Blues captain feels team addressed needs, disappointed
to lose friends in process; spoke to friend Tavares after season
ST. LOUIS -- It's understandable for Alex Pietrangelo to have his mind on more personal things these days.
Pietrangelo, along with his wife Jayne, will welcome triplets to the world in roughly three weeks, but that didn't stop the Blues captain and top defenseman from feeling good and voicing pleasure about the roster makeup and changes that general manager Doug Armstrong made.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (left), shown in a game against Carolina last
season, said the Blues addressed important needs on July 1.
With the trade for center Ryan O'Reilly that capped off a busy first day of free agency last Sunday after the Blues signed center Tyler Bozak (three years, $15 million), backup goalie Chad Johnson (one year, $1.75 million) and brought back wing David Perron (four years, $16 million) for a third stint but subtracted forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson (all who were traded to Buffalo along with two draft picks for O'Reilly) and center Kyle Brodziak (free agent signed two-year contract with Edmonton) and goalie Carter Hutton (signed three-year contract with Buffalo), the roster makeup of the Blues is vastly different from a season ago.
The Blues finished one point out of a playoff spot last season in the Western Conference (44-32-6, 94 points) for the first time since the 2010-11 season behind the Colorado Avalanche, and with that, change was inevitable, and obvious.
"We are a better team," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously it's a tough situation when you lose your friends and I always say this: when you make hockey moves, management and ownership have to do things to make the team better, but it's not easy to see your friends leave. I kind of grew up with 'Bergy' here. It's been a tough one for me the last couple days, but on the hockey side, I think you bring in a couple guys that want to be here and add some depth at the center position, which is what we needed. To see ownership give Doug the OK to do what they have to do to improve this roster is a pretty good feeling knowing that they got the guys that were out there, just talking to them, to have guys that are excited and want to be here and be a part of this team knowing where we are, it's pretty good because they want to win, they know we have a chance and we have a good roster. This is kind of the next step that we can take."
Being able to add Perron, who had career highs in points (66) and assists (50) and Bozak (43 points on 11 goals, 32 assists), along with Johnson (10-16-3, 3.55 goals-against average and .891 save percentage) to replace Carter Hutton was an infusion in itself for one day, but then Armstrong was able to -- not without a big price -- pull off the trade that brought O'Reilly, who had 61 points (24 goals, 37 assists) from the Buffalo Sabres for a package of Berglund, Sobotka, Thompson and two picks (2019 first-round pick and 2021 second-round pick) to give the Blues' lineup a drastic makeover.
"We kind of addressed some of our weaknesses," Pietrangelo said. "We knew we needed help down the middle and [Armstrong] did that. I think after we made those initial signings, three signings obviously bringing in Johnson to us too, Perron, Bozak and then you see this is starting to shape up and then just sitting there casually, all of the sudden your phone's going off 50 times saying that the Blues made a trade. I didn't think that that's what it was going to be; I was surprised. I know [O'Reilly] was on our radar, but it's a little more delicate, it's a lot more difficult to make a trade than it is to maybe sign a player. I knew kind of the clock was ticking and Buffalo still had an idea that they were going to move him, but I guess you really never know what's going to happen. A few other teams were in the running. but when ownership and management go out and do this, you know that they believe in this core group that we have now that has been here.
"This is our time. We feel like we've got a really good roster and I think even me just writing down the lines, my wife was making fun of me. She says, 'You guys don't play for 40 days,' but I was getting excited trying to come up with lines. You forget about Robby [Fabbri] because he didn't play last year, but you put him back into the mix of players and you write down the young guys that are coming up, you look at your forwards, it's a pretty good group right now. A lot of guys, a good mix of not only skill but you've got the group that will be hard to play against. We went out and did that, because guys like Bozak and O'Reilly, having played against them -- I've played with O'Reilly -- but having played against those guys, they're a pain in the butt to play against. Nobody knows more than a defenseman how hard a forward is to play against."
Both O'Reilly, who led the NHL in faceoff percentage wins (60 percent) and with 1,274 face-off wins last season, 248 more than that of Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Bozak, who won 1,169 face-offs and was at 53.6 percent on the season, fit the bill of what the Blues look for in two-way players that can supply offense but are focused on shutting down the opposition just as much who will help fill roles created the by the vacancies of Paul Stastny, who was traded in February and signed with Vegas as a free agent, and Brodziak, who left as a free agent to play near hometown Edmonton. O'Reilly was third in the NHL with 15 power-play goals, and power play was a major deficiency for the Blues, who were 30th in the league at 15.4 percent, only ahead of the Oilers (14.8 percent).
"They're two-way players," Pietrangelo said of O'Reilly and Bozak. "Obviously we know what Perron brings, but O'Reilly and Bozak, we know they're two-way players. Having played against them, I know how good they are on the defensive side. They're very, very difficult to play against. I think a big element that we were missing that weve added now is faceoffs. You lose Brodziak, obviously that's another tough one, but to bring in two guys, if you look at their faceoff numbers over the years, they're phenomenal. Not only are you just bringing in faceoff guys, you've got a right-handed and a left hand (shot). That may be another element that goes unnoticed to the normal eye, but that's a big, important thing for us knowing you have a guy that can go win a faceoff on both sides of the ice.
"It's good to see that we've addressed those needs and I'm excited to see these guys up the middle because they want to take care of the defensive end just as much as they want to score goals, which I think is championship hockey."
O'Reilly already ingratiated himself with Blues fans when a video clip of Armstrong on the team website calling the center iceman for the first time after the trade heard O'Reilly telling the Blues' GM, "Let's go win a Cup," and, "I won't let you down." Bozak's comments in an article in the Player's Tribune Monday put him in the class of instantly being adorned by fans too when he said, "I want to win a Cup. So damn bad. That’s why I signed in St. Louis. There’s your headline. Print it."
"That's a testament to where a lot of people view our team," Pietrangelo said. "I think these were the pieces that we were looking for, looking to add to kind of take us over that hump. If he feels like we're that close and that's how we feel too, obviously last year didn't go the way we wanted to, but we've kind of had a chance to regroup and take a long summer and get ourselves back into that position, that's a guy who we play twice a year now being in the East, so he knows what it's like to play against us. It's fun to be on the other side once in a while. I think he knows he's going to have a big role on this team, but he and his wife, they're both excited to get down here, maybe get some warm weather."
Pietrangelo, who led the Blues in minutes played for the seventh consecutive season (25:44), said not to underestimate the return of Perron, who was a first-round pick by the Blues in 2007.
"I told Perry this, I didn't even know he had 66 points last year," Pietrangelo said. "Those are big numbers. Those guys aren't easy to find and to get him at that dollar, the point is it's good for us. If you look at when you're building a roster, you want guys that want to be in your organization, they want to be in a city that care because those are the guys that want to do all the small things and do what they have to do help the team win. Obviously his heart's still here if he keeps coming back. It's good to have a guy on the roster that wants to win here because he's back in that group that we've put in a lot of effort over the years to kind of get to this point. A lot of us will do whatever it takes at this point to win. It's fun to have him back. ... He's a good right-handed shot that we were missing last year. That was another element maybe in our top six that we were missing."
Losing good friends is part of the business, and Pietrangelo and Berglund have been teammates since 2008, Sobotka for five-plus seasons going back to 2010 and Thompson for one season.
"They're going to get an opportunity to play there," Pietrangelo said. "It's never easy leaving your friends, but sometimes, having to prove yourself again is a good thing too. They've been in the league for a long time obviously for good reasons. I think they're going to do well there. I think Bergy's going to get get a fresh look. It'll be fun to play against him and compete against him, but I expect both of them to do well. I think ever for 'Tommer,' just having him here last year and getting to know him, I played some golf with him this summer, I think it's a good opportunity for him to, one, get in the lineup and hopefully show what he's capable of."
Hutton led the NHL in GAA (2.09) and save percentage (.931) and will be a difficult to replace.
"Look at how he played last year, that's a tough one," Pietrangelo said. "Another guy that as much as it sucks to lose a guy, I am really happy for him. I think he's going to go to Buffalo and be the starter and be able to show people what he's capable of. He's earned the right to do that. When you play with guys over the years, as much as it sucks to lose them, you're happy to see them succeed. This is going to be an opportunity where he can do that. I hope he goes and shows everybody what he's capable of. That'll be a fun thing to watch and a fun thing to compete against him because he likes to compete, so playing against him twice this year, it will be fun."
The big fish that got away from everyone but the Toronto Maple Leafs was that of Pietrangelo's close friend, John Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract to leave the New York Islanders to go home to Toronto.
Pietrangelo and Tavares grew up together in the Toronto area and were teammates as nine-year-old's in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, and it was no secret that the Blues were interested but never given a shot during the interview process to make a pitch of having Tavares come to St. Louis.
"I had spoken to him obviously at the end of the season," Pietrangelo said. "I guess I'm surprised. I don't really know. He's going to a good team over there. It's kind of cool to see someone go back. You look at his tweet that he sent out with him sleeping in his pajamas (in Maple Leafs sheets and pillow cases), it's cool to see that stuff. Not many opportunities you have, I guess, he feels to go home and play. 'Brody' did the same thing, and he's going back to Edmonton. I was surprised, but I guess whatever makes him happy, wherever he thinks he wants to be, I'm not going to say anything to him. It's another thing where you know a guy and you're friends with him, you're hoping for the best.
"... He's going to be a busy man in Toronto, that's all I'm going to say. Family, friends, Leafs, he's going to be a busy man. The good thing is the whole process, he took his time with the decision, made sure he did his homework and John's a pretty thorough guy. I know that whatever decision that he was going to make, it was going to be one that he was sure about because he's not going to just make a decision without taking some time."
|(Buffalo Sabres photo)|
Ryan O'Reilly helps fortify a position of need for
the Blues with the addition of the center iceman.
Pietrangelo's one guy that could have used the extended summer to help the mind and body recuperate, which was good and bad in a way.
"Yeah, it's not very fun having this long of a summer," Pietrangelo said. "I guess you get to spend some time with family and whatnot, but at the same token, I'm kind of using it to recharge the batteries, train and kind of rebuild my base and get back. You're always trying to get better and heal up injuries and nicks.
"Physically, we're all training, we're all doing that stuff. For me, it's the mental side too. You're just kind of taking a break and sometimes you've got to get away from the game to recharge the batteries. It was a long year, it was a tough year. Just having spoken with some guys over the summer, I think guys are excited to get back. I think guys missed each other. You're being gone for as long as we are, it's good to get that energy back and guys will be excited to get back in August and September."