Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Blues sign Lehtera to extension, resign Butler

Tarasenko contract talks progressing; 
Jackman, Michalek sign with Predators, Coyotes

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues locked up an important piece for the near future by signing center Jori Lehtera to a three-year contract extension worth $14.1 million.

Lehtera, 27, had one year remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $2.75 million ($2.25 million actual salary). Lehtera's extension, which carries a $4.7 million average annual value, kicks in for the 2016-17 season and he will be paid $4.4 million, $4.7 million and $5 million.

The Blues also resigned unrestricted free agent defenseman Chris Butler to a one-year contract worth $675,000 and lost veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, who leaves St. Louis after 13 seasons after signing a two-year contract with the Nashville Predators worth $4 million. Also, Zbynek Michalek, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes at the NHL Trade Deadline, rejoined the Coyotes on Wednesday when he signed a two-year contract worth $6.4 million.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Jori Lehtera (pictured) is under contract through 2019
after signing a three-year extension Wednesday.

Lehtera was the Blues' third-round (No. 65 overall) in 2008, but he spent four seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. He signed a two-year, $5.5 million exactly one year ago on July 1 after general manager Doug Armstrong mended a bridge with the player that seemed like it would never come together during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"Jori represents a player that we're looking to continue to play in our group of nine. I think he can get into our group of six as a centerman or a left winger," Armstrong said. "He proved in his first year what he can do. He's only going to get better. We're getting him at a relatively short-term deal, a three-year extension so it's a four-year total deal that takes him through the meat of his career. We're getting him through the prime time of his career and eliminates us having to worry about the unrestricted portion."

Lehtera had 14 goals andf 44 points in 75 games playing most of the season with fellow KHL teammate Vladimir Tarasenko, who the Blues are looking to resign since Tarasenko entered July 1 as a restricted free agent.

"He came over and got off to a great start," Armstrong said of Lehtera. "He provided what we expected him to provide. With him and Paul (Stastny) and David (Backes), we've obviously got some depth at center. I think (coach) Ken (Hitchcock) has the option now of moving David back to the wing if he wants to and we can put Patrik (Berglund) back in the middle. It gives us a lot of options, but I just think when a player of that caliber comes over to a team, it provides us with really good options. ... As he gets more comfortable, more understanding of the league, he's only going to get better."

The 34-year-old Jackman, who was the Blues' first round pick in 1999, was the longest-tenured professional athlete in St. Louis. The Blues feel that younger players Robert Bortuzzo, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Ian Cole, and Petteri Lindbohm are ready to step into the top six mix.

Michalek, 32, was acquired along with a conditional 2015 third round pick (that the Coyotes retained once Michalek played for the Blues) for prospect Maxim Letunov.

The Blues kept the St. Louis native Butler as an insurance policy and for depth purposes on their blue line. He had three goals and nine points in 33 games last season and will likely be the team's seventh defenseman.

"Chris came in last year and he came up from the American Hockey League, a good-skating player, is a heady player," Armstrong said. "It gives us good, solid depth. Lindbohm has a job to lose now, Bortuzzo's on the team. It gives us seven now. Lindbohm and Bortuzzo have to push to keep Chris out of the lineup and Chris has to push to get into the lineup. 

"I really like the progress that I saw at the end of the season from (Joel) Edmundson and (Colton) Parayko. I like the depth of our team right now on the backend. One thing about Chris is he's a great pro. Going from playing every day a year ago to being a platoon player, his attitude was great. He was a tireless worker off the ice and was a great teammate. I'm excited to have that personality back to our group also."

While other organizations were spending -- albeit not as much as in recent years with the free agent class down -- and one big trade occured with Toronto shipping a package that included Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blues continue to remain status quo.

"I would say with the quality of players available this year, it's different than maybe years past," Armstrong said. "There were some good players available, but not maybe the marquee player. Also, we made our stand last year with Paul. We want to take care of Vlad, we know we're going to have to take care of Jaden (Schwartz) moving forward, we've taken care of Jori. Our growth is going to come from internal players. That's just the way it is. It's a tough system, he cap system. It's different from when I started out in the league; you could always be active in free agency. But you see teams that were active in the past. You can't be active every year; you can be active maybe once every three or four years."

Their most pressing need is to get a contract extension for Tarasenko, a restricted free agent and the Blues' leading scorer from a season ago. Tarasenko, who can receive offer sheets from other clubs, got married in his native Russia on Wednesday but according to one source, contract talks are moving in the right direction and a deal is not too far from being consummated.

"I would have no reason to think it's not going to get done," Armstrong said. "Mike and I, we're in communication. We both feel it's best to keep the talks behind closed doors. When we have something to announce, we will. We're working towards trying to get Vladimir taken care of."

As for fear of receiving an offer sheet like the cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks may have been before trading promising winger Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets, it's a different situation for the Blues, who have the means and the cap space to match a potential offer sheet. 

"You have to certainly project on where you think some of your players are going to go on your budget moving forward," Armstrong said. "You want to keep space. I think we did a decent job of making sure that we weren't in that position that an offer sheet ... we have so much space now that no one believes an offer sheet won't be matched. We can really match anything that came to us on Vladi. We might have to move a player, but they're usually movable at the numbers they're at. I don't want to get ourselves in a position where we have to do something out of fear."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) is a restricted free agent but the
Blues feel they'll get their leading scorer signed.

Armstrong said the Blues will continue to look at the free agent market but not in the capacity they were in last season. Finding a depth center iceman is an area they'll explore if necessary. He did not address potential trade talk if any took place on Wednesday.

"We let Marcel (Goc) check the free agent market and we're checking it also," Armstrong said. "If we can find a center, we'll do that, but I always know that Steve Ott can slide into the middle if necessary and do a good job there. Our focus is on our own players more than external players. If we can find a guy that fits into our system at the right price, we will. It's not something that I feel that we need to do something. We can always find a player. I think there will be a lot of players available in September and they usually are. We're in a good spot for where we thought we would be today. Nothing's really changed."

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