year contract but lost the versatile Vladimir Sobotka in the process.

Ott, an unrestricted free agent, will get $5.2 million over the next two seasons ($2.6 million per season) and just last week, was thought to be out of the mix to come back to the Blues after they signed Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera to free-agent contracts.

If reports overseas are confirmed, and they are thought to be correct, the Blues have apparently lost Sobotka, a restricted free agent, to the Kontinental Hockey League. Although Blues general manager Doug Armstrong could not confirm the reports, they are out there that Sobotka is leaving the NHL to take a contract with Avangard Omsk, which reported the signing on their official website. Roman Jedlicka of TV NOVO Sport in the Czech Republic is reporting Sobotka signed a three-year contract for a reported $4 million per season.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Steve Ott (middle) comes back to the Blues after signing a two-year, $5.2
million contract Thursday.

Sobotka, who statistically is coming off his best NHL season with nine goals and 33 points in 61 games, is a RFA with arbitration rights. The Blues and Sobotka are scheduled to go to an arbitration hearing July 21 and there, Sobotka will be awarded a one-year contract. 

If the reports of Sobotka's length of contract come to fruition, he will owe the Blues one year of arbitration-eligible service under the current collective bargaining agreement.

"I can't confirm that he signed in the KHL. It's probably just easiest if I give you background information on where we are today with Vladi," Armstrong said via conference call. "I would say back in February, I called his agent (Steve Bartlett) trying to talk about an extension. We got through the Olympic break and I thought we were very close at different times. Steve Bartlett and I regained conversations after that thinking we were close to a deal. It was probably late May, early June when I heard that the KHL might be an option that (Sobotka) might consider. We certainly took that at face value and we negotiated trying to get him to sign here. We extended the qualifying offer to him, moved forward to July 4 and Vladimir decided to change agents with a different agent. We filed for salary arbitration at that time hoping to expedite the process and to maintain our rights to the player knowing that he would be on a one-year contract and we would get him back here. At that time, he was obviously still in discussion with a European team, and that's speculation. I fast forward to information that he was strongly considering signing in the KHL. When I got that information, I circled back with other players that we were talking to. Steve Ott being one and we came to a conclusion. 

"Where that leaves us is we have arbitration pending on July 21st. We're moving forward that we're gong to go through that arbitration, an award will be given and that will be his contract for the 14-15 season. We hope that he will be in training camp under that contract. If he's in the KHL, that contract will toll for future years."

Armstrong said the Blues offered Sobotka a contract extension anywhere from 1-5 years in term and "north of $3 million" if he took a 3- to 5-year contract. Sobotka, a valuable defensive and one of the top faceoff specialists in the League a season ago at 61.9 percent, completed a three-year contract that averaged $1.3 million.

"He and I have had probably three conversations since early June and the KHL portion of the contract came up," Armstrong said of Sobotka. "I just tried to give him our point of view on why coming back here -- even on a one-year deal -- would be beneficial. All parties involved, we really like our situation, we really like our team. Untimately, he was dealing with two leagues. I'm dealing with one league. I have to work under the parameters given to this League. I wanted to stretch to the absolute end of fairness under our collective bargaining agreement. I can't and I don't think we should be asked to negotiate against the KHL.

"I believe that he has (signed with the KHL). All indications are that he has. We're going to proceed with the arbitration and if he shows up at training camp, good for us. I'll have to get my dancing shoes on and get back under the cap at that point. But we'll do that to keep a valuable player like Vladi in the organization."

Armstrong confirmed the Blues offered Sobotka a multitude of contracts.

"In June, we had offered him a multi-year deal, three-, four-, five-years in his choice north of $3 million," Armstrong said. "Our last offers were a one-year deal at $2.7 (million) or a two-year deal at $3 million (each season). Those haven't gotten it done to this point. I can't confirm that he signed in the KHL. I don't have any written documentation that that's happened, but that's where we were at with Vladimir. If he's gone to the KHL, it doesn't change my outlook on Vladi the player or the person. I have the utmost respect for him as a competitor, the utmost respect for him as part of the organization. I think our offers always indicated that we valued ... we were placing a premium value on the things that weren't seen on the stat on a nightly basis with our offers of $3 million, but in fairness, if the numbers that are potentially reported in the KHL, it's an economic decision that I can't really argue with him taking." 

The Blues were always one of the potential suitors for Ott, who was acquired near the NHL Trade Deadline along with Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres for a package that included Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart. Ott was mulling offers from multiple suitors since becoming a UFA but the Blues were tops on his list.

"They were the team I wanted to go to," Ott said via phone. "There was no question in mind of any other stuff. Obviously in unrestricted free agency, there's ups and downs, ins, outs, all that kind of stuff. But from the very get-go, we were very open with St. Louis and Army. It's worked out perfect in the essence of where I want to be and the best chance I thought to win the Stanley Cup. Once I got a taste of it there last year, it was a no-brainer."

Ott, 31, had no goals and three assists in 23 regular-season games with the Blues, and two points in six Stanley Cup Playoff games.

In all, Ott had nine goals and 23 points in 82 games last season with the Blues and Sabres. He has 103 goals, 267 points and 1,355 penalty minutes in 696 career regular-season games with the Dallas Stars, Sabres and Blues.

"I talked to Steve when the season ended about wanting to come back here," Armstrong said. "We weren't able to get to a conclusion before free agency and we both have said to stay in touch. You never know what's going to happen in free agency. If he had signed on July 1st or July 2nd, we would have been out. We were exploring how we can improve our team and he was exploring things. At the end of the day, we were both very comfortable to reconvene. 

"I know the last few days he was talking to more teams again and sort of my experience, the first 48 hours is a frenzy and then you go into a lull and then the dust has settled and everybody gets back to work. I think Steve was at that top-end of the players that were still available and teams were circling back with him and we were one of them."

Ott said patience was of utmost importance.

"It was definitely a process I had to deal with," Ott said. "We were in constant contact with Doug. That was a big thing. Both St. Louis and ourselves were completely open about the situation. My heart was already set on where I wanted to play. It was more just a fact of how we can make this happen and how is it all going to work out in the end."

Armstrong said he's not clear on the parameters on how contracts work in the KHL but Sobotka does have an out clause at the conclusion of each season, not within the season should he return to the NHL and the Blues. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
In an unexpected twist, Vladimir Sobotka accepted a three-year
contract Thursday to play in the KHL for Avangard Omsk.

"I want to emphasize this is a business decision by Vlad that I respect," said Armstrong, who noted that Sobotka has changed agents multiple times within the past couple months. "It does not change my admiration for him as a man and how he plays and what he's accomplished and what he's going to accomplish. I don't want to turn this into a personal thing or get to that point because it's not like that.

"I go back to my admiration for Vladi. I don't know what's going on in his life. I don't know what the information he gets back in the Czech Republic and I'm not sure what information he's getting, whether it's Petr Svoboda ... it's an interesting dynamic because Petr Svoboda from Edmonton, then Steve Bartlett, then Petr Svoboda the ex-player (based in California). He's had Petr Svoboda on both ends but different people. When I dealt with Steve, we were dealing with the NHL component and when I dealt with Petr, we were dealing with the NHL component, but Vladimir has been dealing -- in my understanding -- two components, the NHL and KHL. I can't confirm he's in the KHL. I'm just going on information that I've been getting, but I've seen nothing written and we're moving under the impression that we're heading to arbitration on July 21st to make sure that he stays a St. Louis Blue."

The Blues now must turn their attentions towards another RFA, Jaden Schwartz, who doesn't have arbitration rights.

"Now we'll move forward with Jaden, and Jaden is in a different spot," Armstrong said. "I don't want to bore the fans, but the NHL is a business. There's a collective bargaining agreement and there's different ebbs and flows in that agreement. Steve Ott's an unrestricted free agent, Vladimir's a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Jaden Schwartz is at the entry level portion without arbitration rights. So sort of put all these pieces into place and we want to do what's right for the player, but obviously I have to do what's right for the St. Louis Blues first and foremost."

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