Friday, September 30, 2016

Doug Armstrong: Sobotka wants to come back to Blues this season

GM was led to believe he would return, leaves door open; not for long though

ST. LOUIS -- Hold on to your chinstraps. The Vladimir Sobotka drama series hasn't been completely closed for this year.

At least for the time being, but it's not wipe open either. But this is one soap opera that continues to have the most interesting twists and turns.
Doug Armstrong

It's known that Vladimir Sobotka reported to the KHL and Avangard Omsk earlier this week after there was a failed agreement to exercise the out-clause in his initial three-year contract signed in 2014. But according to Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who addressed the media Friday evening before the Blues' preseason game against the Dallas Stars fresh from returning from Toronto where Team Canada won the World Cup of Hockey, Sobotka wants to come back to the NHL and the Blues.

So much so, that Sobotka, who has one year remaining on his KHL contract, left his family, including an infant child, back in the Czech Republic in hopes of at least attempting to return to the NHL this season.

"Strange enough, he's gone back to the KHL, but he's left his family in Prague and he's still working on trying to get out of his deal there," Armstrong said. "It was complicated, more complicated as I found out when we got into Toronto and met with him directly. 

"The cold notes version is he signed a deal there, the (Russian) Ruble crashed, they renegotiated and from my understanding is they told him no problem, sign this and took the out-clause out. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. It's been a difficult one. I know he's not happy with how it's gone on. I don't want to say he's not happy playing there, but I know he wants to play in the NHL. He had a tough ending to the season last year with an injury that got him to look at things a little bit differently. He still wants to come back to the NHL, he's still trying to get out of that contract there. It's been very tough on him. It's certainly been tough on our fans. It's something I've tried not to talk about. I don't want to not answer the questions when they're asked. It's sort of growing a life of its own now. I don't need to put a timeline on it because we're not playing for a couple weeks if he needs more time to see if he can get out of it, but at some point, they're probably at 25 percent into their schedule now. And it's just an economic situation."

What it boils down to is this: it's been reported that if Sobotka gets out of the final year of his deal, Omsk reportedly wants him to pay 2/3 of what he has remaining of his $4 million deal, which pretty much amounts to what he would play for in the one-year, $2.725 arbitration-awarded contract here, so in essence, play for free.

"There's a dollar value that they want and there's a dollar value he doesn't want to pay and at some point if they can find a middle ground ... what we're trying to do is tell him it's an investment in his future," Armstrong said. "For any free agent, not just him, it's a great time to be entering a free agent year. There's 30 years, next year, there's 31. Everyone's losing one player off their roster that they would not want to lose because of the expansion draft and he'll be 30 years old. It's a great time for him to come back, but as I said to him, 'It's easy for me to spend your money. Like, you just pay it,' but it's not my money. 

"I understand it's a difficult decision, and I feel for the player because he ... probably in hindsight, we should have been able to find a deal and kept him here. I think he feels that way, too. But that's water under the bridge now. I'm not worried about that. I'd love to have him back here. He's a good kid, he's a good man and he's a good player, but our team was very competitive the two years he wasn't here. This team went farther than they'd gone in 15 years last year without him here. I'd love to have him back; he's a good player, but like it was with an injured player, you just have to move forward. If he comes back, that's great. If he doesn't, we're ready to move forward."

Armstrong was under the impression that Sobotka was coming back, and that whether he would or not, had no bearing on whether the Blues could resign any one of their own free agents that left.

"Talking to the agent, it was 100 percent he was coming back," Armstrong said. "So I just proceeded that it was 100 percent he was coming back. They were working on the details. Dealing with the KHL, it must be difficult. I don't have to deal with them very often and it's something that went from 100 percent to 90 to 80 to 50/50. So now we're going to have to find out. It's more he has to find out for himself now. He and his girlfriend just had a baby. He wants to probably do what's right for his family. But he left for money. That was the reason he left was to make more money. So probably if you're leaving for money, how much money do you really want to give back if that was the mindset. 

"I feel for him because I know it's tearing at him. We're both a little tired of talking about it. I don't want to say embarrassed, but it's not something that he wants to deal with and we want to deal with. If he can get out of it, great. If he can't, at least it will be behind us and we can worry about it next year."

Armstrong won't wait long. There will be a cut-off point which they will not want to waste the year they have Sobotka under control. Maybe if the Blues could negotiate an extension with Sobotka, the decision would be easier to try and get out of the contract. But with one year remaining until free agency, the Blues can't negotiate with Sobotka on an extension until Jan. 1.

"No. There will be a point where we'll just say we'll have that year and we'll toll another year," Armstrong said. "Part of the issue is because it's a one-year contract, we can't negotiate with him until Jan. 1st. If we could do a deal now, it would make his decision a lot easier, but we can't do a deal now. There's risk of injury, there's all sorts of things that have to run through his head ... he's got to come up with the idea that the payment is worth an investment. I can't make that decision for him. He has to make it. I told him regardless of how this turns out, 'it doesn't change who you are and what we think of you. We'll take you back when the time is right.' We think the time is right now for our team. 'We have a coach that highly believes in you and you're a better player because he went to the KHL.' He went from a bottom six forward to a top six forward there. I think his offense is going to be greater when he gets back. I think there's a whole host of reasons to come. But again, it's not my money either."

And the Blues will not, nor can they, pay the money for Sobotka, 29, to get out of the contract.

"There's nothing we can do about that," Armstrong said. "That's circumvention and hefty fines Even it it wasn't, we didn't really create this situation. He left. If he wants to get out of it, he can pay the freight."

Depends on what happens, the Blues for the time being have that extra $2.725 million on their cap if they choose to use it. But they would like Sobotka back at some point, whether it's now or later.

"On July 1st, we sent him a letter and the league stating that we had the right to toll his contract if we so chose," Armstrong said. "Everybody was aware of it. There wasn't a player out there that made us want to not assume the risk of him coming back. We really thought he was coming back here. When it got into August and early September, you're feeling things were changing. But right now, trade talks are happening. If something happened tonight, then we would just say, 'Stay in Russia for a year.' I don't see that going to happen because it hasn't happened yet, but the players that left here via free agency, it wasn't over economics, it was over term. Having $2.7 million it wasn't like we were that far apart on dollars, it was more on term anyways. And then you look at the free agent market this summer, if you look at the players that signed, I'm not sure there was a player that as going to fill that role that excited us."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Sobotka, according to Blues GM Doug
Armstrong, would like to return to St. Louis this

So what does Armstrong want to do with that extra money?

"Oh, I want to spend it," he said laughing. "I met with Mr. (Tom) Stillman and he asked that question, too. What we present to the ownership, we present a budget and we'll fill in the names later. They've given us the ability to the upper limit of the salary cap. We're not going to do it just for the sake of doing it, and if there's a right player, whether it's Sobotka or a replacement from another team, we'll certainly look at doing it, but this ownership group has from Day 1 never said the budget is the reason we're not going to be competitive."

With Jaden Schwartz lost for the month of October, Armstrong was asked if there was a need to make something happen now.

"The next 10 days are going to tell us quite a bit, too," Armstrong said. "We brought in (Landon) Ferraro and (Ty) Rattie and I thought we were really heavy going into our camp this year. Now that's opened some things up. The Sobotka opened some situations up. Obviously Schwartz has opened things up. Now the pro tryouts went from to get us through to when the World Cup ended to who wants to earn a job. We saw what Uppy did last year. He earned a job and he kept swatting guys away saying, 'No, no, I want to keep it.' The jobs are there and even for guys inside our own group now, a guy like Rattie, a guy like (Dmitrij) Jaskin. Jaskin's certainly on the team now; the contract dictates that, our thoughts of him. Ferraro and Rattie are two guys that are really pushing for a spot now that there's more spots open. I love competition. I think it beings out the best in the players."

Stay tuned.

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