Thursday, April 12, 2018

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong

ST. LOUIS -- Blues general manager Doug Armstrong rarely, if ever, makes himself available for the media near the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. He always makes himself available at season's end.

It rarely happens the second week of April, because for the past six seasons, the Blues have been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

But there he was, sitting alongside coach Mike Yeo on a podium. That meant only one thing: the season was over.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong

No playoffs, even after 94 points and a 44-32-6 record, the Blues found themselves on the outside looking in for the first time -- one point behind the Colorado Avalanche -- since the 2010-11 season, the last time someone other than Armstrong held the post of GM.  

The Blues were a transition team a season ago, but that was accelerated by gaining entrance into the playoffs. Now that acceleration hit the skids a bit this season, and with it comes one of the more challenging offseasons in Armstrong's seven years in deciding player personnel decisions.

Armstrong shared his thoughts on the season, what lies in store moving ahead and various topics as the Blues wrapped up the 2017-18 campaign:

Opening statement:
I'd like to first of all thank everyone for coming today. Before we start out, I would like to give a message to our fan base and say thank you for your support this year. There were some great times early in the year that filtered away as the year went on, but your support didn't. Coming to the arena every night and playing in front of a sold-out crowd, to hear the cheering doesn't go unnoticed. We understand that this fan base is thirsty for a championship team. We've taken a step backwards this year. That responsibility lies firmly on my shoulders. As I said to Mike and the players, every contract, whether it's a player, coach, trainer, it's my signature on the bottom, and it's my responsibility now to get this going in the right direction. And again to the fans, thank you very much for your support. We understand your frustration, we share your frustration and we'll do something about your frustration.

Can you shed some light on Tarasenko's injury; he said he was having surgery (and since had it on Wednesday)?
I have heard that. I haven't talked to 'Vladi' since the (players) meeting. He has a dislocated shoulder. I heard [Monday] night that he was going to sleep on it and obviously the medical trainers have talked. I'm going to go back in there and get more information. If he does get the surgery, it'll be an injury a lot like Berglund had, a lot like Sanford had. Unfortunately, we have time on our side to heal that. Shoulder surgeries are like 4-6 months. That'll get us hopefully time right before the start of training camp or certainly by the start of the season.

Any other offseason surgeries?
I got the list last night. There's more bumps and bruises. I haven't heard of any other surgeries.

What are your No. 1, 2, 3 priorities on what you can do to change things?
I think I want to sit with Mike and the coaching staff and some of the stats that have crystallized themselves. I think the first 31 games, were plus-13 in the win-loss column and the next 32 we were minus-4. When you're minus-4 for 40 percent of your season … that was up until the trade deadline. Minus-4 puts you in the bottom five or six winning percentage in the league. So we have to find out why we went through that stretch. We also have to find out why we weren't able to get the power play to the level it needed to be to make a difference. I think if you're seventh in the NHL in goals-against for the entire season, if both ends of our special teams are in the top half, we're not having this conversation. I don't know if we're having it in June, but I guarantee you we're not having it today. There's other things internally that I think are better left internal of why we get there and what we're going to do about it, but I think one of the concerns is you focus on goal scoring, it's an area of concern, but if it's not proper goal scoring, you just lose by one more goal. We have to defend correctly, we have to play in the correct fashion and score an extra goal. What we saw I think in that middle stretch is, we weren't scoring but we were giving up way too many quality chances. We pushed the offense, we stopped doing the things that we needed to do to get better. What we need to look at is both ends of the special teams. Can we incorporate younger players into our group? Is that the answer? Do we need to look how we prepare for our home schedule? I think that's mandatory. You can't have the home record that we have and be satisfied, for a whole host of reasons. This is a Midwestern town with quality, I don't want to call them blue collar because that's not a bad term, but the people that come here work for a living, and we need to send them home happier than we sent them this year. For no other reason than they're paying their hard-earned money, and they need to go home happier than we sent sent them this year. I think if we're in the top 10 home records, we're in the playoffs. There's things that we have to work on that probably are best worked on behind closed doors. One of the things I'm going to try to guard against and I hope I can do it is to make any statements here that are going to be thrown back at me next December when they don't work out.

Center, top six forward, are those that what you're going after? Is that possible?
It is possible. Acquiring a first round pick allows us again to get back in the trade market if we want. A lot of the people that have followed our team all year, there were names that were bandied about at the trade deadline of scoring players, we weren't going to get in the rental market at that time. If you look at those names that you were talking about more than we were talking about, all those guys are still with their current teams. So it's not like those players were moved to teams and we missed out on. Maybe the market comes back on certain guys. But the reality is the market's going to open up on a whole host of teams. There's a number of teams that are disappointed today and in two weeks, there's going to be eight more that are disappointed, and as that number starts to grow, talks start to continue. I think Robby Fabbri coming back, I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but we expected him to be part of our core group of six, whether he can do that or not, I don't know. If we can add ... Robert Thomas is a young player, [Jordan] Kyrou is a young player, Samuel Blais is a young player, Tage Thompson is a young player, but what we've talked about`is, that's competition between those guys for one or two spots. I don't envision a roster next year that has nine or 10 players 21 or under on it. I don't think that's the recipe for getting us where we need to go to.

You chose to be a seller rather than a buyer at the trade deadline. Why did you take the longterm route instead of getting immediate help?
I looked at Games 32-63 and we had a 44 winning percentage. If you take 40 percent of your season and you're at a 44 winning percentage, I just felt that there wasn't enough information there to say you're a player away from contending for the Stanley Cup. Now, if you reversed that, if our first 31 games were at a 44 winning percentage and our next 32 were at a 71 winning percentage, there would be new players here. My job here is to somewhat deal in reality and I firmly believe this, the managers don't tell players what's going to happen at the deadline. Players tell the manager what's going to happen at the deadline. I believe that our record for 40 percent of the season, the most current 40 percent, indicated that it wasn't the time to buy.

A lot of veteran guys talked about taking the foot off the gas pedal. How do you sort through, how do you decide what the right mix is who have paid big minutes, and the consistency wasn't there?
That's what Mike and I and his staff have to dig down into. The formula that we had this year didn't breed the success that we needed. We have to find out what's wrong with that formula. 

Do you think your roster needs to be quicker, needs to be more skilled, and if so, will that need a drastic overhaul, a drastic change?
I think our reserve list has those pieces. I don't think all those pieces are in that room today. We have younger players I think are going to provide some quickness, we have injured players that are going to provide some quickness and I think we can look outside of this group to see if we can get better. Free agency is an avenue that can get you better, but the reality is we're one of 31 and probably one of eight or nine with decent cap space that has an ownership group willing to spend it. There's probably another 10 teams that have good cap space but don't have that same desire from their ownership group to play at the cap. Our ownership group for seven years has allowed us to be at the cap. We're not a small-market team. We're a mid-market size city. We're not a small-market team in the NHL. That's a fantasy. When I hear or read that, your market size is what you spend. We spend to the cap. We've had excellence, we've never reached our goal in the playoffs, but we've had a good run here. We've got to get back to that run and then we've got to push it through. But commitment from ownership, commitment to compete against the New York Rangers, the Detroit Red Wings, teams that are in the same situation that we are right now ... the Toronto Maple Leafs, we spend the same money they spend. I'm excited about working for an ownership group that won't allow us to use market size as a reason why we don't compete. Market size, again, is not the number of people in your market, it's amount of money your owner spends to the cap, and our owners spend to the cap.

Do some of your contracts constrict you sometimes when you're trying to make trades, either the amount of money another team would be willing to pay for a particular player or the no-trades?
My philosophy on the no-trades is I don't talk to a manager and say ... if there's a proper deal to be made, I will make that deal, and I will take that deal to the player and I will say, 'I'd like to trade you.' You have options; you can say, 'No.' I've done that in the past and I've been told no. I'll probably do it in the future and I'll be told no. A no-trade doesn't mean you can't communicate with the teams about players. As far as the contracts, there's certain players that I think seem to be the pinata for local bloggers, but when you look at their production compared to the production of other guys around the league, they're not overpaid. I find today in social media, which as a 53-, 54-year-old, I'm starting to understand a little bit is that people are angry. People love to get on these things and vent their anger. We lost two years ago in the semifinals and people were angry. I read other blogs and people are angry. We read it because I find it insightful to how our fan base feels, but I don't look at our bloggers for information if our players are properly compensated or over-compensated.

How do you look at your goaltending position with Allen as a No. 1 and Hutton as a UFA?
If you step back and look at the goaltending, I think Mike said we're tied for six, seventh or eighth in goals against at the end of the regular season. It's hard to believe you don't make the playoffs if your goals-against is at that number. With that being said, there seems to be peaks and valleys in individual play of skaters and of goalies. We need to get those valleys higher. And the peaks are high enough. When our players play at their best, I like their peaks. But the valleys need to get a little bit higher. ... The biggest difference between games 32 and 63, I think our goals-against, we were plus-13 in the first 31, our goals against totally I think went up by six, but our winning percentage went down 30. I think the focus on our goaltending is because we played too close to a razor's edge. I think they were exposed. There were some things that happened in those first 31 games that masked really some of the concerns that we had. I think we gave up two goals quite a few times in the first 31 (games) in the third period. That's not winning hockey. Winning hockey is shutting games down. Winning hockey is playing for your goalie, winning hockey is making sure that that goalie gets out with a good feeling. In the first 31 games, we had amassed enough goals where you gave up two in the third period and you still won. But I always felt that was a slippery slope and when you stop scoring and you're still giving up that number of goals, it's a bad situation. ... Jake needs to be better. He knows that. We're counting on him to be better. His peaks are really high. We've got to get the valleys a little bit closer. Carter Hutton, it would be disingenuous to say he didn't have a very, very good season.

Do you still have confidence in Allen to be your No. 1 goalie?
Yes, I do. But I would say next year is a huge year for him. Next year is a huge year for all of us. Skaters, manager, coaches, trainers. We had a perception for six or seven years here of an elite organization. You lose that perception when you miss the playoffs. Players lose that perception of are they elite players when they miss the playoffs. So I would say it's an important summer for Jake, but no more important than other guys that you didn't ask about.

Would it be an area that you would explore in the offseason is there is a chance to upgrade?
Jake is coming back next year. We've got to talk to 'Hutts' about coming back. [Ville] Husso was an AHL rookie team, which is great for a young goaltender. But we want to put players in position to succeed, not fail, that's not Husso but that's all of our young players, meaning this isn't the league to learn in. We went down that path this year with a couple of younger players and we saw some really good play but it's a hard league to learn in. A lot is going to depend on what Carter wants to do. We'll have a chat with him. He's aware of that, but if it's not him, then it'll have to be somebody else, but overall, if our goaltending stays in the top seven in goals-against and we tidy up the other things, we're a playoff team. And a good playoff team.

How much of a priority is it going to be for you to try and keep Hutton?
He and I had a conversation this morning and I said, 'I'd reach out to his agent.' He's played very well for us here the last couple of years. I can lay out my vision and what we have for next year and if it fits in for what he views he wants to do, that's there. When you look at the stats in the NHL, where he's positioned, he may view an opportunity for another team maybe looking for a No. 1 and be paid like that to go to that position. It's a negotiation more than anything. I don't think that's a lack of desire from him to want to stay in St. Louis. He started a family here, there's certainly not a lack of desire for us to keep him in St. Louis, but again, it goes into the bigger picture of how much money do we want to spend and where else can we spend it and what is the proper allocation to allow is to do different things.

When teams don't make the playoffs, it's easy to question the room. Do you think there's any leadership void among the players?
I think all those are fair questions. I think when you miss the playoffs, if we don't, we as in Mike and I, dig into every aspect of this organization from a hockey operations standpoint, Mike and I will dig into the players on this current roster. Marty [Brodeur] and I and Al MacInnis and the rest of our staff will dig into our minor league roster, our scouting roster. At the end of the day, I think Bill Parcells (said) you are what you are. We're a non-playoff team. That's not good enough for our fans, it's not good enough for us and it's certainly not good enough for our players. Do I think that the leadership is poor? No. ... I know the leadership isn't poor. It's what can we do to accent to make that better.

Is there something to be said for having a good player that's won before because he's won, will hold other people accountable?
Yeah, I've seen that. Winning breeds winning. I look at a team now that had missed the playoffs for a couple years in Boston, they kept their core together that had won. They've inputted younger players, but they're still driven by [Patrice] Bergeron, [Zdeno] Chara, [Tuukka] Rask, guys that have been around winning environments. I'd like to have winners here but like the LA Kings, you're only one playoff away from having 20 guys that have won, or 25 guys that have won. To think that we can go out and bring in a player that has two or three Stanley Cups and all of the sudden, life is good? I think it has to start with more of what's in the room now.

What's your biggest regret of something that you could have done that could have had you playing playoff hockey instead of this conversation?
I would say I look back on the season and you always look back on what you can do differently. Probably the thing that I think about the most is that the potential trades that were there, were they worth two of our top prospects? I didn't think so at that time. I still don't think so today. But all I know is it sucks sitting here today, it really does. How would I have been if we would have done moved two of our top prospects for a guy and be sitting here in two weeks? That would probably suck more. My job is to look to the future, but I have to understand the past and why we're here today. As I said, this is on my shoulders. I understand that. It's the decisions that I make that put us in this spot here today, and I take ownership of that. That's one thing, but there's a lot of things that we've done this year that Mike and I have to talk about if it's the right thing. One thing I talk about is should we just put the guys in a hotel at home. Come to the morning skate, go to the hotel, come back ready to play. We didn't do it; I'm wondering if we should have done it. There's all these things that flow beneath the surface that we think about. I guarantee if I said to the players, 'We want you guys to stay at a hotel during home games,' they'd say, 'You're crazy.' But I was crazy not to do it because we're sitting here today. And we're sitting here today with a home record that wasn't good enough. There's lots of things that we did behind the scenes that ... I have to make sure the decisions that Mike and I are making aren't what's easiest but are what's best. 

Can you evaluate the job Mike Yeo did in his first full season?
I tied Mike to myself. I think the coach/ manager relationship is the tightest and should be the tightest for me in the organization. We have to be on the same page. His successes are my successes. His failures are my failures. There's conversations that Mike and I have where we disagree, but I've hired him to coach the team. He understands my point of view and some of the things I recommended, he didn't do and thank God. Some of the things that I recommended, he's probably saying, 'I wish I would have tried.' I think Mike's a helluva coach. I think that he's going to learn from this. I know I'm going to learn from this. It would be disingenuous that I'm sitting up here judging Mike or I have more answers than Mike Yeo has. That's not correct. Mike and I, we're tethered together right now. We're going to figure this out. 

Can you evaluate the assistant coaches and do you expect any changes there?
I thought it was good. I thought there was a lot of energy and freshness in there. But also I thought there was a lot of lack of experience that showed at different times. How do you gain experience? You go through it. I expect we'll all be better next year, but you put in first-year coaches in the NHL, three of them at the same time, you're going to have peaks and you're going to have valleys and I know all three of those guys are better today than they were when they started. 

Are you saying you need more experience there?
That's something Mike and I are going to really have to dig into and digest.

Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson are big money guys and you don't know if they'll be ready. How much does that impact what you'll try to do? You don't move them and you don't know if you'll have them:
The reality is they're going to be here in training camp. Not that I'm trying to move those guys,  but no one's picking up guys in their 30's coming off major surgeries. They're here, they're against our cap. I've got to count on them bouncing back. The beauty of having players in their early 30's on the last years of their deals, if they want to play one more, they've got to have a great year. That's just the reality of probably our inner being is that Bob Gainey, who I have a ton of respect for, when he gave a bad contract would say, 'It's hard to be hungry when you're full.' When you're on a one-year deal, you're hungry. So I expect all those guys on one-year deals to come back and be very good. I think we have enough cap space, we think the caps going to go up $4 million dollars, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. We've created some space, I think we can be active in the market, active in trade or for any player under contract for in the NHL.

Is taking care of your own players you want and need, will that have any impact on what you may do externally?
Not really. I think there's the arbitration process. I think we have three unrestricted free agents in [Scottie] Upshall, [Kyle] Brodziak and Hutton. Our restricted free agents, it's a bad year to be a restricted free agent on a team that doesn't make the playoffs. It's hard to justify big raises and some of them are going to earn big raises and they're going to have to go to arbitration to get it because it's a difficult process to go to ownership and say, 'Listen, these guys need to triple their money (but( we missed the playoffs.' Maybe someone else has to tell us that. Maybe we can find a sweet spot that we can do it, but there's some players that I've got a lot of respect for that I have to deal with this summer and I'll show them the respect they deserve.

Where does Brodziak stand as a UFA? Do you want him back?
I'm going to meet with him and talk with him. I thought he had a great year. I thought he did everything that Mike asked. Probably a player again that got pushed out of a comfort zone due to outside forces out of his control. He played higher up the lineup than he has. But I thought he did a great job and I'd love to see where his mind is at about playing in the future and where he wants to play.

How much will the AHL situation next year help in terms of developing?
I think it's going to have a huge impact that's not going to be seen my many people. Not having the ability to create the depth we needed really showed itself at the trade deadline. We had talked to some depth players, players that had NHL experience that could come up and play for us. 'You want to sign? Yeah, I'd love the option/ Where am I gonna play? I'm not really sure where you're going to play. Sign here and then we'll put you to Binghamton, we'll put you to Springfield.' Nobody wants to sign up for that. The reality is if we had made the playoffs, we were one injury away from having Tommy Vannelli or a [Jake] Walman play in the playoffs, and that's not a slam on those guys, it just shows when you lose [Nate] Prosser to waivers, you lose Gunnarsson, you lose Bouwmeester, you lose [Petteri] Lindbohm, you haven't had the ability to create the depth in your own organization, it gets thin quick. Having the ability to invest in our minor league team, having the ability to invest in veteran players not only protects us, but it also gives our younger players down in San Antonio to learn from the people that we want them to learn from.

Who's going to the Worlds other than Yeo?
I asked the players in our meetings to give me a list of who's going to go. I know we probably had 11 or 12 invited. Until they tell me that they're going to go for sure, I think we'll just make one long list of who's going. I'll wait to hear from them. I've had a couple guys tell me that they're going, but I'll wait until their countries are ready to announce their rosters.

What are Jordan Schmaltz and Lindbohm's situations?
Lindbohm was a shoulder, like what Tarasenko had, like what Sanford had, six months. He had the surgery a month or two ago. Schmaltz was a concussion. He's feeling better but he's not passing the protocol test that's necessary. With a head injury, for the people that have been here for a long time, David Perron, he seemed to be good and then he was out for another six months. You never know when these guys get back. What we want when Schmaltzy gets back, we want to be like David Perron, never go out again.

How's Fabbri's recovery?
I think he's doing well. I'm not going to lie to you, I haven't spent a lot of time talking to him or a lot of time focused in on it. He's been in Toronto training with his own training staff. He's here now, came for the team picture, he stayed, was hoping to stay here to do some work. He'll get back to Toronto. All indications are that he's moving ahead. I know that he's putting the work in. We are monitoring the work that he's doing in Toronto, but he's coming off an ACL surgery on an ACL surgery. Time is going to tell. I know that he's putting the work in and that's a huge credit to him. He understands that his career is lying in the balance of getting healthy and playing.

Since you hold yourself accountable, do you feel a different demand going into this year that you have to deliver upon?
Yeah I do. I think one of the messages that we shared with the players, Mike and I, is that we are viewed from our competition as an elite team. I think you've earned that right with 100-point seasons. We're not viewed like that right now. When it's all said and done with and I'm gone and there's another manager up here, I only have my own pride to look back on and I want to restore the pride in the organization, I want to restore the pride in wearing the Bluenote and I want to be here for the success. This is a big summer for me.

Do you feel like the element of a David Backes, Steve Ott, Ryan Reaves, Troy Brouwer is something you'd like to add?
Yeah, I think when you look at those players that you just mentioned, they all have one similar characteristic: they all left for different reasons. I don't blame any of them for leaving. Obviously, Otter's come back as a coach. Ryan Reaves had no choice, it was my choice. The other two left via free agency, but that's an element that we don't diminish now important it is. We had some players we thought would take that and maybe are still working on growing into it. We maybe have some younger players that are going to come in, a guy like Robby Thomas, in junior hockey and the world juniors, he seems to be a high-character player that plays through anything. I'm hoping that translates to the NHL soon. I think that's an astute point that we have chipped away at a lot of the same fabric that might did make us a good team.

What's Erik Foley's status?
He had a concussion sustained in the last game. He came in and saw our doctors. If he's not cleared to play, he's cleared to practice. He's in San Antonio [Tuesday]. We're running a mini camp in San Antonio. We have a lot of our prospects down there right now. He's taking part of that. That's the reason you haven't seen him on the ice.

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