ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong could have been angry but wasn't.
The Blues' president of hockey operations and general manager knows the circumstances surrounding the team's chance at defending the first-ever Stanley Cup in franchise history was different.
In playoffs past, there certainly has been anger and disappointment from Armstrong's perspective because the Blues have had high expectations for a number of years after solid regular seasons, only to underachieve in the playoffs.
|Blues president of hockey operations/general manager Doug Armstrong|
But this year, sure, there's disappointment in bowing out in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs inside the bubble atmosphere in Edmonton, but had there not been such unprecedented times during the 2019-20 season, the Blues put themselves in a good position of repeating as Cup champs. But COVID-19 put a halt on not just the NHL, but the entire sporting world and basically, life in general. And when the NHL resumed play four-plus months after the league went on pause and the Blues were first in the Western Conference after 71 games (42-19-10), it was tough to recapture what they had accumulated through March 11.
Armstrong talks about the Blues fighting an uphill battle from the moment the NHL's Return to Play Plan began, Vladimir Tarasenko's uphill fight through another shoulder surgery, his interest in bringing back Alex Pietrangelo, among other key decisions moving forward heading towards the 2020-21 season:
Why it didn't click for you in Edmonton?
We're still sort of digging through that. I thought coming into I guess it would have been Phase 3, there was a lot going on in our organization. We had of our regular players, I think we had 20 percent of those guys that had COVID at some point. Their mindset was to always be competitive and to play hard, but they had a lot going on around them. I think four or five guys just had babies or were going to have babies. The information of the COVID was changing every day on how it was going to affect older people, younger people, babies and it took us a while ... I thought we got most comfortable when we finally got to Edmonton. I didn't think we were comfortable leading into Edmonton, and I think that showed early on in our first couple weeks there.
Do you think the COVID affected any of the fitness level/conditioning of some of your guys?
Yeah, it did just because A) when they were quarantined, they couldn't go to the gym, they couldn't do certain things. It affected each player differently. Some lost considerable amount of weight. They all felt some form of a symptom. It wasn't that they had it and they didn't feel anything.
What's the update on Tarasenko and how limited was he in his play in Edmonton?
It was obviously very limited. He had shoulder surgery obviously at the start of the season. He rehabbed, he came back, we had to do another MRI. He wasn't feeling good. That surgery didn't take the way we had hoped. It wasn't successful. He's going to go back in and have more surgery next week and it's serious in the sense that he won't be with us and he won't be reevaluated for five months after the date of surgery.
Do you think players believed seeding didn't matter and weren't ready when plan was laid out?
I don't think that we didn't try to prepare. Going into those round-robin games, we very rarely trailed. We weren't playing good hockey, there's question. (Jordan) Binnington played very well to keep us in games, but I think we were ahead or tied in the third period and lost them all. I think we went all (71) games without having that happen to us in the regular season. When we got there, our competitive level was increasing because that's when we felt most comfortable.
How does that affect your planning going forward? Is there a concern level this will be chronic?
It's certainly not a positive that we're going through right now. It's his third surgery. We just know that he prepares and trains hard and he needs to get back and play well for us, but yeah, it's a concern in the sense that he's going to have three surgeries.
Compare this one to the previous two, are they as extensive? How would you describe what he's about to go under compared to the reconstruction he had in the two previous surgeries?
I'm not going to get into it. If Vladi wants to get into the details of it, it's his body it's his shoulder. It's serious enough where he's not going to be reevaluated for five months.
Do you have to think about looking for more scoring?
Scoring wasn't an issue for us last season. Having Vladi in our lineup makes us a better team. So no, I don't think we're going to try and go out and replace Vladi with another Vladi. We all know what the salary cap situation is. Jordan Kyrou has to come back and be given an opportunity to have an impact on our team and he has to take that opportunity and run with it, so I think there's internal players that are going to come back again. When you look at our roster and you look what we have moving forward, a lot of guys from last year's team, we only have two restricted players in Dunn and de la Rose and one unrestricted in Alex Pietrangelo, the core group that had 70 games for the majority are under contract.
How worried are you about Tarasenko's future and if he can be the same player again?
It's the third surgery. We're hoping he gets back to the level that he was at before. I'm not concerned about the work ethic and the approach he's going to take to put himself in a great spot, but time is going to tell on how quickly and the impact he can have when he gets back. I think he can have the same impact as before, but it's really irrelevant what I think or what I feel. It's going to be how he does when he gets back.
From among the other young guys, Blais, Sanford, what kind of comfort level do you have with those guys moving into top six roles?
I think that you saw Zach Sanford became very comfortable playing with Perron and O'Reilly. I can see that moving forward. I think we saw a good line with Schwartz there. Robert Thomas needs to take another step, hopefully to find a way into our group of six., whether it's in the middle or on the wing and Schenner can move over. There's quite a few options there, but as far as Blais and Sanford, we need them to continue to improve and take a bigger chunk out of our overall team and overall game.
Did you see in the team being fully invested from a buy-in and energy level perspective in Edmonton?
I saw it growing as we were up there. Going into it, I thought that we had players, for whatever reason, didn't record in the conditioning level that was going to give them the best success. It's not an indictment on those guys. There's eight teams that did a better job dealing with it, they're still playing. Soon there's going to be four, then two and one. So we didn't do enough to obviously give ourselves the best opportunity to have success.
How do you handle uncertainty of when next season starts in terms of how to train, how to prepare?
The veterans, I tried going back on some experiences of a work stoppage in the sense that I think they're going to go home and I think they're going to be here that we're not going to play that potentially no one knows what COVID's going to do and then the phone's going to ring and say, 'OK, you have two days to be here. We're going to have training camp and then we're going to be up and running and playing.' They have to prepare that we're going to play. I think the league has put an early December start date out there. They have to prepare to get ready for that and they have to block out all the white noise that's going to come along between now and then. When we were in Canada, there were very few cases in Canada. I felt very safe there. You come back into the States and, you know ... I look at it, it really depends on ... you watch CNN, they have one view on how this going to go and then you watch Fox, they have another view on how it's going to go. We have to prepare like we're watching Fox TV.
Do you react differently to this off-season to previous years when you may have been knocked out early in the playoffs based on circumstances? Important not to overreact?
I would say that you have to take the (71) games and look at what went well and what didn't go well, what we can improve. Then you have to take the tournament in itself and figure out what went well, where you have to improve and why are we not playing right now. So you don't want to overreact to it. Also, if it had been a normal where we got to Game 82, go into the playoffs and you're not competitive, I think that might have been a different look than what happened in (Edmonton). I've got to say, in reality, Game 1, it's a tie game. Game 2 could have gone either way. We win three and four, five we're up 3-1. I didn't feel like we got outplayed. If you break an NHL game down to the four components: 5-on-5 play, power play, penalty kill, goaltending, I thought we were strong 5-on-5 and I thought the opposition had the upper hand in the other areas.
How do you Binnington's play? Does it change how you look at your goalie picture at all with both having one year left on their current contracts?
Obviously Jordan didn't play to the level he played at a year ago. He set a high bar for himself expectation-wise and we as a group didn't get there. He didn't do it by himself a year ago in the playoffs and he's certainly not by himself on why we're not playing right now. We believe in Binner, he's a proud, competitive player and I think he's going to come back ready to go and play like he did in the regular season, the first (71) games of the regular season.
What sense are you getting from other GM's about taking some of your chess pieces that you would need to keep Pietrangelo?
I think the first phase is going to be to find out if we can find common ground with Alex, and if we do then go to work to move other pieces. It is really an either-or that if we can't find common ground with Alex, then there's really no need to do anything. And if we can find common ground with Alex, then there's a need to do a lot. Until we get Phase 1 done, obviously I've talked to different managers to find out what their goals are, what they're trying to accomplish. Do we have pieces that allow them to accomplish what they want, but that being said, I've said this really since July of '19, Alex is our captain. I've grown up with Alex in this organization and he's grown up with me in this organization. I'd like to see that continue for a number of years moving forward and that's my focus right now.
Can you describe how the salary cap affects things when cap is staying the same?
It affects us but it's affecting everybody around the league in the same fashion. I think one of the things too that may be different and again, our ownership is committed to competing with the top teams and spending to the salary cap. I'm not sure all other organizations have that same philosophy moving forward. There was a lot of revenue that wasn't earned this year. How's the revenue going to be earned next year and are you a cash or cap team? I think that most teams were cap teams. I would imagine there would be some more cash teams now, and that's going to affect on how they do it. I don't expect anyone to say, 'Oh well, St. Louis, they really want to sign Petro, so let's help them out.' That's not reality, so it's going to take some moving parts. My goal is I hope to get to that because we've got our captain under contract.
Do you think these negotiations might be the most tricky of your career because of who Pietrangelo is?
I don't think so. Actually, I think they're going to be easier because for the first time in a number of years, I think we know what the cap's going to be moving forward for potentially, four, five, six years. From a business standpoint, there's no projection that it's going to go from $81.5 to $87 to $94 to $101 (million). You know it's probably going to stay in within a few percentage points of where it's at now for a number of years. I think there's actually more information than less this year.
On making deals if the right one is there, do you buy into that that makes it harder to sign Pietrangelo with less cap room or do you look at it as you have a number in mind for Pietrangelo and if it works, it works?
We wanted to try and sign Alex back to last July, but you can't not do anything hoping to do one thing.
What is the level of urgency to sit down with Pietrangelo and his representatives and how quickly would you like to get that started?
I think I'm going to go back to where we had this at training camp. Those things are done behind closed doors. From my perspective, I'm going to keep them there.
On Vince Dunn, where do things stand with him or do you wait until Pietrangelo negotiations stand out?
Well, not really. The CBA is the CBA. Players have arbitration rights, players don't have arbitration rights. Players are restricted free agents, players are unrestricted free agents. The cap is the cap and everyone has to react accordingly on management and on the player's side to the new world.
Does anyone else need off-season surgeries?
A couple guys are getting some more information, not anything that I'm prepared to or able to report today. But for the most part, the majority of the guys seem ready to get to their fall programs and then get back up here ready to go. No one that might need a cleanup or whatever is a danger of not being ready when we do start.
With the AHL situation, are you thinking any young guys could go to Europe if they might not make it in St. Louis?
We talked about a couple of the players, but we have not found the right fit, so I would imagine all of our young players are going to stay in North America and train and prepare. It's such an interesting time. Whether there's any validity to what I read, I read the NHL and NHLPA are talking about four hub cities, a bubble working. I don't think the American Hockey League will play without fans, so if they're not playing without fans, do you go back to a roster of 31 like we had here? How's the NHL going to deal with that? There's so many outstanding issues that need to be resolved as we move forward. It's hard to really formulate a plan. If something comes up, our young players if they do go, I would like to have access to get them back if and when we start up.
Do you expect these guys to be motivated after being bounced in the first round?
I've been able to talk to the majority of the players. We have one or two left. I think that in the summer of '19 when we brought in O'Reilly and we brought in Perron and we did other things, we had talked about a window opening for five years. We're entering year three of that. If they don't believe that we can win, I'd be shocked. I expect them to be motivated, I expect they're going to want to come back and put their best foot forward and be competitive to win a championship.
Do you have anyone in the organization that can play a role similar to what Jay Bouwmeester played?
Scandella we've obviously signed. We think he can be in that grouping of defensemen. I would say (Niko) Mikkola is the one player that we think can kill penalties, can bring a little bit of an edge to our team. That would be the one guy that has some of Bouw's traits, but Bouw played a long time, won a gold medal, won a Stanley Cup, won the World Championship. He did a lot of winning, and to think that we have someone there ready to just step in there where he left off would be disingenuous for me to say we have that guy.
Have you spoken to Bouwmeester lately and are you leaving it up to him on a decision regarding his future?
I haven't talked to him. We text a little bit prior to going into the bubble, more just wishing us well and I was checking in to see how he and his family were doing. I havent talked to him since and whatever his decisions that he wants to make, I'm sure he'll let me know at the proper time.
How would you evaluate Justin Faulk's first season here?
I would say it wasn't what we had hoped for, but most important, what he hadn't hoped for. But that being said, when you come into an organization and you're not given a specific job responsibility, it's hard to find your way, and I don't think that we were able to find something that he could sink his teeth into and say, 'OK, this is mine and I'm going to max out in that area.' I thought he played better hockey in the bubble at certain times, but I think there's another level that he expects to take his game to and we expect him to take his game to.
Does it open up cap space to have some more time to make moves and potentially bring back Pietrangelo if you put Tarasenko on LTIR?
If you go into long-term injury for this season if you want to wait until the regular season, you have to be $7.5 million under the cap to put him on Day 1 of the season. There's going to certainly be some interesting math equations going on to get to that point.
With amount of COVID cases you had, are you surprised the NHL has worked out as well as it has with no positive tests?
I give the credit obviously to the league for how they constructed the bubble, but I give a ton of credit to the players. When they got into the final phase before, the testing, I think the players did exactly what they were asked to do. They came, they practiced, they went home and they stayed home. So when we got there, everyone was healthy. I think I said it to somebody, when I got there, I'm not shocked there's no positive tests now. That is a lockdown bubble. You've got daily tests. A) there's not a lot of COVID in Edmonton, but no one's getting it in there. I give a ton of credit to the players for preparing to get to these bubbles, and I give the league a ton of credit for creating an environment that they were willing to accept for a lack of freedom for the betterment of the game.
With this brief off-season, how much of what you do is an eye towards the expansion draft next off-season?
Honestly not a lot is going to go into how we perform. Seattle's going to get a good player from us. We know that. We're not going to take a step back next season, so Seattle doesn't get a very good player. We're going to focus in on next year and we'll worry about the expansion draft when it comes.