Sunday, July 1, 2018

Blues make blockbuster trade, acquire O'Reilly from Sabres

Center comes to St. Louis for package of Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson, 
two picks after signing Perron, Bozak to free agent contracts earlier in day

ST. LOUIS -- Apparently, trades could circle back after things looked like they'd be dead in the water, and for the Blues, general manager Doug Armstrong was able to in fact pull the trigger on a trade that brought Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis.

After plunging into the free agent market and signing forwards David Perron and Tyler Bozak earlier in the day, the Blues and Buffalo Sabres punctuated a blockbuster trade on Sunday night that brought the center iceman O'Reilly to St. Louis for a package of forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson along with a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick. The first-round pick, Armstrong said, is top-10 protected.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues acquired center Ryan O'Reilly (90) in a blockbuster trade with
the Buffalo Sabres Sunday night for package of players, picks. 

The Blues has been rumored to be in the mix to acquire O'Reilly, 27, a second-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2009, but after they spent $31 million ($9 million in average annual salary) to acquire Bozak, a center, and Perron, a left wing, during the free agency period earlier on Sunday, a trade for O'Reilly, who was due a $7.5 million signing bonus today that will be paid by the Blues, did not seem at all possible.

But alas, including Berglund, who has four years and an AAV of $3.85 million along with Sobotka, who has two years at an AAV of $3.5 million and Thompson's salary (two years and $925,000 on his entry-level contract) and the Blues could make the dollars work. In fact, they added $775,000 of cap space in the deal.

And the Blues consummated the deal without having to include Colton Parayko, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Klim Kostin or even Sammy Blais.

"Actually it came up a little bit after," Armstrong said of the trade details. "I had been working with Buffalo for some time on a potential trade. It fell apart a little bit this morning and we went in a different direction and we were able to pick it up after that. Add and subtract some pieces that made everyone comfortable in the end. It was done tonight.

"Buffalo did a really good job of maintaining their desire for Tage and the picks. Then you have to do the math equation to work and unfortunately we had to part with some players we respect highly, but in a cap system, you have to do things that are uncomfortable."

The biggest catch was O'Reilly, who now solidifies the Blues down the middle with Brayden Schenn, Bozak, 2017 first-round pick Robert Thomas and Ivan Barbashev.

"Ryan solidifies our center ice position," Armstrong said. "When I look at our position down the middle now when you have Schenn, O'Reilly, Bozak and a young player like Rob Thomas fighting for a position there, it does give us a good opportunity to allow him if he's good enough to make the team to come on in a more natural pace. 

"The one thing is in today's NHL, you could never have too many centermen. Centermen can go to the wing with great ease. We've seen O'Reilly played wing internationally and so has Schenn. I see them all as center icemen now, but it gives Mike Yeo a lot of different options moving forward. Ryan will touch our team in many different ways, both ends of the special teams. He takes a ton of faceoffs, adding Bozak with the right shot. We have two righties and two lefties, so it helps our power play a little bit.

"I know Buffalo's really excited about Tage Thompson. We didn't want to give Tage up either, but we do value Robert Thomas as a centerman and really, I think I've been pretty consistent for a while that we aren't trading him until we know exactly what he can do because center icemen are hard to find. We had to do it in free agency and a large trade today, and Kyrou is a player that really excites us just with his speed. You have to give to get and giving up Tage was difficult, but we're excited about our return."

Last season, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound O'Reilly, who has five years remaining on a contract that pays him $52 million over seven years, appeared in 81 games with Buffalo; he had 61 points (24 goals and 37 assists) and No. 1 in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 60 percent (1,274 wins on 2,124 attempts).

"I think that depth down the middle is very important," Armstrong said. "When you look at the strength of the center ice position in our division alone. I think when you come now with O'Reilly, Schenn and Bozak, pretty experienced players, Mike [Yeo] can play them against any lines at any time. It was worth the risk and also being able to protect Robert Thomas and [Jordan] Kyrou and [Vince] Dunn and some of the other players, it was important to us. When we talked earlier, I was expending on the great depth we have. We've cut into that depth now and so our younger players are going to get an even greater opportunity to push and if they're not ready, we have the cap space to make adjustments."

O'Reilly drew attention to himself when he made comments at the end of the Sabres' season that they were content with losing and being OK with it and it crept into his game as well and that he's lost the love of the game.

So naturally, rumors started flying that it would be a matter of time before O'Reilly is shipped out of Buffalo, and after some scuttlebutt at the NHL Draft in Dallas June 22-23, deals that were on the verge then died down, revived again and died down again were lit back on the burner Sunday night. And Armstrong hopes a change of scenery will do O'Reilly good.

"We're certainly hoping that is the case," Armstrong said. "I've worked with Ryan in the past in international events. I know he has a great passion. I've certainly been guilty of saying things I was thinking and wishing I didn't say them. He probably would add that to the list of things he wished he would have kept internal, but it was out there. He's got great passion for the sport, he's got great passion to compete and to win and hopefully this gives him the boost that hopefully he feels is necessary that he can come in here. Quite honestly, we need that boost. We're a non-playoff team for the first time in a number of years and it doesn't sit well in the St. Louis Blues organization and certainly the fan base."

And then there's the signing bonus, which was believed the Blues were not willing to pay but then would drive the price up in a trade if Buffalo paid, which had to be paid by 11 p.m. (CT) Sunday. 

"We knew that the deadline was today for the bonus, which we have acquired," Armstrong said. "Sometimes, like I said at the draft, we were talking, and teams went in a different direction. You think they die, but I guess they're on life support for a while and we went back and gave it a shot of adrenaline and got back and were able to do something today after we made our decision today to sign Perron and Bozak. And I give (Buffalo GM) Jason Botterill a ton of credit. He stayed on this hard. I really love what he's doing there in Buffalo.

"Jason and I had a brief discussion on that, but I've been associated with the game long enough to understand that once you pay that bonus, you're likely going to use that player for maybe up until the mid part of the season or the trade deadline. The Buffalo ownership has been nothing but supportive of the players there and spending money, but at some point, you'd like to get a return for your investment. I think today was an important day for their organization and to do that, I'd like to give a lot of credit to the Blues' ownership group. When you have to go to a group and tell them about a $7.5 million signing bonus that is due and you get nothing but a quick, 'You do what you have to do to make us a better team,' and that's led by Mr. Stillman and the local ownership group. It's a great feeling."

O'Reilly is a four-time 20-goal scorer and has recorded 55 or more points in six seasons, including each of the last five and had a career-high 64 points in 2013-14 (28 goals, 36 assists) when he won the Lady Byng Trophy. 

O'Reilly has played nine NHL seasons, including six with the Avalanche and three with the Sabres' he has 422 points (155 goals and 267 assists) in 651 regular-season games and seven points (three goals, four assists) in 13 Stanley Cup playoff games.
(Buffalo Sabres photo)
Ryan O'Reilly, who was acquired by the Blues Sunday night, had 61 points
(24 goals, 37 assists) with the Buffalo Sabres last season.

The Blues are losing their longest-tenured player in Berglund, who they drafted in the 2006 NHL Draft with the 25th pick, and Sobotka, who was acquired from the Boston Bruins on June 26, 2010, along with Thompson, the 26th pick in the 2016 draft.

Berglund, 30, has played in 694 games -- all with the Blues -- and has 322 points (168 goals, 154 assists); Sobotka, 30, has 155 points (47 goals, 108 assists) in 463 NHL games, and Thompson played in 41 games last season and had nine points (three goals, six assists).

So in the end, the Blues are much deeper, particularly up the middle, than they were heading into the first day of free agency.

"I like the way our team is set up now, but with the caveat of you never know when the phone's going to ring," Armstrong said. "If there's a different way to improve the team, you'll do it, but right now, we do like the balance that we have of center icemen. I like the look of this team right now."

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